NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. So goes the ancient phrase that has, throughout the millennia, remained an appropriate and relevant dictum to this very day.
The systemic trait of madness has been an inherent hallmark of declining autocratic regimes since time immemorial. Take, for example, the story of the Roman emperor Caligula, whose reign began with much promise and great popularity, but who quickly succumbed to the luxuries of power and who, towards the end of his short-lived rule, attempted to appoint his favourite horse as a consul of the Roman Senate.
And then of course there is the late totalitarian President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan who, apart from styling himself Turkmenbashi (Leader of Turkmens), also deigned to rename calendar months after members of his own family, in addition to outlawing long hair and beards for Turkmen men and advising the citizenry to gnaw on bones in order to strengthen their teeth, because apparently it works for dogs.
History is rife with more examples of self-aggrandising eccentricities and excesses by leaders inebriated by power. Of the African and Middle Eastern variety, we have colourful characters such as the tyrannical Ugandan President Idi Amin, who insisted on being called the King of Scotland and Conqueror of the British Empire, and of course the recently-deceased erratic demagogue Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his coterie of 40 virgin Amazon bodyguards.
Closer to home, who can forget the epitome of public extravagance, Imelda Marcos? The Filipino Iron Butterfly was the pillar supporting her husband’s iron-fisted rule, while making headlines for her multi-million dollar shopping sprees and famed collection of 2,700 pairs of shoes.
The lesson to bear in mind, however, is the fact that every single one of the above megalomaniacal regimes eventually found themselves pulled, almost willingly, into an inescapable whirlpool of self-destruction. Truly, delusion and egomania are signs of a waning regime.
In our own country, 54 years of single-party incumbency is now unravelling and showing similar symptoms. After many failed attempts, a scheme to construct a monolithic dam in Bakun, Sarawak was put into motion, with the outlandish idea of sending hydroelectricity to the peninsula via 670 kilometres of undersea cables.
A decade later, after billions of ringgit in cost overruns and the successful displacement of 10,000 indigenous people, we have a spectacular white mammoth (an elephant in this case an unbefitting term) that can produce 2,400 MW of electricity for a state that would be hard-pressed to consume even half that amount.
At the very least, the untenable idea of sending electricity through cables on the seabed has been safely buried, along with a crooked bridge that an infamous prime minister wanted to build halfway to Singapore. Remember that one?
Another rampant scam involving public funds is the Port Klang Free Zone fiasco, where at least RM12.5 billion of public funds has been squandered in an elaborate scheme that involves a trail of prominent characters leading all the way to the federal Cabinet. False claims, payments for imaginary works and ministerial “support letters” are all part of the unfolding drama.
Daylight robbery in this country is also often accompanied by grandiose acts of personal extravagance, such as a late Selangor state assemblyman who (illegally) built a 16-bedroom palatial mansion in the midst of a low-income working-class neighbourhood, complete with a tower that loomed condescendingly over his fiefdom.
But he was really only trying to emulate his boss the former mentri besar who, besides constructing an even larger palace, also spent millions of state funds on purported “study trips” to Europe, Hawaii and Disneyland with his family.
With the very public exposure of such brazen acts of abuse of power and shameless showboating of ill-gotten wealth, one would think that there would at least be an attempt to exercise more caution and stealth. But of course, madness is necessarily irrational.
And so we come to the latest mind-boggling scandal, in which public money in the form of a RM250 million soft loan and a large expanse of state land have been directly awarded to a Cabinet minister’s family for the purpose of developing a mega cattle-rearing project.
Lurid details emerging from this scandal are shocking to say the least. Not only has the Auditor-General’s Report exposed the failure of the company to achieve its targets and, at the very least, to upkeep its land and facilities, it now appears that money has instead been used to purchase a premium condominium in the city.
Allegations also abound of numerous personal transactions and even family holidays at the company’s expense. Indeed, the term “family business” in this case also takes on a wholly literal meaning, with the minister’s husband sitting as chairman, her eldest son as CEO and the rest of her kids as executive directors.
Yet the issue at hand is not so much the gross mishandling of public funds, which is standard fare, but the blatant manner in which it has been carried out and the unabashed audacity of the minister’s response, having been quoted as saying that her family does not deserve to be criticised “because they work very hard.”
The wanton madness of power is now taking its course on the rulers of our country. Purchasing luxury condos with money meant for cattle may not quite compare to appointing a horse to the Senate, but the symptoms are veritably obvious.
In Barisan Nasional’s mad, mad world, it would seem that the end is nigh.