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Mahathir bin Mohamad

Mahathir bin Mohamad
Order: 4th Prime Minister
Term of Office: July 16, 1981 - October 31, 2003
Preceded by: Hussein Onn
Succeeded by: Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
Date of Birth December 20, 1925
Place of Birth: Alor Star, Kedah
Wife: Siti Hasmah
Profession: physician
Religion: Islam
Political Party: UMNO
Deputy PM :

Mahathir bin Mohamad (born December 20, 1925) was the Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003. During his term in office he was credited for engineering Malaysia's rapid modernisation and the resulting high levels of prosperity now enjoyed by nearly all Malaysians. By fostering a Malay middle class, independent of the traditionally-dominant Chinese minority, Mahathir was able to maintain peace between the various races in Malaysia, and this is regarded by many as his greatest achievement. However, he also came under great criticism for his authoritarian ruling style and for rampant cronyism in his government. Mahathir could also be very outspoken, and at times made public statements which critics said were "tinged with anti-semitism".

Formally, Mahathir is known as Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad. His supporters call him Dr. M.


Early years

Mahathir was born in Alor Star, Kedah. He trained as a Doctor at the King Edward VII Medical College.

In 1964, Mahathir entered the Malaysian parliament as a member of the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party. He held several ministerial posts in the 1970s, including deputy prime minister beginning in 1976.

During the racially turbulent 1960s and 1970s, Mahathir had been known as a Malay ultra (famously labelled as such by the Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) or extremist, and was expelled by his party for the publication of The Malay Dilemma in 1970. The title dogged him through his career and beyond.

It became a coded reference to Malaysia's preferential race policy and its effect on the nation's delicate race dynamics and economy. Unlike affirmative action in the US, Malaysia's far more aggressive and pervasive racial policy has been remarkably successful in creating a sizable and stable Bumiputra ('indigenous group') middle class.

Economic policies

During his term in office, Mahathir forcefully tried to turn Malaysia into a regional high-tech manufacturing, financial, and telecommunications hub through his economic policies based on corporate nationalism, known as the various Malaysia Plans which set out the government middle term objectives. These policies remained in effect almost to the end of his tenure in office.

His pet projects have included Perwaja Steel, an attempt to emulate South Korea and Japan, the Proton car company, and ASTRO, a satellite television service.

He is credited with spearheading the phenomenal growth of the Malaysian economy, now one of the largest and most powerful in South East Asia. Growth between 1988 and 1997 averaged over ten percent and living standards rose twenty-fold, with poverty almost eradicated and social indicators such as literacy levels and infant mortality rates on a par with developed countries.

During this period, Mahathir embarked on various enormous construction projects, such as the North-South highway, which has cut transport times in half on the West Coast of Malaysia, the Multimedia Super Corridor, a flagship project based on Silicon Valley designed to enable Malaysia's foray into information technology (it includes Malaysia's new administrative capital Putrajaya), Port Tanjung Pelepas , the glittering Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, an adjacent Formula One circuit, the Bakun Dam, meant to supply all of the electricity needs of the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak and which has enough capacity to enable exportation of power to Brunei, Olympic-class stadia in Bukit Jalil , and the buildings which have become symbolic of modern Malaysia, the Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest buildings in the world from 1997 to 2003.

While such projects have benefits, their high costs have made Malaysians reluctant to engage in more such ventures until such time as the economy can afford it. He has been criticised for the failures and inefficiency of his pet projects. Perwaja Steel eventually failed and had to be rescued by a corporate white knight. Its chairman Eric Chia is facing corruption charges in 2004. Proton eventually had to be bought over by Petronas when its parent DRB-HICOM found itself over-geared. ASTRO enjoys a monopoly on pay-TV services in Malaysia which will end with the granting of a license to provider MiTV in 2004.

The Bakun Dam project was to be managed by local construction firm Ekran. It issued a 1-for-1 on time rights issue which was 63% undersubscribed (first time in Malaysia for event or for magnitude). Ekran's chairman Ting Pek King had to purchase all unsubscribed shares at a cost of $500 million Ringgit due to his agreement with the underwriters. Subsequently the dam project was taken back by the government who was obliged to pay Ekran for the works already completed. As of 2004, the dam has not been completed.

1997 financial crisis

During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Mahathir was strongly criticized by the international financial community for deciding that Malaysia would find its own way in contravention to the recommendations of the IMF which recommended keeping interest rates down and braking the flow of foreign capital.

