Film Review: M For Malaysia (2019)

In his 2017 essay An Allergy to Democracy, Cherian George boldly attributes the finesse of the democratic political system not to its ability in ensuring that citizens unfailingly elect good governments, but to its provision of a peaceful method to eliminate rotten ones. Certainly, this was the case for Mahathir’s initial incision into the ousting of Najib during the 2018 elections, but as M for Malaysia demonstrates, peaceful was hardly an appropriate word to characterise the intensity of the duel. Part intimate look into the personality of Malaysia’s oldest prime minister, part stirring recount of the dramatic 2018 elections, M for Malaysia manages to catapult audiences into the heart of the storm, stringing together an epic replay on one of the most noteworthy elections in Malaysian history.

The colourful shades of Malaysian politics are immediately highlighted from the get-go, with an opposition candidate deftly comparing the incumbent government to a sloppy contractor in charge of a dishevelled house. Of the faulty building, she declares that “it’s not just a leak, we have no roof! We can’t use this contractor anymore, we need a new one!” Such tongue-in-cheek word battles are a common feature in the political speeches peppering most of the film, making for some of the most memorable and entertaining sequences. 

The crossfire of words culminates in a deftly pieced edit pitting Najib and Mahathir against each other, the frame swerving from one leader to the next as each mimic and decries their foe. As expected, however, this exchange is not seen to be one on equal terms, as the plucky 92-year-old is resolutely depicted to have the upper hand while the shamed national leader exists as a laughable caricature. In particular, the runtime given to Najib’s absurd concessions of minimum wage increase, social welfare handouts and salary increments for civil servants, fisherman, farmers and the like is seen to be a desperate clawing informed by populist rhetoric. 

In fact, a distinct flavour of the film is the sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of Mahathir, where the incorporation of trivial anecdotes serves to humanise an otherwise foreboding figure. Images of Mahathir sticking out his tongue playfully at the camera or joking that he owes his public speaking ability to teleprompters carve a window into what was otherwise a relatively opaque barrier surrounding the life of a controversial political leader. It is no wonder then that fifteen minutes into the film, one of the filmmakers, Ineza Roussille, is revealed to be none other than Mahathir’s granddaughter. The tender portrayal of Mahathir here is only to be expected, seeing as Ineza herself confesses that despite disagreeing with certain of his political manoeuvres, she ultimately bends toward loving Mahathir not as politician but as grandfather. 

Yet, this uncanny piece of information is bound to colour audience’s views of the film, as one is inevitably made hyper-attentive to the slightest tinge of bias. The depiction of Mahathir as one mellowed through the years, for instance, remains thoroughly unconvincing. The calculated insertion of scenes where Mahathir belches out a cough or sips some water in the middle of his speech to raucous clapping is bound to incite eye-rolls or incredulous chortles. While a testament to his spirited commitment to the political arena, one is not so easily fooled into regarding this display of resilience with fawning adoration. 

After all, this was a man who demonstrated a ruthless willingness to crack down on his adversaries and found the gumption to embark on the punishing political circuit as a grandfather. Underneath his wobbly steps and jokes on the need for sleep, a sharp shrewdness and dogmatic will both honed over the years remain to be reckoned with.

Moreover, the juggling of Mahathir’s personal narrative and the grander election account soon becomes problematic, as the film seems confused as to whether it was meant to be an introspective biopic or a comprehensive overview of the elections. If the goal was the former, it emerged much too watered down given the filmmaker’s incredible access. If the goal was the latter, it was much too interrupted and sidetracked by the undeniably more captivating personal moments.

The influx of voices is of little help in streamlining the film, as a flurry of opposition candidates, activist lawyers and other prominent figures all chip in with one or two liner soundbites that create a scattered consociation. These characters are often relied on to lay out the historical narrative for audiences as well as to suggest resolutions to historical controversies. Yet, without properly building the personality of each character, it creates difficulty in attributing authorial legitimacy to each of them. Viewers are left to quickly and superficially absorb what is being said as true instead of having the opportunity to engage with and weigh each individual message.

