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May 23, 2018

Mahathir Mohamad: An enduring national hero, cultural role model and world-class politician

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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During the 1980s I was privileged to contribute to Malaysia's ambitious plan to become a world class center for microchip design and manufacturing.

It was an exciting time to witness a developing nation – once a third-world agricultural backwater famous only for rubber exports – emerge with such determination and confidence into the high-tech era. Then, as now, I wished that my birth country of Egypt had done the same.

I was especially excited and inspired at meeting then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his wife over supper with leaders in the Malaysian microelectronics industry.

My fascination with the man and his vision inspired me to follow his political career and to study the nation’s complex history, including its colonization and exploitation by European and Japanese imperial powers.

My reading journey included some of Mahathir Mohamad’s own books, including his recent 1000-page memoir, A Doctor in The House (2011), written following his first term (1981-2003) at his country’s helm. At 22 years, it still stands as the longest consecutive period of prime ministerial service in Malaysia’s history. 

The “Doctor” in the title refers back to Mohamad’s parallel profession as a medical doctor, and the “House” is of course the institution of Parliament, since he spent several terms as an elected member, cabinet minister (especially education and trade portfolios), and deputy PM (from 1976) before taking on Malaysia’s top governmental job.

He began his political career with the United Malay National Organisation Party (UMNO) at the young age of 21 in 1946 – the same year he graduated from secondary school after his education was interrupted by WWII.

Mohamad married a fellow medical student in 1956, and in Kedah in 1957 he established a thriving medical clinic parallel to his political career. He was first elected to parliament representing his home state of Kedah in 1964 at the age of 39.

In 1969 he was expelled from UMNO after writing an open letter critical of then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

The following year in 1970 he wrote a controversial book fueled by his experiences as an opposition politician, called The Malay Dilemma. In it, he argued that the country's Malay population had been marginalized, but also castigated them for apathetically accepting their second-class status. Mohamad was elected as PM for the first time in 1981 and continued as his country’s popular leadership choice for more than two decades.

“This is the story of Malaysia as I see it. This is also my story,” he wrote in his memoir. “I have written about the wisdom of our founding fathers who crafted a political system that has enabled the country to democratically and peacefully resolve the problems and challenges inherent in a complex society.”

Over the years, some Western media have labelled him a racist and dictator, due in large part to his adamant pro-Malay advocacy. But Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (as he is respectfully known at home) has also been heralded as a visionary champion and a rare role model in leadership who has given every Third World or developing country good reasons to stand tall and work hard to join the so-called “first” world.

He is credited for improving relationships with Malaysia’s neighbors, especially Thailand to the north and the island state of Singapore to the south. The result has been steady growth in trade and commerce. Today Malaysia enjoys one of the highest living standards in Asia, supported by full employment and good education and health care systems.

It was during the 1990s, one of the busiest periods in Mahathir Mohamad’s tenure, that Malaysia emerged as an Asian economic tiger, fueled by ambitious prestige projects such as the Multimedia Super Corridor and the Petronas Twin Towers.

Kuala Lumpur, once a virtually unknown capital of 300,000 when the modern Federation of Malaysia declared independence in 1957, has transformed over the intervening six decades into a cosmopolitan city of more than two million.

“I played some part in all this,” Mohamad humbly writes, “but it would be remiss of me not to credit my predecessors for Malaysia’s phenomenal progress. They set the foundation – and I only built on it. Without sound judgment and foresight, my task would be significantly harder.”

  1. But his political life has not been without its challenges and regrets. When Mohamad retired as PM in 2003 at age 78, he supported the elevation of Abdullah Ahmed Badawi followed by Najib Razak as his successors. He called the move to support Razak “the biggest mistake in my life” and after some 15 years out of the political spotlight, he came out of retirement determined to set things right.   

On May 9 2018, Malaysians held the 14th general election in their nation’s history, once again choosing Mahathir Mohamad (now 92) and his new coalition of four former opposition parties. Their election win was doubly historic: Mohamad’s coalition overthrew a ruling alliance that had spent 61 years in power, and he became the world’s oldest serving Prime Minister.

Prior to the election, he stated his intention to stay in office for only two years before handing the country’s top job over to the coalition's currently jailed leader, Anwar Ibrahim who walked free after being granted a Royal Pardon on May 23, 2018.

So, for the next two years Malaysia – and the world – will watch with great anticipation and interest to see how successfully this energetic and not-yet-retired “doctor in the house” can cure the ills of a nation he left too long in the care of others.

Knowing the passion and determination of a man who began as the youngest of nine children born to an impoverished rural high school principal and who rose to one of the most influential political posts in modern Asian history, I’m convinced Mahathir Mohamad will do it.

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