Mahathir blamed currency speculators for the crisis, foremost among them George Soros. Critics said his accusations were "tinged with anti-semitism."

Banks were forced to merge and to write off bad debts, consolidating the financial system. The Ringgit, which stood at RM2.50 to the US Dollar prior to the crisis but plunged to RM4.97 during the worst part of the recession, was pegged at RM3.80. Initially this was seen as a move to stabilize the currency at an acceptable level and save many companies who had debt denominated in US dollars. Later it turned out to be a blessing as the low currency made Malaysian goods more competitive and encouraged exports.

As a result of these policies, Malaysia's economy recovered much faster than comparative countries who followed the IMF prescription, the repercussions of which are still felt in those countries.

Perhaps the prudent fiscal and monetary policies have ensured that the Malaysian economy, while not growing as spectacularly as before, is well balanced and not built on questionable fundamentals.

Long term structural considerations, such as the uncompetitiveness of Malaysian firms, the failure of Malaysian industry to move up the value chain in the face of increasing costs and competition from other countries in the region (most notably China) as well as lack of results in R&D, still cloud the horizon, and Malaysia's long term prospects are uncertain.

Political machine

During his twenty-two year rule, Mahathir was seen as a political "strongman", and was criticised for his authoritarian policies and use of state power to suppress opponents via the media, the judiciary and law enforcement agencies.

In 1983 and 1991, he took on the federal and state monarchies, removing the royal veto and royal immunity from prosecution. Prior to this amendment of the law, royal assent was required in order for any bill to pass into law. Mahathir amended it such that approval by parliament could be legally considered as royal assent after a period of 30 days, notwithstanding the views of the monarchs. However, this only applied to secular laws and the various kings continued to enjoy the right to make Islamic law in their own jurisdictions.

In 1988, when the future of the ruling party UMNO was about to be decided in the Supreme Court (it had previously been deregistered as an illegal society in the High Court), he engineered the dismissal of the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Salleh Abas , and three other supreme court justices who tried to block the misconduct hearings.

In 1997, attention around the globe was focused on Malaysia when the government brought sodomy and abuse of power charges against the former finance minister and deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar and his supporters tried to turn corruption and nepotism into major political issues, with Mahathir and his associates as the target, and this unleashed the wrath of the government. Many observers saw the engineering of Anwar's dismissal as the result of the triumph of the secular corporate nationalist old guard over the younger "green" or Islamist faction within UMNO, created after the popular Islamic youth leader Anwar had been brought into the government by Mahathir.

In separate trials, Anwar was sentenced to six years in prison for corruption and nine years prison for sodomy, to be served concurrently. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch expressed serious doubts about the fairness of the trials.[1] [2]

The Anwar crisis sparked unprecedented massive protests by Malaysians, of all ethnic groups, and some of Anwar's supporters from UMNO regrouped around the intellectual-Muslim "Parti Keadilan Nasional" (National Justice Party). Failing to garner widespread support from Malaysians, "Parti keAdilan could only win only 2 parlimentary seats in the 1999 elections. In the subsequent 2004 elections, the party nearly lost all representation at the Malaysian parliament with the only Keadilan member of parliament, Wan Azizah who won by the narrowest of margins mainly based on sympathetic votes due to the Anwar crisis and thereon ceased to be relevant.

UMNO under Mahathir developed a feudalistic tradition whereby political factions battling to ensure the growth of so-called 'warlords' would gladly throw UMNO into chaos rather than see their prominent champion miss out on appointment to plum posts. The Anwar debacle was an example of this, as was an earlier rebellion by UMNO strongman Razaleigh Hamzah, who broke away to form the Spirit of '46 party (now defunct).

UMNO heads were seen by opposition supporters as corrupt politicians more focused on power and economic gain, as Mahathir was only interested in their total loyalty. PAS leveraged this into a selling point by promising a clean, Islamic administration. Despite this, PAS only captured the state of Terengganu in the 1999 elections, and failed to retain it in the next election. This was largely seen to be due to PAS' fundamentalist Islamic policies, as they had introduced Islamic sharia laws into Terengganu and their other stronghold, Kelantan. These laws included banning various forms of entertainment, and mandatory wearing of the hijab for women, only in Muslim women. Many political analysts felt that this had prevented PAS from making major gains, keeping the reins of power firmly in Mahathir's hands, as the non-Malay voters were turned off by the perceived religious fundamentalism of PAS. Also, Mahathir remained tremendously popular among many Malaysians. He was known for being a man of few words, a mature speaker, and also his largely successful policies in steering Malaysia towards economic growth.

