Mahatir, Malaysia, China, Barison Nasional, Vision 2020, Internal Security Act

An aristocrat of aged 92, who is an authoritarian for some and an elected autocrat for many, Mahatir Bin Mohamad has been elected as the Prime Minister of Malaysia again. Mahatir became world’s eldest Prime Minister after he overthrew the regime of Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition who reigned for 61 years. An eloquent orator, Mahatir, throughout his premiership, possessed three leadership qualities that are essential for every leader in Malaysia’s culture; Zhi (wisdom), Xin (trust) and Xiao (filial piety, to be obedient and respect parents); while only filial (piety) is the common norm among Malaysians and Chinese. Not only did Mahatir explicitly represent these values in his speeches, but also reflected them through his political and personal activities during his regime. In this article, we shall attempt to extrapolate the political trajectory of Mahatir in light of his nationalist foreign policy and from the socio-economic and political aspects.


In the year 1969, at the start of his political career, Mahatir wrote an open letter against the Prime Minister of his own party Tunku Abdul Rahman and asked him to resign from the office on the accusations that he failed to include the native Malays in economic activities like trade and commerce. This action led to Mahatir’s expulsion from the party.

It is to be noted that at the time of inception of Malaysia in 1957, the Malays comprises 55 per cent of the population while the Chinese and Indians were 35 and 10 per cent respectively. Due to prodigious exodus of the Chinese from Singapore, the number of Chinese soared to 40 per cent of the total population in Malaysia. This demographic trend seriously jeopardized the economic and social prospects of native Malays which led to subsequent violence and social unrest.

After racial riots between Chinese and Malaysians on 13th May, 1969, nationalist Mahatir penned a controversial book in 1970 called ‘The Malay Dilemma’ in which he articulated that Malays could not compete with Chinese due to genetic reasons. Chinese were used to hardships of climates. In stark contrast, Malays were lethargic due to plethora of available food in tropical region. Due to this, Malays should have been awarded top positions and compulsory ownership of business entities as well as favored treatment in institutions of education, the military, the police and bureaucracy via an administrative affirmative act otherwise their socio-economic suicide was unavoidable.

The 20 years of Mahatir in the office are the lynchpin of Malaysia’s development. To turn Malaysia from an agro-based economy to an industry-based one; and cultivate an Asian Silicon Valley in Malaysia is no small feat. These socio-economics goals were not possible without the active involvement of Chinese entrepreneurs of the country. Therefore, Mahatir realized very soon that isolating the Chinese would not be wise because of their entrepreneur skills.

Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) also served as catalyst for increasing the authoritarian grip of Mahatir. In 1996, opposition parliamentarian Lim Guan Eng was tried for ‘false reporting’ which involved criticism of a member of UMNO regarding rape allegations. Moreover, Irene Fernandez, the Director of Women’s and Migrants’ Rights Organization at the time Tenaganita, was also sentenced to a year in prison. Harakah Daily, the PAS-run newspaper, was also accused of breaching the conditions of its publishing license by selling the paper to non-PAS members, which paved way for BN to lose ground to Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) in November 1999 election.

It was an international committee of experts, including Bill Gates who made Mahatir realize that in order to attract foreign investment, it is imperative for citizens to have access to news. Consequently, the freedom of media was ensured by his government as the stance towards press freedom was moderated.

Mahatir’s rhetoric portrays him as a vanguard of eastern and Islamic values but he also criticized Muslim orthodoxy. Recently, he criticized the Sharia law formulated by Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) in Kelantan state in 1993. He stated that some religious clerics turned Islam into an inflexible faith by using Hadith as a primary source. Due to his nationalistic approach and efforts to protect Malay’s right, he was applauded by his people, who neglected the negatives like curtailment of the freedom of expression and other dictatorial methods of social governance.

Authoritatian Politics

Unambiguously, the 20th century was the century of democracy as many newly born states earned freedom from colonial empires and stepped towards democracy. But on the other hand, it was also the century of authoritarians as some of the new-born states slid into authoritarianism such as China, Libya, Cuba, Russia and Syria. However, Mahatir was in a league of his own as he was portrayed by many as an elected dictator. This is why Malaysia’s political culture witnessed a seismic change as it moved toward more centralization and authoritarianism. The reason behind this was the coherence of Mahatir’s political rhetoric and his view that a multi-ethnic society like Malaysia could only be sustained through controlled democracy.

