Photographer Edmund Lee
Stylist Azreezal Hafidz
Make-up artist Fendi Sani using Dior Beauty
Hair artist Yusof Ruzaimi
This story was first published in Prestige Malaysia August 2019 issue
I often describe my early years in journalism as the most exciting period of my career. Back in 1997, when it seemed like the nation was poised to become a major player on the global stage with Malaysia being one of the “Asian tigers,” as the countries around the region were described at the time, it was suddenly thrown into chaos when the financial crisis hit the region resulting in a fast depreciation of the ringgit and a plummeting stock market. It was the worst of times, compounded by the onset of the haze as well as the start of water woes in Selangor.
In typical “Mahathir style”, our prime minister stood up to the international community and instituted his own reforms that weren’t in accordance with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Amidst the turmoil, there was speculation of a growing rift between then Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, also finance minister at the time. Speculation became reality when in September 1998, the number two was sacked from office, a move that would eventually lead to the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the former deputy premier.
His arrest left Mahathir for the first time, facing a challenge to his authority. The weekly calls for “reformasi” soon grew into a movement that led to the formation of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat, and what some would describe as the start of the end of Barisan Nasional.
Having had a vantage view of these events, I would believe that Mahathir-Anwar link would be irreconcilable. Thus, I like the nation, greeted the news of both parties coming together with incredulity, particularly when it was revealed that Tun Mahathir, 92 at the time, was making a bid to return as prime minister, after having stepped down from a 22-year “rule,” to “save” the country from the clutches of then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
The political documentary M For Malaysia showcases the events that surrounds Malaysia’s 14th General Election. Co-directors Datin Dian Lee and Ineza Roussille tell us why this is a story of hope.
But it was this alliance that roused the nation after a “so close” GE13, in which the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat received the popular vote but not the mandate to govern.
“I thought that it was so incredible that a 92-year-old was coming back into politics after 15 years and running against this machinery,” says Datin Dian Lee, executive producer and co- director of M for Malaysia, a documentary that centres on the events that unfolded during GE14.
Dian, despite her father Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew being a close ally of Tun Mahathir, admits that she had her doubts about his return, given the many controversial decisions the prime minister made during his first tenure.
“At a family dinner during Chinese New Year, Tun told us that he was the candidate for prime minister and the leader of the opposition and to be honest, there was this disbelief,” she says.
But leading up to the election, Dian was struck by a viral image of Mahathir, flanked by the Malaysian flag, attempting to climb a ladder.
“It occurred to me that it was very sad that a person at his age has to go through the tumble and stress of an election, to do this for the country.”
“This is the first time I got to see him day in and day out, watching him work. I have so much more admiration and respect for him. Campaigning is tough on anyone, let alone a 92-year-old.”
Moved, Dian reached out to Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir (daughter of the prime minister) to start documenting the behind the scenes of Mahathir’s return to politics.
“At the time, the thinking was that if we don’t win, at least we have content for GE15 to continue this fight for change.”
It was from there that M for Malaysia was born. Marina, the executive producer, however soon became involved with the election, which led to her reaching out to her daughter Ineza Roussille to get involved. Ineza seemed the obvious choice, given her expertise in the art form. However, she confesses that it wasn’t something that she initially wanted to be involved in.
“I got a call from my mum,” she says. “And I am a filmmaker. I can hold a camera and interview my granddad but it took me a while to come around because I didn’t want to be that close. I didn’t want to be seen to lose objectivity especially as a filmmaker.”
Ineza agreed to just give it a try but soon after realised that events surrounding GE14 were too significant to say no and that only she would have the opportunity to capture an intimate look at the prime minister.
“It was obviously a hugely important moment,” she stresses. “I needed to use my access because nobody else would be able to do that.”
While Ineza comes from a political family, till now, she had never embarked on a campaign trail with her grandfather and thus had never really seen him in political mode.
“He is amazing,” she says, unabashedly. “This is the first time I got to see him day in and day out, watching him work. I have so much more admiration and respect for him. Campaigning is tough on anyone, let alone a 92-year-old.”
Ineza, though family, also saw her grandfather’s return to politics as quite “unbelievable.” But as she began traveling the nation with him doing the ‘ceramah’ rounds, she became quite overwhelmed by the reception the then former premier was receiving.
“Especially because these were traditionally opposition supporters and for them to call his name, I was like ‘wow,’” she says.
It was pretty surreal, admits Ineza, to see former rivals like Mahathir, Datuk Seri Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Lim Guan Eng, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and activist Hishamuddin Rais on a single stage.
“And I think credit to them for being able to put that aside and have this single focus going forward,” she says.
For Dian, founder and managing director of development firm The Clearwater Group, the process was a little more “accidental.” Describing herself as a “closeted activist,” Dian’s stand became evident when she became involved in the Pulang Mengundi movement, helping raise funds for students to go home to vote.
“My motivation was that I really, really want Malaysia to be a better place for my children,” she explains. “I am coming from a place, as a mum of three, who doesn’t want to move away.”
“And I am a filmmaker. I can hold a camera and interview my granddad but it took me a while to come around because I didn’t want to be that close. I didn’t want to be seen to lose objectivity especially as a filmmaker.”
Though now presenting a comprehensive look at the developments surrounding GE14, the beginnings of M for Malaysia were little less clear. That the opposition would triumph, ending Barisan Nasional’s 60-year rule seemed implausible at the time.
“I was cautiously hopeful because I remember being so heartbroken during GE13,” says Dian, despite being present at some pretty spirited rallies. “I remember I was on the way to Tun’s house in a Grab car and I was talking to the Grab driver. By the time I reached Tun’s house, all hope was dead.”
It was only after victory had been claimed that the idea of turning the footage they had collected into a documentary was conceptualised.
Given the ‘M’ reference, many would, not without reason, jump to the conclusion that M for Malaysia is a documentary revolving around Mahathir. The directors, however, point to this as a misconception. While Mahathir is indeed a main character, the story, Ineza says, is “bigger than him.”
“It is a Malaysian story,” she declares.