Ministries were alloted to all component parties of the Barisan Nasional. Even non-Malay parties obtained the ministerships of key ministries such as Health (MCA), Transport(MCA), and the Works Ministry (MIC). Certain ministries were also shared with one party traditionally getting the ministers post and another party getting the deputy ministership. This was standard coalition politics as with all other coalition governments who wanted to ensure everyone got a slice of the cake.

"Asian values"

Mahathir has been a outspoken proponent of "Asian values" — authoritarian state-led capitalism — as an alternative to American individualism and laissez-faire capitalism.

Mahathir justified this approach by stating that "developing countries cannot function without strong authority on the part of government. Unstable and weak governments will result in chaos, and chaos cannot contribute to the development and well-being of developing countries. Divisive politics will occupy the time and minds of everyone, as we can witness in many a developing country today."

In general, Mahathir is perceived as a moderate Muslim, but he was not above playing the Islamic card for political advantage. When the Islamic Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Islamic Party of Malaysia, PAS) started to gain power (at the height of its power it controlled the two East Coast states of Terengganu and Kelantan) and made strong inroads into Mahathir's homestate of Kedah, Mahathir tried to bolster his party's position by declaring Malaysia an Islamic state, in spite of previous secular policies by earlier administrations. This further worried moderate Muslim and non-Malay voters, as the whole scenario seemed to spiral down to a contest between the two parties to out-Islamise each other to the detriment of religious tolerance.

Educational system

See main article: Education in Malaysia.

One of the biggest criticisms made of Mahathir's rule was his failure to do anything about the deterioration of the Malaysian education system. Public opinion holds that education standards were better during the British colonial era, a shocking indictment for a modern, newly industrialised country and the man who made it possible. He attempted to remedy this by promoting mathematics and science taught in English in the latter part of his administration. Nevertheless, every year, 50,000 university graduates are unemployed and unemployable due to the state of the educational system and a preference towards non-professional degrees.

Foreign relations

During Mahathir's tenure in office, Malaysia's relationship with the West was turbulent. Early during his tenure, a disagreement with the United Kingdom over university tuition fees sparked off a boycott of all British goods, in what became known as the "Buy British Last" campaign. It also led to a search for development models in Asia, most notably Japan. This was the beginning of his famous "Look East policy". Although the dispute was later resolved by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Mahathir continued to emphasise Asian development models over contemporary Western ones.

United States

Mahathir has always been an outspoken critic of the United States but yet the United States was the biggest source of foreign investment and was Malaysia's biggest customer during Mahathir's rule. Furthermore, Malaysian military officers continued to train in the US under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.

Some allege that relations with the United States took a turn for the worse in 1998, when US Vice President Al Gore made a statement at the APEC conference with Malaysia being the host nation. Al Gore stated:

"Democracy confers a stamp of legitimacy that reforms must have in order to be effective. And so, among nations suffering economic crises, we continue to hear calls for democracy, calls for reform, in many languages - People Power, doi moi, reformasi. We hear them today - right here, right now - among the brave people of Malaysia."

Such an endorsement for the reformasi asking for (among other things) the ouster of Mahathir was anethema to him and he remarked "I've never seen anybody so rude." This also summed up the Malaysian expectation that one who is a guest should not show such discourtesy to the host.

However, Mahathir's views were already firmly entrenched before this event. For example, before the ASEAN meeting in 1997 he made a speech condemming The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, calling it an oppressing instrument by which the United States and other countries tried to impose their values on Asians. He went on to share his view that Asians needed stability and economic growth more than civil liberties. This did not endear him to Madeleine Albright who was a guest at the meeting.

The relationship was stony both ways. Following Mahathir's ouster of Anwar Ibrahim, Madeleine Albright paid a visit to Anwar's wife.

Yet he has not hesitated to point to America for justification of his own actions. In speaking of arbitrary detention without trial of prisoners of conscience on Malaysia he said "Events in the United States have shown that there are instances where certain special powers need to be used in order to protect the public for the general good"

In 2003, Mahathir spoke to the Non-Aligned Movement in Kuala Lumpur and as part of his speech said "If innocent people who died in the attack on Afghanistan and those who have been dying from lack of food and medical care in Iraq are considered collaterals, are the 3000 who died in New York and the 200 in Bali also just collaterals whose deaths are necessary for operations to succeed?"

Huhtala, the American ambassador to Malaysia responded with a statement "These are not helpful statements by any standard and I'm here to tell you that Washington does take note of them. They are bound to have a harmful effect on the relationship."

