Despite a controversial career in politics, Datuk Seri Mahathir bin Mohamad (born 1925) became prime minister of Malaysia in 1981 and then won three consecutive elections. He is listed as the 41st oldest office-holders among the worldwide leadership.
One of the most distinctive of Prime Minister Mahathir's characteristics, his imposing titles notwithstanding, was that he was the first chief executive of Malaysia to come from a modest social background. Whereas the first three prime ministers were members of the "royal families" which gave Malay society its elitist—some would say feudal—quality, Mahathir was the son of a school teacher. His childhood experiences in Alor Star, the provincial capital of Kedah state, included selling fried bananas in the public market.
Just as his relatively humble origins probably would explain his failure to qualify for legal studies in Great Britain, they also may help account for his aggressive, even abrasive, approach to politics. And even though his style was notably "un-Malay," it was used by Mahathir to champion more pro-Malay policies than those advocated by his predecessors. In a political system dominated by conflict between large Chinese and Indian minorities and an "indigenous" Malay majority, it was above all Mahathir's commitment to Malay interests which shaped his career as physician, author, and party and government leader.
Born on December 20, 1925, Datuk Seri Mahathir Mohamad attended a Malay school in Sebrang, Perak, before enrolling in Sultan Abdul Hamid College in Alor Star. When subsequently he went to Singapore for medical studies, at the University of Malaya he already had established a pattern of participation in literary and nationalist study and discussion groups, and he soon developed a reputation as a bold and skillful debater. Nevertheless, he devoted the first decade of his post-graduate life to medicine, first in government service on Langkawi Island and then in private practice beginning in 1957. His status as one of very few Malay doctors contributed to his popularity and success when he first won a seat in the national parliament in 1964.
Even before that first campaign, and certainly after, Mahathir's political identity was closely associated with the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the dominant political party in Malaysia. It was thus a particularly crucial moment in his career when he was expelled from the party in 1970. The forced vacation from politics gave Mahathir time to complete a controversial book, The Malay Dilemma, in which he advanced provocative generalizations about the temperament and character of Malay and Chinese populations. It also greatly elevated his political profile.
Although Mahathir previously had been associated with the "ultra" faction of youthful and chauvinistic UMNO members of Parliament, the immediate cause of the expulsion was his harsh criticism of Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman in the aftermath of serious interethnic violence in May 1969. A personal but widely distributed letter calling on the Tengku to resign was more than party leaders could bear. But at the same time the party was forcing Mahathir out, it was formulating a 20-year economic program, the New Economic Plan, which emphasized nurturance and protection of Malay interests along lines Mahathir already favored.
Before his standing in UMNO was restored in early 1972, Mahathir published The Malay Dilemma. The book was widely interpreted as a brief for Malay privilege, but its message included some sweeping cultural and even genetic arguments which were not always clear and convincing. He contended the Malays are the "definitive race" in Malaysia, and they had a right to expect the other ethnic groups to assimilate linguistically and, to some extent, culturally. Shortly after the book appeared it was banned on the ground it might rouse communal antagonism; the book and its author thus gained in notoriety, even though the book's message was at times contradictory and confusing.
After his rehabilitation in the party, Mahathir began a rapid ascent through the ranks of the government. In June 1972 he was the leading vote-getter in the election of UMNO's Supreme Council. Two years later he was named to the cabinet as minister of trade and industry and then as minister of education, a position that each previous prime minister had occupied. When he became deputy prime minister in 1976 his prospects to succeed Tun Hussein Onn as chief executive improved even as his extremist image subsided somewhat.
Mahathir's succession to the leadership of UMNO and the government occurred in 1980 when Tun Hussein Onn resigned for reasons of ill health. Parliamentary elections in the next year consolidated his victory. Because he displayed a close working relationship with his deputy prime minister and former "ultra" associate, Musa Hitam, his administration initially, and generally approvingly, was labeled the "Two-M" administration. Their strong personalities and differences on some policy issues, however, led to Musa's vexed resignation from the government in 1986. UMNO and its United Front allies did quite well in elections held later in the year, but Musa's defection foretold growing discontent within UMNO. In 1988 another former Mahathir ally, Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah, formed a rival Malay party which loomed as a significant challenger to UMNO.
Dissidence with UMNO and in Malaysian politics in general is complex, involving personalities as well as disagreements over various issues. While many of Mahathir's policies were controversial, most withstood the scrutiny and criticism of opponents rather well. The Malaysian economy rebounded from a slow period in the early 1980s. Malays continued to benefit from the implementation of the New Economic Policy, but its application was pragmatic enough to allow a continuing substantial role for Chinese entrepreneurs and, especially at the end of the 1980s, foreign investment. In exhorting Malaysians to "look east" Mahathir was asking them to emulate the Japanese, Koreans, and Taiwanese more than some wanted. And his harsh denial of the legitimacy of some forms of dissent and opposition, as expressed especially in the draconian arrest and detention of 106 varied political and social activists in 1987, prompted considerable domestic and foreign criticism.
Said criticism was reflected in the July 1997 visit of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Kuala Lumpur by his decrying of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Declaration was one of the founding documents of the world body and states the inalienable rights of the individual and equal protection before the law.
The Universal Declaration, he told the New Straits Times on the eve of the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was an "oppressing" instrument by which the United States and other countries tried to impose their values on Asians, who would prefer to be undisturbed while they concentrate on economic development. Referring to his and other poor nations, the prime minister said, "We need a government which is stable to develop our country and provide the basic needs of our people."
Mahathir was only the latest Asian leader to defend so called Asian values against the West's supposedly universal principles. Singapore's patriarch, Lee Kwan Yew, is fond of similar pronouncements, which have won him admiration in Beijing especially. In 1993 Asian leaders banded together to issue the Bangkok Declaration, which said they should be free from outside pressure to democratize. "All countries have the right to choose their own systems and values, and other countries have no right to interfere," said a Chinese official at the time.
Mahathir didn't specify which practices condemned by the Universal Declaration were needed for economic growth. The real flaw in Mahathir's argument was the idea that democracy and human rights were bizarre Western fetishes with no appeal to Asians. As an example, Aung San Suu Kyi was a threat to the Burmese military junta not because she was popular in the West but because she had a large following of Burmese who wanted a voice in governing themselves. The Chinese Communists imprisoned prodemocracy dissidents out of fear that those values would resonate with ordinary Chinese. Asians were naturally drawn to the idea they should be allowed to read uncensored books and newspapers, discuss political issues among themselves, worship according to their own faith and be entitled to a fair trial. They had no trouble comprehending the idea of the consent of the governed. Even so, Mahathir Mohamad's ruling coalition was swept back into power in the elections of 1990.
In 1956 Mahathir married another medical doctor, Siti Hasmah binti Haji Mohamad Ali. They had three sons and two daughters. A heart bypass operation in 1989 at age 63 was successful, and Prime Minister Mahathir continued to be an expansive, activist leader of his party and government in the late 1990s.
While there is some doubt as to the continuing relevance of the book The Malay Dilemma, published in Singapore (1970), it provides some insight into Mahathir's thinking. Malaysian politics during the period of that book's prominence are covered in Karl von Vorys, Democracy Without Consensus (1975). Another treatment is provided by John Funston, Malay Politics in Malaysia: A Study of UMNO and PAS (1980). Mahathir's policies are reviewed in Ethnicity and the Economy: The State, Chinese Business, and Multinationals in Malaysia (1989) by James Jesudason.