globe Asia Times Online
  March 22, 2001  

Search button Letters button Editorials button Media/IT button Asian Crisis button Global Economy button Business Briefs button Oceania button Central Asia/Russia button India/Pakistan button Koreas button Japan button Southeast Asia button China button Front button

Southeast Asia

What if Dr Mahathir is right?

By Marie-Sybille de Vienne

1. A Malaysian modern leader?

Malaysia's long-serving Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad (1), was born on December 20, 1925 in Alor Setar, the capital of the state of Kedah (looking over the Indian Ocean, on the borders between Thailand and Malaysia), where his father taught at the Malaysian primary school (2).

He went to school in his home town, firstly at the Malaysian school, then at a boarding school founded by the reigning sultan, Abdul Ahmid. His father being rather strict, he spent his time reading. Indeed, he ran the college library and acquired a solid general culture (3), which served as a prelude to a brilliant university career. Like many cultivated young Malaysians, he joined the United Malay National Organization (Umno) from its creation (1946). This party aimed at defending Bramiputra's (indigenous children's) interests against the other ethnic groups, particularly the Asians and the British, whose views about Malaysian independence threatened the traditional referents of Malay political identity, sultanates, by putting forward a multiethnic state.

Mahathir's "modernist populist" conscience emerged together with his political involvement in his community: In 1947 he won a place to study medicine and qualified in 1952. At first an assistant physician, he obtained a post in his town (1954). Later, he married a colleague, Dr Hasmah (4), daughter of a Muslim dignitary, and eventually set up private practice (1957).

Finally, freed from material concerns, Mahathir could develop his political choices within the Umno. Becoming gradually known by the members of the upper class frequenting his practice, he began to manifest a growing interest for international affairs at a moment when the place and future of Malaya in the region took the center stage in political debate. When a deep regional crisis exploded because of the annexation by the Malay federation of Singapore and the two British territories of Sarawak and Sabah, he appeared as the perfect man to represent Malaysia at the United Nations (1963).

His political ascension thus started. From the beginning he presented himself as the champion of Malaysian national identity. In 1964 he was elected Member of Parliament (for Umno) in Kota Setar (5), then in 1965 he became part of the ruling circles of the Umno. In this position he directly participated in the decision to expel Singapore and to erode the socio-economical rights of the Chinese minority (6), who did not forget it. They indeed made life increasingly difficult for the coalition government Umno-MCA (Malayan Chinese Association) (7) and radicalized both electorates: the Chinese electorate turned its back on the MCA, and part of the Malays (8), considering the government too soft with the Chinese, did so with the Umno. At the 1969 elections, Mahathir lost his seat and went back to anonymity. He exited the political scene powerless, with no legal means to resume his political career and, what is more, at a moment when the government, faced with the gravity of the anti-Chinese clashes, suspended Parliament.

Mahathir risked everything with a media coup: in the name of "malayty" he published Dilema Melayu (The Malay Dilemma) (9), so iconoclastic a description of the Malaysian cultural profile that the book was immediately censored, but enjoyed a great diffusion under the counter. Reinvigorated by this success, Mahathir stuck to Malaysian radicalism, attacking Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in an open letter for neglecting Bramiputra people. The coup succeeded: he became famous even though he was expelled from the party and had lost his means of political expression.

But Tunku Abdul Ahmal resigned; this eviction of one of the highest dignitaries on the political arena (10) opened the way for the Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak (11), a committed Malay. On assuming high office in 1970, the latter launched a campaign based on training and investments to promote the Malay ethnic group (12). His government needed new as well as experienced political personalities: the successful and popular Mahathir seemed the right choice. Mahathir was hence invited back into the party, and appointed head of the Council for Education.

Faced with the possibilities opened by this position, he took the risk of leaving his practice and launched into a successful career. He was appointed Senator (1973), President of the FMA (a Bramiputra organization for the development of the agro-industrial sector) (13), Member of Parliament (1974), this time for the constituency of Kubang Pasu (located in Kedah as well, and offered to him on a golden plate as he was the only candidate), Minister of Education (1974), Deputy Prime Minister (1976), Minister of Commerce and Industry, and Vice President of the Umno; finally, Prime Minister (1981), the office he still holds today.