More recently, the 2003 invasion of Iraq caused additional friction between the two countries; Mahathir was highly critical of Bush for acting without a United Nations mandate.

Notwithstanding the behaviour of Mahathir the Malaysia relationship with the US has been strong. A 2003 house sub committee hearing (Serial No. 108–21) on US Policy policy towards South East Asia sums it up as "Despite sometimes blunt and intemperate public remarks by Prime Minister Mahathir, U.S.-Malaysian cooperation has a solid record in areas as diverse as education, trade, military relations, and counterterrorism."

Even after retirement, Mahathir was not hesitant about his criticisms of the United States. In 2004 (The Star Oct 18th 2004), he was quoted as having said "The American people are, by and large, very ignorant and know nothing about the rest of the world.... Yet they are the people who will decide who will be the most powerful man in the world". In the same interview, he also predicted George W. Bush's victory in the 2004 United States Presidential Election.


Mahathir's relationship with Australia (the closest country in the Anglosphere to Malaysia, and the one whose foreign policy is most concentrated on the region), and his relationship with Australia's political leaders, has been particularly rocky. Mahathir regularly took offense at portrayals of Malaysia in the Australian media, calling on the government to intervene in this (an action that would politically unthinkable in Australia). Relationships between Mahathir and Australia's leaders reached a low point in 1993 when Paul Keating described Mahathir as "recalcitrant" for not attending the APEC summit. The Malaysian government threatened trade sanctions.

Mahathir, along with other Malaysian politicians (and many other Asian leaders) also heavily criticised Keating's successor John Howard for allegedly encouraging Pauline Hanson, whose views were widely perceived in Asia as racist and harking back to the earlier White Australia policy. Pauline Hanson was a member of the One Nation party which had no relations with John Howard's party.

Mahathir has valued the right of a nation to do whatever it wants within its borders, which he uses the word "sovereignity" for. This was articulated in the ASEAN policy of non-interference. The Australian penchant for telling its neighbours what to do is clearly a sticking point. In 2000 Mahathir was quoted as saying "If Australia wants to be a friend to Asia it should stop behaving as if it is there to teach us how to run our country. It is a small nation in terms of numbers and it should behave like a small nation and not be a teacher." He also said "This country stands out like a sore thumb trying to impose its European values in Asia as if it is the good old days when people can shoot aborigines without caring about human rights."

Mahathir also made remarks to the effect that John Howard was trying to be America's 'Deputy Sheriff' in the Pacific region. This was in response to John Howard's statement that they would pursue terrorists over the borders of their neighbours.

His perception of Howard has not softened after retirement. In an interview he stated "They (accepted) Blair, and I am sure they will accept Bush. They have already accepted Howard who told a blatant lie."

Middle East

Under Mahathir, a leading critic of Israel, Malaysia was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, and established diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. (Israeli citizens remain banned from entering Malaysia.) In 1986, a major diplomatic row erupted with neighbouring Singapore when Chaim Herzog, the President of Israel, paid a state visit.


Relations with Singapore under Mahathir's tenure have been stormy. Many disputed issues raised during his administration have not been resolved, and in fact have been exaggerated by both sides. Issues have included the low price of raw water paid by Singapore to Malaysia (3 Malaysian cents (US$0.008) per 1000 gallons), the proposed replacement of the Causeway by a suspension bridge to improve water flow through the Tebrau Straits, Singapore's land reclamation work affecting shipping access to Port Tanjung Pelepas, the use of Malaysian airspace by Republic of Singapore Air Force jets, the status of Pedra Branca Island/Pulau Batu Putih (now being brought to the International Court of Justice) and the sovereignty of the railway line crossing Singapore. Both sides had stubbornly refused to compromise, with the result of bilateral relations remaining frosty. The absurdity of the whole situation was illustrated by Mahathir's proposal to replace the Malaysian portion of the Causeway with half a bridge, with the end result, a crooked structure, being derided as ridiculous by citizens of both nations. Under Prime Minister Abdullah, however, relations have begun to thaw, and inter-citizen relations have gone on much as they have before in that they are totally independent of political bickering. Many Singaporeans and Malaysians have relatives on the other side of the Causeway, and despite the bickering of both gorverments over different issues,relations between citizens of both countries remained unaffected.

