Mahathir's remarkable career

SCMP November 1

Of all the post-1945 Asian political figures to have made their mark well beyond the shores of their own country, perhaps none is more complex than Malaysia's prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. His ability to surprise, even shock, owes as much to that complexity as to the content of his policies.

The great moderniser of the Malaysian economy was also responsible, if only indirectly, for a surge in a religious conservatism that some saw as un-Malay. The scourge of westerners and colonialism was also the man who travelled the world courting the titans of western capitalism. The fiery defender of Malay interests was the most outspoken critic of his own people. The leader of the mainstream Malay party was the man who undermined traditional systems. The ruthless authoritarian was, as the electoral record shows, a most successful practitioner of democratic politics. The Malay ultra was the man who came to be the favourite of Chinese business. The personal puritan was indulgent to the point of cynicism of the very different behaviour of many of his subordinates. The self-appointed spokesman for the poorer nations of the world was the man whose policies helped create instant billionaires.

Many of Dr Mahathir's contradictions can be put down to the political demands of the moment. He was, after all, first and last a politician with an unquenchable thirst for power. When it came to no-holds-barred fights, none could match his ruthlessness. But major politicians have to start with some kernel of experience which both drives them on. What was Dr Mahathir's?

If there is a single answer, it was this: he was an outsider. First, he was of partly Indian-Muslim as well as Malay ancestry - his father was a teacher from India. Dr Mahathir was from a lower-middle class background in a Malay world ever conscious of titles and status. Tunku Abdul Rahman was a prince. Hussein Onn was from an established political family.

Dr Mahathir owed his education as a doctor entirely to his own competitive efforts. He had to make do with the University of Malaya rather than a well-known western university. He not only had to try harder, he was bereft of the sentimental attachments that often marked those educated in the west. The influences of the outsider mentality and the scientific training came together in the publication, in 1969, of his book The Malay Dilemma, which was banned in Malaysia until he became prime minister in 1981. Dr Mahathir had lost his seat in parliament in 1969 and was then expelled from Umno, the United Malays National Organisation, for blaming then leader Rahman for the electoral debacle. He was one of the fiery exponents of Malay demands for positive interventionism and for action to raise the economic status of the Malay majority, who had political power but lagged far behind the immigrant races in wealth and education.

But the book was not just a plea for favours for Malays. It was a biting critique of Malay society as backward, feudal, deferential and uncompetitive. Without direct state intervention and changes in attitude, it would remain poor and backward. The book contained some scientifically dubious theories about race. If written by a Chinese or westerner, it would likely have been written off as merely insulting. But with his mix of Malay identity and immigrant background, Dr Mahathir was able to put a mirror up to Malays. They might not like what they saw, but they recognised that here was a man with the courage to tell it as he saw it, and a passionate commitment to modernising his adopted community.

He was made deputy leader and heir apparent by Hussein Onn in 1976. Hussein was the antithesis of Dr Mahathir. A courteous establishment figure who had once been an officer in the British Indian army, Hussein might have been expected to choose a like-minded figure. But he recognised Dr Mahathir's exceptional energy, determination and leadership.

Succeeding the ailing Hussein in 1981, Dr Mahathir soon put his stamp on policies. "Look East" and "Buy British Last" slogans were both expressions of his anti-colonialism and his desire to follow the east Asian path of rapid modernisation.

The desire to modernise also took him to new policies to develop Malaysia's industrial base, using government money and Japanese expertise to build heavy industries such as steel and car manufacturing. Twenty years on, they are thriving - but they have come at a high cost to taxpayers and consumers.

The leap into heavy industry was originally paid for by the early 1980s surge in oil and other commodity prices. But their collapse caused a collapse of government revenue, some banks, many property companies, and a deep recession. Politically, Dr Mahathir was on the ropes and came close to losing a 1987 leadership challenge. This was to make him more determined than ever to stay in power, not only by strengthening his grip on the party but by using the power of the executive to bring the judiciary to heel. out of concern that it was making inappropriate decisions.

The challenges of 1986-88 proved how tough he was in every way. The stresses led to life-threatening heart problems and a quadruple bypass. But that slowed him only briefly. Indeed, his brush with death gave him renewed passion to build Malaysia. The downturn also produced new thinking on economic policy. The government no longer had sufficient resources to buy ownership on behalf of Malays on the scale of the past. Nor was Malay ownership through trusts and funds doing much to promote Malay entrepreneurship. Dr Mahathir was much influenced by his friend, lawyer and businessman Daim Zainuddin, who was appointed finance minister during the crisis in 1984. Dr Mahathir recognised that privatisation of state assets and ventures could be used simultaneously to reduce burdens on the budget, increase Malay individual private control of assets and increase the power of patronage of the ruling party itself. He also recognised that Malaysia must find new growth impetus. His very pragmatic response was changes in law and procedure to allow total foreign ownership of certain industries. The twin policy changes of privatisation and the attraction of foreign capital ushered in a decade of boom, which transformed Malaysia. The era remains the central part of Dr Mahathir's legacy. Malaysia was propelled not just by a surge of capitalist endeavour, but by Dr Mahathir's vision - of becoming a modern, developed state by 2020.