2. An increasingly critical stance towards the West

Mahathir eventually fulfilled the role of a modern Malay, having managed both to remove the prerogatives of the traditional elites from Malay political life (by cutting back on sultans' attributions, in 1993) and to weaken the Chinese position in the economy. This modernity finds a further expression in his skills in using modern communication technologies (he has a web-site (14) and is responsible since February 1999 for a monthly review in one of the most important Japanese newspapers, the Mainichi Shimbun).

However, he also took the risk of opposing both the Malay elite and the Chinese communities. And he cannot expect any support from Muslim extremists, either. They are, in fact, his direct political rivals for they also aim at the Malay electorate. Hence, everything seems to lead him towards a Western model and vision (15). Yet, far from being an emulator of Western values, Mahathir has imposed himself as one of its main detractors, with aggressive as well as coherent diagnostics. During his political activity at the head of the country, he has developed his thesis in some 10 books: Challenge/ (1986) (16); Regionalism, globalism and sphere of influence (1989) (17) ; The voice of Asia; two leaders discuss the coming century, (18) with Ishihara Shintaro (1995) (19); Europe and the Islamic world: correcting perceptions, the way to better understanding (1998) (20); The way forward (1998) (21); The challenges of turmoil (1998) (22), and; A new deal for Asia (1999) (23).

The first book's topics are mainly economic and technical. Every time Malaysia has undergone an economic crisis, since 1985, the presumed adept of Anglo-Saxon methods pointed his finger at Western hegemony. World history is, according to him, "a series of conquests and subjugations by the strong over the weak", (24) the world economy being nothing but a power relation among diverging interests (25). Liberalization of capital (26) and goods (27) (which has nourished a "generalized monetary speculation") (28) has done nothing but reinforced Western supremacy, never as strong as today. Over the years, he has denounced a sociological manipulation: international institutions are structurally organized to maintain Western hegemony.

The winners of World War II have attributed to themselves a right of veto, which fundamentally contradicts the democratic functioning of the UN (29). Under the aegis of the UN, the West manipulates weapons, maintaining "a fear of a war, a clash between China and Japan, (30) which nourishes the arms race in Asia. The danger, however, does not come from there, as all the area's military budgets put together cannot compete with the US$265 billion of one Western country." (31)

According to Dr Mahathir, however, the worst manipulation is an ideological one. The West wants to impose, in fact, its own cultural paradigm on the rest of the world. (32) Yet the universality of its values is contradicted by the mere existence of Asian societies (33), and if put in their historical context, they would be rightly considered an historical accident. Western infallibility is all but against the facts: "We, the Malay people, would have remained a British colony had it not been for the Japanese conquest, which revealed that those who seemed invincible were not such. (34) At the end of the day, "the Western model will vanish just as those who preceded it."

"All systems, be they feudal, republican, capitalist, socialist, or communist, have been regarded as faith," and consequently any questioning of them was considered heresy. The reality is, however, that they have been questioned. The same destiny will "when the time is right, come for democracy" as for all human ideas: "All systems with which mankind thought to improve society were imperfect and became more so when clever people sanctified it." (35) To conclude, according to Mahathir, the West continues to put its hands on its presumed universality precisely because it is the only ideological instrument that is left to the only survivor of the Cold War: the West itself (36).

3. Who really is Dr Mahathir?

The apparent contradiction between the image of a modernist Malay politician, a pro-Westerner, and an increasingly anti-Western agenda remains to be explained. A first level of explanation could consist in the fact that the person Mahathir cannot be explained solely on the basis of his "malayty", his true character being much more complex.

Certainly, his mother was Malay, from Kedah, a region belonging at different times to the Siam area. But his father was Indian, which relates him to foreign minorities. This melting pot is reproduced in the following generation, as two out of five of his children married foreigners (37). To this, one must add a hybrid education in the name of modernity: Mahathir studied at the University of Malaya in Singapore, an English speaking but culturally Chinese territory, and attended a Harvard course on international affairs (1967). Moreover, he published in Malay as well as in English. His Muslim dimension too - which is more than evident when he calls himself Malay as all Malays are Muslim - should be understood as a sign of modernism.

