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
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
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
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
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
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
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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