A much-welcomed strength of the film is the focus on women that is warmly sketched out. Women are depicted to be a needful backbone in the fight, regardless of their role or designation. Despite not always fronting the campaigns themselves, they are all, in a sense, front-liners as well. Tun Dr Siti Hasmah, Mahathir’s wife, is seen to be a person of refuge, a gentle hovering presence that fusses about him affectionately. The most endearing moments of the film are often when the pair embrace or banter, most notably during an extended hug from his wife that Mahathir is shy about.

Mahathir’s own relationship with Ineza is telling, seeing as his more playful, genial side surfaces when interacting with her, contributing to the light-hearted moments in the film. Similarly, Marina Mahathir, his daughter, is seen as a powerful advocate and knowing confidante of her father. Though less fleshed out than the other two, one walks away with a sense of her instrumentality in this battle. Perhaps the most charismatic of the lot is Wan Azizah herself, who exudes strength from the minute she retells the fateful night of her husband, Anwar Ibrahim, being taken away. The sight of her brandishing a slender finger at the camera and the affecting demeanour with which she speaks is not easily forgettable.

A key flashpoint that would have benefitted from a greater fleshing out is the hotly debated dispute between Mahathir and Anwar. While somewhat attempting to address the grievances, it fails to responsibly tackle the gravity of such an offence. Resolution is implied by the stacked soundbites from opposition candidates stating that they have reconciled their sentiments or have chosen to bury personal grudges for the greater good. The absence of Anwar’s voice in the film further complicates the depiction of this convoluted contention. 

What exposes the filmmaker’s particular leanings, however, is the emotive music score accompanying the sequence, suggestive of a harmonious and moving image of reconciliation. With the present reality of Malaysia politics as it is, this scene is undeniably read very much differently. The reality is that Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest (and other prominent arrests, for that matter) is not a moment in time to be now enshrined in a narrative that preaches for bygones to be bygones. It still represents a crucial, unresolved entity with lasting consequences unlikely to be washed away by nostalgic forgetfulness. 

More than a simple personal grudge, the contested illegitimacy of his arrest is also a greater question of the nation’s bandwidth for such acts of coercion. Will such calculated coercion be once again flaunted as a weapon, or at the very least stored at the top of the toolbox? As opposition politician Lim Guan Eng states, if the Deputy Prime Minister could fall victim to such a political conspiracy and be denied justice, then what hope is there for the regular folk? A tidy portrayal seemingly communicates that whatever remnant indignation should be surrendered and cast off as if chaff when that is clearly not the case.

Victory moments are aplenty in the film, accompanied by orchestral scores that are rousingly applied. While predictable, they also still manage to annoyingly arouse a sense of patriotism regardless of whether one is a Malaysian or not. The tropes of solidarity unifying the people, a righteous overthrow of corrupt forces and the collective hope for a better future might just do well in awakening the dormant nationalism in audiences.

As Ineza herself confesses, they were prepared to angle the film on how corrupt and rigged the election system was after Mahathir’s loss, and the unthinkable result of an opposition victory stunned filmmaker and public alike. In one of his speeches, Najib exhorts the people not to “amuse [themselves] with retired leaders.” In a wry reversal, the public did indeed take him up on that offer. Instead of amusing themselves with said retired leader, they took him very seriously indeed. 

As if prophetic, the film concludes with Dato' Ambiga Sreenevasan, a lawyer and human rights advocate, assertively imploring that just as the people have shown tremendous courage, tenacity and commitment to the country, the government must equal those same characteristics to bring about reform to the nation. Unfortunately, given where Malaysia is today, the runway to such a fulfilment remains painfully long. The multiple and confusing changes in contractors have led to the regression of supposed building, and it can only be hoped that this role would soon cease to be tossed carelessly around like a coveted trophy, but instead be duly treated with the reverence needed for the renovation of a nation.

Works Cited:
George, Cherian. Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited. Ethos Books, 2020, pp. 45-51. 

- Jessica Heng
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