In 1972, Prime Minister Razak took him back in the party and he was made the Minister of Education. Mahatir, now in the power corridors, vigorously showed up his authoritarian approach by amending University and University Colleges Act (1971). The act was amended to the U & UC Act (1975), to consolidate the government power over universities and colleges along with tightening the hold on student activities.

In addition to this, Mahatir strove hard to contain corruption as well as to curtail power of sultans during the first phase of his reign. At that time Malaysia had nine sultans who were deemed guardians of the culture and religion of the ethnic-Malay majority. In 1984, lower and upper houses of the Parliament passed the law which amputated the power of veto of sultans. They were also immune from prosecution while it was also removed in 1993. It was a glimpse of what was about to come. Mahatir started gaining significant influence and his decisions started increasingly being made on impulse with little consultation with his companions. His political colleagues were supposed to play ball to his wishes.

After racial riots between Chinese and Malaysians on 13th May, 1969, nationalist Mahatir penned a controversial book in 1970 called ‘The Malay Dilemma’ in which he articulated that Malays could not compete with Chinese due to genetic reasons.

Proliferation of his power was not only limited with sultans as the judiciary also felt the dupe of Mahatir’s curse of authoritarianism. In 1988, the Prime Minister dismissed the Lord President (Chief Justice) of the time, Tun Salleh Abbas after he accepted a suit by 11 members of Mahathir’s own party over the legitimacy of the 1987 UMNO elections. In 1999-2000, courts sentenced Mahathir’s main rival Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to consecutive prison terms of 15 years in total for corruption and sodomy respectively.

Moreover, Mahatir consistently used Internal Security Act (ISA) to extensively detain political rivals and human rights activists. The detention of 106 human rights defenders and political activists in October and November 1987 during Operation Lalang is a testimony to this. Furthermore, in order to grant legal immunity to ISA, a provision was included in the act named ‘provision 8-b’, which eliminated the possibility of judicial review of ISA decision. ISA was also used in case of Ibrahim Anwer.

Mahatir brutally used the draconian Police Act, under which, protest and rallies required a police permit and unauthorized public gatherings could face forced dispersion by police. The movement of ‘reformasi’; launched for the release of Anwer Ibrahim in 1999, 2000 and 2001 was treated with tear gas, chemical-laced water cannons and baton charges. Mahathir’s career has been fraught with such ironies.

Certainly, Mahatir had a sensational political career as he crushed his political opponents one by one and made each and every pillar of the government pliant to his will. But this also served as a fundamental reason of why he failed to announce his successor. He seemingly chose to neglect a core political wisdom that only economic growth cannot be taken as the only solution for nation building. Rather, nation building is done by diversifying ideas in national discourse which is only possible with freedom of expression, which makes a nation strong and cohesive.

Mahatir’s Economic Vision

Mahatir also led the paradigm shift in the economy as he shifted it from an agriculture to an industrial one. This economic shift also earned Mahatir a favourable reputation across the world. He opted for a neo-liberal economic framework in the case of Malaysia’s development. Malaysia’s 900-odd state firms produced almost half of the GDP but with privatization in the 1980s, the number has been reduced to a manageable 150. He aggressively privatized 250 state run companies as well.

In 1991, at the start of the Sixth Malaysia Plan, Mahatir introduced the ‘vision 2020’. At that time the GDP of Malaysia was $115 billion. According to the vision, by 2020 the target for the GDP was set to be around $920 billion.

He listed nine challenges to achieve under this vision to make Malaysia – a developed country.

