Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Acknowledgment or flattery? The changing culture of remembering past leaders

While the first four prime ministers have been given 'fatherly' titles, there may be no place for such a practice in the new political landscape.

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In school, Malaysian children learn that past prime ministers are given titles in recognition of their achievements, the most famous being the Father of Independence, which Malaysians use with almost unanimous agreement to refer to Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister.

His successor Abdul Razak Hussein is known as the Father of Development and Hussein Onn, the third prime minister, the Father of Unity.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad meanwhile is frequently called the Father of Modern Malaysia.

Similar titles have been attempted for Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak, but the jury is still out on their legacies.

So has the tradition of bestowing titles on the country’s top leaders stopped at Mahathir?

What will history say, for example, about Muhyiddin Yassin and Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who took over at a time of great political and social upheaval?

One academic argues that the tradition of giving “fatherly” titles to former prime ministers has its origins in feudal values, with elements of patronage carried from generation to generation.

“After independence, we had no ‘superheroes’ in general, so politicians and community leaders were held in high regard and given titles,” Mohd Awang Idris, a psychologist at Universiti Malaya, told MalaysiaNow.

“Psychologically, these leaders became symbols to the people throughout the country’s journey.”

In modern times, Awang said titles are used for political mileage.

“The father concept was once relevant because society needed a symbolic father to unite them in facing the challenges of the time, such as the communist uprising.

“But this type of heroic symbolism is no longer relevant as many ‘heroes’ can be chosen by the people,” he said.

Awang thinks giving titles to prime ministers is no longer relevant as the country’s political landscape changes, with leaders increasingly being held responsible.

Politicians, he said, can no longer be glorified or idolised as they are only civil servants for the duration of their terms.

In other words, paternalistic behaviour is no longer an issue.

“Society no longer follows so much, so the concept of father is no longer as effective.”

Zaid Ahmad of Universiti Putra Malaysia said addressing a leader by a title is a form of flattery, “which is not right”.

“There must be some basis to serve as a yardstick for titles,” said Zaid, who specialises in government and civilisational studies.

“If every prime minister needs to be dubbed ‘the father of so-and-so’, we will be forced to find titles to give,” he added.

Zaid said there would then come a time when the titles no longer reflect reality.

“If the person is truly deserving of a title, we will not need to search for one. The people will associate one with him themselves.”

And that being the case, even someone who rules for a short period could be deserving of a name.

Zaid gave the example of Razak, who was prime minister for six years from 1970 to 1976.

“His legacy still lives today,” he said.

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