Confidence led to over-confidence and eventually to hubris and extravagance. By the time the Asian crisis broke in 1997, Malaysia has many symbols of excess, such as the world's tallest building. But for all its excesses, the pre-crisis boom had achieved an immense amount of physical construction. It had raised Malaysia's national pride. And for all their failures, it did raise the level of Malay participation in big business.

Domestically, Malaysia dealt with the crisis better than its Southeast Asian neighbours, achieving an orderly restructuring of the devastated financial sector and using public-sector stimulus to offset the private-sector slump. Malaysia is, of course, better known for its refusal at the time to follow International Monetary Fund doctrines, pegging its weakened currency to the dollar and imposing capital controls. It remains debatable whether the net effect was positive. The worst was over by the time the measures were announced. Dr Mahathir's accompanying Third World rhetoric and attacks on western capitalism damaged the nation in the eyes of some investors. However, he was to be proved at least partly right. Meanwhile, Malaysians mostly approved of his nationalistic stance and the episode greatly raised Dr Mahathir's international profile.

The other great impact of the crisis was to destroy his relationship with Anwar Ibrahim, hitherto his anointed successor. Anwar's supporters, if not Anwar himself, made little secret of their desire to use the economic crisis to force out Dr Mahathir to make way for the younger man. They badly misjudged both their own influence and Dr Mahathir's determination to depart in his own time.

The subsequent jailing of Anwar on debatable charges opened new divisions in the Malay community and saw the formation of a multiracial opposition, headed by Anwar's wife. It was never to come within a mile of success. But Dr Mahathir was, by now, suspect among many Malays, not just for his treatment of Anwar, but for being insufficiently committed to the religious aspects of being Malay. He was too much the moderniser and his government too associated with money politics. Umno did poorly in the last elections, in 1999, and was only saved by strong support from non-Malays. It had not always been so. In his early days, major policies included moves to help Malays, and Islam, such as by reducing the role of English in schools and building mosques. Dr Mahathir did not wear Islam on his sleeve. But he perceived a need not to allow Umno to be outflanked by the fervently Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS).

Umno remains torn between a relaxed attitude towards religious practices and the need to compete with PAS. Dr Mahathir has come to regret that too many concessions were made to Islam. Islamic schools mushroomed and dress codes among women became more conservative. Social divides between the races have increased, despite the rapid urbanisation of Malays and the huge advances in education and industrialisation.

Over the past two years, there has been some backtracking. English has again been given more prominence, in the interests of higher standards. September 11 and subsequent bombings have discredited militant Islam. However, with Umno still struggling to retrieve Malay support, and Dr Mahathir's personality and treatment of Anwar jarring with many Malays, it may take new leadership of Umno to enable it to soft-pedal Islamic identity without losing votes.

Dr Mahathir was certainly much kinder towards Islam than towards Malay feudal traditions. His modernisation agenda included increasing the role of the central government regarding the states, and cutting back the powers and privileges of the rulers, the sultans. Getting his own way was indeed the norm for Dr Mahathir, whether or not the means were adjudged fair. How do Malaysians now view him and his legacy? Perhaps most thank him for what he has done for economic modernisation, the improvement in the position of Malays and the mark that Malaysia has made on the world. But there is also a sense that Malaysia needs a respite from his authoritarian and often divisive ways.

For Dr Mahathir himself, although his achievements are plain enough, he clearly still harbours frustrations with his own Malay community. They have, he has said more than once, not taken full advantage of the opportunities provided. Such plain speaking may not win Malay votes. But it should help his successor make gradual policy adjustments which, in the long run, will benefit the economy and racial harmony.

Dr Mahathir's achievements should not be exaggerated. He inherited a politically stable, moderately prosperous multiracial state, open to foreign investment and cultural influences, which already had an industrial export base. His 22 years in office will leave scars - corruption, a skewed balance between executive power and other institutions, and increased social divides. But his hard driving greatly speeded up the transformation of the nation and put it on the international map. His combination of economic modernisation, capitalism, defence of the rights of Muslims and criticism of Islamic fundamentalism has given him, and Malaysia generally, great prestige in the developing world generally, and the Islamic world in particular.



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