Mahathir Mohammad : Reformer, Dictator & Legend
He is considered to be the architect of the Malaysian miracle and a strong-willed dictator, an ultra-Malay, an obsessed reformer, a humane founder of a new nation, and an obstinately intolerant person.
People well-acquainted with Dr. Mahathir Mohammad know that all these incompatible epithets belong to him. Above all, he is an effective manager on a global scale, he is exactly the type of man that the Islamic world lacks today. This year, the legendary prime minister celebrates his 90th anniversary.
Mahathir did not just turn a peripheral state into an “Asian tiger,” whose teeth were not taken out in the late 90s by the US despite its desperate attempts. He ranges with George Washington, Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela, and Alija Izetbegović, i.e. those without whom the emergence of entire nations would have been complicated to say the least.
Mahathir without exaggeration can be called the architect of the domestic and foreign policy of Malaysia, which was shaped into a distinctive and coherent doctrine of national development. Economic and socio-political models designed with his personal participation turned out to be extremely effective.
The Forward Leap
Mahathir was born in 1925 in the remote state of Kedah, Malaysia. He became interested in politics while still in school and became inspired by some historical figures since childhood. Oddly enough, Ataturk, Indonesia’s President Sukarno, and, of course, the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), are on the list.
Throughout his journey of life, Mahathir passed through all the stages of being a politician, a manager, and an economic executive: he was a deputy, a senator, and a minister. He headed the government in 1981 and remained at the helm almost until 2004.
Until Mahathir, Malaysia has only been associated with impassible jungle, swamps, exhausting work of the locals in the mines and on the plantations. Strictly speaking, the country is still a leading exporter of rubber and palm oil; yet, at the same time, it became a powerful industrial nation with a know-how economy capable of withstanding the strong competition with the West.
Under the leadership of prime minister Mahathir, Malaysia has become one of the world centers producing computers, electronics, and developing new technologies. Also, the globally known 88-story twin towers of the oil giant Petronas got into the Guinness Book of records and are the symbol of the country’s success.
Mahathir inherited a difficult legacy. Despite the availability of certain resources securing prosperity in the country, the burden of problems dragged the country down towards the bottom of the list of the club of failed states. The indigenous population, Muslim Malays, by the mid-20th century constituted an absolute minority on their land, 43 percent. Moreover, by the time the independence was gained from Britain in 1957, Muslim Malays were most backward among the population.
Naturally, Malaysians with Chinese and Indians origins, representatives of ancient and self-sufficient civilizations, would not “dissolve in the Malay milieu,” as advised by the Brits. On the other hand, the natives were persistent.
In such a way, the independent Malaysia that Mahathir got was a sort of a curse. The country had been swept by the conflicts and riots; national extremism grew all over and the divided society would eventually split. However, the solution was found.
Islam was declared the state religion and Malaysian — the only official language. But, this was not the key solution. An intercommunal compromise was fixed by the constitution, according to which a “positive discrimination” in business, education, and civil service for the Malays was introduced in exchange for the compliance with non-natives’ business interests.
Under Mahathir’s rule this policy successfully passed through the intercommunal crisis of 1969. The need for “positive discrimination” faded away, for the Malays eventually stood on an equal level with the rest. The dream of the Malaysian liberals who laid the new state was starting to come true, the dream of the superiority of meritocracy (rule by merit) over ethnocracy (rule of ethnic groups). In fact, Mahathir is this very meritocrat.
Islam as a Political Savior
In the 1970-80s, Malaysia was affected by the global process of impetuous Islamic revivalism. An open resistance to the so-called “Islamism” would become a political suicide; hence, prime minister Mahathir took a knight’s move: he led by heading the movement and forwarding it in the right direction.
Mahathir has always been emphasizing his commitment to Islam, but never excelled as a particularly religious personality; yet, the mid-80s, he acquired legitimacy in the eyes of the faithful.
Mahathir founds the International Islamic University, still one of the best in the world, and an Islamic bank. The schools, including Indian and Chinese, launched courses on the history of Islamic civilization. But the crux of the matter, Mahathir suddenly incorporated the elites of Islamic youth. The most staunch opponent of yesterday’s “godless policy,” Anwar Ibrahim, is appointed the deputy prime minister and even regarded as an unofficial successor to the head of the state.
By virtue of the keen-witted “secular Islamist,” the country was spared an acute religious and political problems raging in other Muslim countries.
Mahathir gave Islamic activism a luster of technocracy. He made the world believe that a man performing salah (Islamic prayer) can also be an “effective managers.” He is credited as a leader who diverted Muslims’ politics from the pursuit of salvation in medieval writings and utopias of global resistance to all the world, to opening up to the modern world with its achievements.
Under the guidance of Mahathir, Anwar Ibrahim transformed from a young radical into a reputable politician and a talented financier.
Anwar explicitly offered the prime minister to follow the path of his Indonesian counterpart Suharto, i.e. to step down. A “whizz-kid” of Islamic activism, an intellectual, and a favorite of the press, Anwar received the support of the West and Malaysian youth. His denunciation of the tough, verging on authoritarianism policy of the prime minister Mahathir is reverberated everywhere.
Ibrahim’s stench opposition to Mahathir’s policies ended up with his arrest for a forged case. Until now, the legendary politician could not regain his positions, while Mahathir ultimately failed to find a worthy successor.
For a long period Mahathir could not check out, for, as he acknowledged, there was no one to entrust the country to. However, the system, crafted by Mahathir, proved its effectiveness. Until today, it is fully functional without individual-adjusted “manual control.”
Nationalist and Multiculturalists
Mahathir’s nationalism is not well conceived outside the country. His idea is service to the people, rather than fostering illusion of dominance over the neighbors. That is why in 1965 he actively supported the secession of Singapore, a Malay territory with Chinese ratio constituting 80 percent of the population.
Likewise, he always opposed the integration with culturally close Indonesia, which is a popular idea among Islamic activists. Similarly, Mahathir showed no ambition even with regard to the oil-rich Brunei.
Mahathir did a fundamental reformation of the Malaysian community. Oddly enough, it was a nationalist who built a well-balanced multicultural society in Malaysia.
Mahathir reanimated the Non-Aligned Movement, which had already passed into history along with the Cold War. He emphasized the role of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In 2000, the OIC named Malaysia “a model of Muslim governance and leadership.” Mahathir gave special attention to the Asia-Pacific region and consistently advocated the development of relations with Russia.
Yet, his foreign policy was always subordinated to a main purpose: ensuring domestic growth and protecting the country’s economy.
Mahathir’s relations with the West have always been complicated. He publicly stated that the globalization praised by the US and the EU was unsuitable for Malaysia, since it threatened the state with impoverishment. However, at the end, that was him, an apologist of protectionism, who turned the country into one of the most open, globalized, and democratic countries in the Islamic world. In his view, Western foreign policy dictated by its self-interest is not the same as its domestic system, let’s say in the US or Europe.
Mahathir is an effective manager on a global scale. This kind of people, people of action, are the most needed for the Ummah. Not romantic orators, not distracted theoreticians, but those capable of converting our resources, passions, and spontaneous intellectual seething into real political, economic, scientific, technological, and eventually civilizational achievements.
By Abdullah Rinat Muhametov
PhD — Russia