  • The first; establishing a united Malaysian nation comprising of one Bangsa Malaysia (dedicated to the nation)
  • The second; create a psychologically liberated, secure and developed Malaysian society
  • The third; fostering and cultivating a mature democratic society
  • The fourth; constructing a fully moral and ethical society
  • The fifth; constructing a matured liberal and tolerant society
  • The sixth; establishing a scientific and progressive society
  • The seventh; establishing a fully caring society
  • The eight, ensuring an economically just society
  • The ninth, establishing a prosperous society with an economy that is fully competitive, dynamic, robust and resilient

During his government, rural development witnessed neglectfulness, in stark contrast urban development saw rapid development. By 1992, agricultural output was just 17 per cent and industry had risen to 29.3 per cent of national output. Kuala Lumpur, before Mahatir, had just four rows of small wooden shops. Local laborers travelled as far as 15 miles on rutted roads to buy anything. The streets were deserted at sundown. But during Mahatir’s era, Malaysia has witnessed phenomenal growth in infrastructure.

Moreover, Mahatir consistently used Internal Security Act (ISA) to extensively detain political rivals and human rights activists. The detention of 106 human rights defenders and political activists in October and November 1987 during Operation Lalang is a testimony to this.

It was in Mahatir’s era that one of the world’s tallest buildings – the Patronas Towers – was constructed. Besides this, numerous infrastructural development projects were also undertaken including the North-South Expressway, the Sepang International Circuit, the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), the Bakun hydroelectric dam.

Mahatir realized that austerity policy suggested by International Monetary Fund (IMF) was not apt for the country and following the IMF’s path was similar to an economic suicide. He continued with investments in public works programs. This was the bone of contention between Mahatir and his trained successor, Finance Minister Anwer Ibrahim which subsequently compelled Mahatir to execute him.

The manufacturing sector of the GDP enlarged from 6.7 per cent in 1960 to 27 per cent in 1990 in the light of extension of textiles production, cars and electronic items. Major exports of Malaysia in 2007 were electronics, electrical machinery, chemical products, palm oil and crude oil, which were exported to top five trading partners; US, Singapore, Japan, China and Thailand.

He used trickle down economic model for the country’s growth by privatization of state entities and rapid development of infrastructure, and timely investment in technology. Miraculously, it succeeded and set an example for many new-born countries which earned freedom of same colonial empires.

Nationalist Foreign Policy

Nationalist Mahatir opted a nationalist foreign policy to make Malaysia a prominent country in international politics. Mahatir’s rhetoric was not soft towards the West and Israel. He diligently criticized Europe for their lust of power and resources and highlighted their covetousness for war. Moreover, Mahatir is applauded all over the Muslim world because of his anti-Jewish rhetoric. He even criticized them for proliferation of the idea of communism to control the economies of under-developed countries.


Amazingly spry at the age of 92, Mahatir has great situational awareness. He stated that being a lynchpin of the Chinese One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, Malaysia has to keep check on China and that it will not embrace Chinese immigration under the auspices of this project. He also expressed his concerns towards Chinese loans. He stressed that they should think hard on how to repay the loans rather than just see the pretentious side of the projects.

In conclusion, Mahatir, who may never be an eminent or most-talked-about leader, is prudent enough to know that he is short of time and he will be in the office for only two years. In the first week in his office, he took avant-garde steps to counter the corruption. He questioned the Attorney General for clearing Najib on 1MDB scandal. He also launched the probe into the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to shun the corruption during election campaign. Election commission was already asked for manipulating the result in Sabah state. He announced that he will have a cabinet of only 10 Ministers, surprisingly with Rural Development Ministry. This means that now he will try to make balance between rural and urban development.

Indeed, it is the first time that he will rule with a coalition. So how can one accept that he will be lenient with his coalition partner, seeing his past endeavors to counter his subordinates, aides and others institutions. There is still a question mark over whether he will keep his words to hold office only for two years or will he crush the coalition in the pursuit of absolute influence. Only time will tell.

Bilal Ahmed

Bilal Ahmed

has done his Masters in Public Administration with Specialization in Human Rights, and Human Resource Management. His areas of interest are local politics, urban governance, human development, constitutional and administrative law, and human rights.

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    Prof. Irfan Sheikh Reply

    June 13, 2018 at 10:55 am

    I really appreciate your effort. Keep writing and keep it up. well done

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