Malaysia’s Mercurial Dr. Mahathir
The Wall Street Journal, Jan 18 2010
By HAL HILL
Few countries have matched Malaysia’s stellar record of development over the last several decades: Annual GDP growth has averaged around 6.5% since independence in 1957, and the nation of 27 million people now boasts the world’s 31st-largest economy. But no discussion of this Southeast Asian nation’s economy would be complete without due attention to Mahathir bin Mohamad, who held the reins for 22 years from 1981 to 2003.
Dr. Mahathir’s personal story, as recounted in Barry Wain’s “Malaysian Maverick,” tracks the country’s broader post-war history. The prime minister’s origins wouldn’t necessarily have augured a great political future. Born in 1925 to parents of modest means, he grew up on the “poor side of the river” that bisected the town of Alor Star, in northern Malaysia. Of mixed Indian and Malay ancestry, he was a member of neither the Malay aristocracy nor the ethnic Chinese business class in a country where race did, and still does, significantly determine a person’s prospects.
As a child, he was driven, impatient, energetic and intelligent. His teenage years were overshadowed by war and the Japanese occupation, when he became a street hawker to eke out a living. Returning to school after the war, he excelled and found his way to Singapore to study medicine in 1947. He was stunned by the relative wealth and sophistication he found on the island, a stark contrast with colonial Malaya.
Returning home in 1953 to practice medicine, it was only a matter of time before politics beckoned. Dr. Mahathir entered Parliament in 1964, representing a local Kedah constituency for the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The ’60s were turbulent for the newly independent country: “Malaysia” was officially birthed in 1963 by combining Malaya with Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah, but in 1965 Singapore broke off as an independent city-state. Following the general election in May 1969, brief but vicious conflicts broke out between the Chinese and Malay communities. Dr. Mahathir also lost his seat at that election and, following some bitter political infighting, was expelled from UMNO.
His retreat from politics provided an opportunity to reflect more deeply on national issues. He penned “The Malay Dilemma,” arguing that the country’s ills resulted from the country’s extreme ethnic imbalances. The book was immediately banned, but it became an influential political document. It asserted that the Malays were the country’s original “definitive race” and that this should be embedded in national institutions and policies.
Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times
By Barry Wain
Palgrave MacMillan, 363 pages , £65
Dr. Mahathir was by now a national figure, and the departure of Malaysia’s founding prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, with whom he frequently quarreled, opened the way for his re-entry into politics in 1974. He quickly rose through the ranks, winning the premiership in 1981—the first “commoner” to hold the post. He quickly set about implementing his vision of modernization: developing a vibrant Malay business class while also embarking on a “Look East” strategy of heavy industrialization.
Dr. Mahathir saw himself as a nation builder and a champion of third-world causes. He liked to think big, whether it was the construction of the nation’s north-south highway stretching from Thailand to Singapore or the new capital he started at Putra Jaya. Inevitably, these and other projects became entangled within the complex web of UMNO money politics. They tended to be very expensive, rely on nontransparent bidding and favor contractors with ties to UMNO. But the book presents little evidence that Dr. Mahathir saw these projects as vehicles for personal enrichment—even if it is alleged some of his cronies and family apparently did.
More than his economic program, however, Dr. Mahathir’s personality has attracted attention. As Mr. Wain makes clear, he displayed a well-developed authoritarian streak and a propensity to lock up dissidents. The most infamous of these was the jailing of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, in September 1998 on charges of financial and sexual improprieties, an event that deeply shocked the nation. Dr. Mahathir has denied the charges were politically motivated, and Mr. Anwar was later acquitted. The international media were also targeted, including this newspaper, which was banned for a period for its articles about the economy and then Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin.
This new biography contends that Dr. Mahathir cemented his rule in part by weakening institutions like the judiciary, media and professional civil service that could have challenged him. Although Dr. Mahathir contests that claim, he did introduce press controls, bypass the civil service with his own direct appointments and dismiss the lord president of the Supreme Court during the constitutional crisis of 1988. His personalization of power “cut Malaysia adrift institutionally,” Mr. Wain writes, rendering more difficult the country’s transition to modern statehood.
Mr. Wain’s book is biography at its best. The author, a former Journal editor and Malaysia bureau chief, builds on extensive interviews with Dr. Mahathir, his family and close associates. But Mr. Wain also gives plenty of airing to the critics, and he has meticulously sifted through the Malaysian press, the scholarly literature and “underground” commentary, offering no fewer than 1,236 footnotes to support his rich narrative. The result is a balanced, comprehensive and nuanced study that apportions praise and criticism in equal measure. It replaces a much earlier work, Khoo Boo Teik’s 1995 “Paradoxes of Mahathirism” as the seminal study of Dr. Mahathir.
Yet Mr. Wain could have stepped back a little more and asked whether Dr. Mahathir fundamentally changed the course of Malaysian economic development. Under his leadership growth was no more impressive than under his three predecessors or two successors. Arguably, Malaysia’s growth record is attributable more to the country’s consistent openness and prudent macroeconomic management—it has never suffered the fiscal crises, hyperinflation, financial collapses that have afflicted other developing countries—combined with its rich natural resources.
While this debate deserves more attention, Mr. Wain’s important biography sheds light on a fascinating character. As the winds of reformasi and the inexorable rise of the Internet pry open the country’s controlled print and television media, there will likely be further revelations about the tight nexus between politics and money that flourished under his rule.
Mr. Hill is the H.W. Arndt professor of Southeast Asian economies at Australian National University.