Mahathir Mohamad 1925-
Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, to give him his formal Malaysian designation, was the fourth prime minister of Malaysia. He was in power from 1981 to 2003, more than twenty-two years. Mahathir, an ethnic Malay and a Muslim, was born in 1925 in Alor Setar in northwestern Malaysia. He was trained during colonial times as a medical doctor at the University of Malaya in Singapore, graduating in 1947. As prime minister, he was widely credited with the transformation of Malaysia into a prosperous, fully employed, newly industrialized country that became a magnet for illegal immigrants from Indonesia, Burma (Myanmar), and Bangladesh. He is best known in the West as an outspoken advocate of “Asian values” and a critic of Zionism and Western hypocrisy. Mahathir is also widely seen as an authoritarian leader who was prone to cronyism and not adequately respectful of human rights.
Mahathir is a member of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the party that with its ethnic Chinese and Indian allies has ruled Malaysia since independence from the British in 1957. Mahathir was elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat in 1969 and was expelled from the party after criticizing the prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman (1903–1990). After readmission to the UMNO, Mahathir was again elected to parliament in 1974. He then became minister of education and from 1976 served as deputy prime minister. Throughout his career, Mahathir was both a strong advocate for the advancement of the indigenous Malay majority and one of the most vocal critics of Malay stereotyping. He held a strong conviction that racial harmony in Malaysia (and elsewhere) requires all communities to stand at approximately equal levels of prosperity, and he became frustrated when some sections of the Malay community encountered difficulties in their attempts to advance economically, despite the strong preferences afforded to them by Mahathir’s government.
During his twenty-two years in power, Mahathir was successful in creating a prosperous and sizable Bumiputra (literally, “sons of the soil,” that is, indigenous) middle class. During the colonial period, commerce and industry had been dominated by the Chinese and the professions by ethnic Indians. With Mahathir in power, the Bumiputra came to dominate Malaysia’s civil service, police, and military; they also gained a foothold in commerce, industry, and the professions. However, this progress was achieved at a substantial price. Quotas on non-Malay students in the universities, for example, prompted many non-Malay Malaysians to seek higher education in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, and elsewhere, and many never returned to Malaysia. In addition, emphasis on the national language in education led to a noticeable decline in the country’s standard of English, which eventually resulted in the partial reversal of language policies in education.
During Mahathir’s tenure, Malaysia evolved from a predominantly rural, low-income economy in the 1970s to a middle-income economy with full employment and social indicators similar to high-income economies. This was achieved through state-dominated capitalism, openness to foreign investment, and authoritarian political policies. Mahathir’s economic policies were always nationalistic, although based on exports and guided capitalism. Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Mahathir rejected the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and imposed a fixed exchange rate and capital controls. He was widely criticized for this move, but the results were much better in Malaysia than in neighboring countries that had followed IMF advice, and Malaysia weathered the crisis with relatively little damage to either growth or investment. However, the crisis did produce difficulties with respect to undocumented immigrants, who flocked to Malaysia because of its relative prosperity and high demand for labor. Officials have attempted to repatriate migrants, amid the complaints of private-sector firms, particularly in construction, plantation agriculture, and low-skill manufacturing, about the impact of this policy on their labor forces. Mahathir also promoted a number of large-scale pet projects aimed at modernizing the economy and turning it into a high-tech center for the region. Some of these projects were eventually cancelled, with others looking more and more like white elephants.
Mahathir is perhaps best known in the West for his strong views on Asian values and his rejection of Western moral leadership. He argues that Asian societies place more value on the community than on the individual, and he considers the guidance of an authoritarian government as necessary to ensure stability and rapid economic development in Asian societies. Mahathir has also been a fierce critic of Israel. His relationships with the United States and other Western governments, most notably the United Kingdom and Australia, have often been tense, with much criticism flowing in both directions. American vice president Al Gore, for example, endorsed reform in Malaysia in a speech delivered in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, a speech that Mahathir described as “rude.” The Western critique centered on the authoritarian nature of Mahathir’s rule, particularly the curtailment of the press and other freedoms, draconian internal security laws, political repression, and harassment of rivals, notably Anwar Ibrahim, the former finance minister and deputy prime minister who was jailed on corruption and sodomy charges. Anwar had led a reform movement emphasizing the dangers of corruption and nepotism under Mahathir. Mahathir has been highly critical of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led forces and of the U.S. policy of detention without trial for prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.
Mahathir has remained outspoken and influential in Malaysia since his retirement from active politics in 2003. In May 2006 he described his handpicked successor, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, as “gutless” and “kowtowing” after Abdullah abandoned a project to build a bridge to replace the causeway joining Malaysia to Singapore. Many Malays and moderate Muslims elsewhere regard Mahathir with great respect for the economic achievements of his administration and his willingness to state independent views with eloquence and force.
Mahathir bin Mohamad. 1970. The Malay Dilemma. Singapore: Times Books International.
Milne, R. S., and Diane K. Mauzy. 1999. Malaysian Politics under Mahathir. London: Routledge.