Developing World

Among developing and Islamic countries, however, Mahathir remains greatly admired, particularly for Malaysia's impressive economic growth. Foreign leaders such as Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev praised him and have been trying to emulate Mahathir's developmental formulae. He was one of the greatest spokesmen on Third World issues, and strongly supported the bridging of the North-South divide, as well as exhorting the development of Islamic nations. He was dedicated to various Third World blocs such as ASEAN, the G77, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organisation of Islamic Nations and most recently, the G22 at the latest WTO talks at Cancun.

Civil rights

However, under Mahathir, freedom of expression and freedom of the press were curtailed. Movies were heavily censored and even banned for containing elements considered incompatible with Asian and Islamic values, and the media has become little more than a propaganda tool. A culture of self-censorship evolved, partly because of the potentially harsh penalties for sedition; Mahathir was known to use the Internal Security Act (ISA) imposed by the British during the communist insurgency of the 1950s and 1960s, which suspends the writ of habeas corpus, for those who were critical of his rule. Opposition figures are known to have been jailed by Mahathir when he thought they were getting too far out of line, and an independent Internet news site, Malaysiakini, once had its servers confiscated and website temporarily shut down for 24 hours [3]. All of the servers were eventually returned to Malaysiakini [4] [5].


In 2002, a tearful Mahathir announced his resignation to a surprised UMNO General Assembly. He was persuaded to stay on for a further eighteen months, in a carefully planned handover that ended in October 2003. On his retirement he was granted Malaysia's highest honour, which entitles him to the title Tun.

Shortly before leaving office, Mahathir sparked off a fierce controversy when he called on Muslim leaders at the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) summit to "fight back against their Jewish oppressors" who "ruled the world by proxy". [6] HOWEVER, he also mentioned:" We also know that not all non-Muslims are against us. Some are welldisposed towards us. Some even see our enemies as their enemies. Even among the Jews there are many who do not approve of what the Israelis are doing."

His comments were widely criticized in the West, but the issue was ignored in Asia and Islamic countries, which felt that his remark had been taken out of context. Mahathir later defended his remarks, saying "I am not anti-Semitic ... I am against those Jews who kill Muslims and the Jews who support the killers of Muslims." He tagged the West as "anti-Muslim", for double standards by "protecting Jews while allowing others to insult Islam." also mentioning “But when somebody condemns the Muslims, calls my prophet ’terrorist’, did the European Union say anything?" [7] In 2004, he stated that both Bush and Kerry avoided certain acts due to concerns that they would "annoy the Jewish group."


Largely due to the economic development of the country, which by and large has benefited all races, Mahathir left behind a peaceful, prosperous, and self-confident Malaysia, for which he has been granted the soubriquet of Bapa Kemodenan (Father of Modernisation).

However, he has also left behind few competitive entrepreneurs due to his heavily statist policies, much factional infighting in political parties, increased racial polarisation, and an entrenched system of corruption and cronyism. Since his resignation, there are signs that his influence is on the wane, notably the cancellation of a Mahathir-approved double tracking rail project on grounds of cost and the arrest of several of his cronies, most notably former Perwaja Steel boss Eric Chia, on grounds of corruption.

Moreover, his policies also came with a significant cost which Malaysians were reluctant to address as long as Mahathir was in control: the consequent distortion of freemarket dynamics is said to have fostered favoritism and inefficiency. Due to his statist policies along with the effects of the New Economic Policy, Malay-owned companies, resting on lavish government aid and subsidies, are extremely uncompetitive in Malaysia itself, let alone the world market.

Non-Malay firms, mostly owned by pro-Mahathir figures, have devoted most of their energies to trying to operate within this system as opposed to formulating and operating according to international uber-capitalism, which explains their lack of noticeable effect on the global business scene. In private, Malaysians dubbed the favored group the 'UMNO-putras' The extent to which cronyism is fostered is debated, but the perception of it led to the depreciation of the ringgit during the 1997 financial crisis, and eventually to Mahathir's loosened grip on the sources of power.

However, on a personal level, Mahathhir remains an inspiration to the younger Malaysian generation due to his leadership abilities and his no-nonsense demeanour.

Mahathir is the author of the following books:

  • The Malay Dilemma (1970)
  • The Pacific Rim in the 21st Century (1995)
  • The Challenges of Turmoil (1998)
  • A New Deal for Asia (1999)
  • Islam & The Muslim Ummah (2001)
  • Globalisation and the New Realities (2002)
  • Reflections on Asia (2002) ISBN 967978813X

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Last updated: 06-02-2005 03:16:48
Last updated: 08-31-2005 23:54:09