At an Islamic conference he dared say that the reason for the lack of success of Islam's universalistic project lay in Muslim people themselves, adding that to prepare oneself for the other world while refusing education and science is one way to ignore Allah's will (38).

His diatribe with George Soros (39) is better explained by a desire to highlight the financial menace (40), rather than by anti-semitism (41). The latter is a general characteristic of every politician at the head of a Muslim country who, as such, must be officially anti-semitic ever since the creation of Israel.

Hence, behind a first impression of Dr Mahathir as modern Malay, there is a more complex man of networks, which far from being haphazard constitutes a sociological type, as old as the peninsula itself. In fact, by virtue of its geopolitical situation, Malaysia needs to operate a synthesis of the different influences it came in contact with in order to exist.

This situation mirrors the more general one of Southeast Asia. Mahathir thus plays the role of spokesperson of the area, with the mission of highlighting the strong threat represented by the US. To do this, he deliberately chooses provocation as his communication style, which for a small but rich country (a big oil exporter, with a stock market capital corresponding to half that of Germany, and above world average) is the surest, and safest, way to be heard. Japan, (the second world power and the first world creditor at the end of the last century) is in his eyes the perfect example for contradicting the universality of Western values and, as such, the perfect example of a modern Asian model. (Mahathir's father supported the India ultra-nationalist Bose, who fought with the Japanese during World War II.) (42)

Mahathir hence perfectly represents Southeast Asia, a structurally fragile region surrounded by three Empires, Indian, Chinese and Javanese (43). As a result, local identities underwent a two-fold process. On one hand, they became politically isolated, being attached to their cultural specificity. On the other, the integration of the area was possible thanks to Chinese, Indian, and Arab diasporas which controlled goods and capital circulation

To conclude, Mahathir appears neither histrionic nor a nationalist. He rather illustrates the situation of an area which, coming from a 50-year period of decolonization and more than a century of colonization, wants "to decide things for itself". (44) Taking as his the debate about Asian values, launched by Lee Kuan Yew at the beginning of the 1990s, he has won over other Asian countries. They indeed declared in Bangkok in 1994 (45) that "if unspecific human rights are universal, then one must consider them in a dynamic process of putting in place international norms, considering the regional and national particularism".

Moreover one must acknowledge that the attitude of Western propagandists nourishes Mahathir's irredentism, the former showing no complex whatsoever about their past as oppressors, and talking with great arrogance. Warren Christopher's words, uttered in the mid 1990s, perfectly illustrate the case: "There is only one way of acting which is acceptable on a world level, and the US will apply it in every country ... we cannot make of cultural relativism the last refuge of repression."


(1) The distinction between Malaya and Malaysia will be kept. The first corresponds to the federation of the States in the Malay Peninsula, which lasted from 1957 to 1962; the second was adopted when Singapore and two others states in Northern Borneo, Sarawak and Sabah joined the peninsula in 1963.

(2) At the end of World War II the situation in the peninsula was critical: it hosted three main ethnic groups, indigenous Malay (45 percent of the population), Chinese (35 percent) and Indian (15 percent). The Chinese community was mainly urban, and controlled the modern sectors of the economy; the majority of Malays were peasants; Indians were represented in the plantations and liberal professions. Moreover, while Chinese people organized a communist guerrilla to resist Japan during the war, Malaysians partly collaborated.

(3) "Dr Mahathir's world analysis", Mainichi Daily News, 6/04/1999,

(4) Hasmah's father, Mohamed Ali, was Head of the Department for Religious Affairs in the State of Selangor: Mahathir and Hasmah had three sons, Mirzan, Mokhzani and Mukhriz, and two daughters, Marina and Melinda; they also adopted two other children.

(5) One of the districts of the capital of Kedah; see Asean Who's who, Kuala Lumpur, Kasuya Publishing 1992, vol. 3.

(6) Malay became then the only national language and the Bramiputra businesses started receiving almost all available State funding.

(7) Founded in 1947.

(8) Including Sarawak and Sabah.

(9) The Malay dilemma, Singapore, D Moore for Asia Pacific Press, 1970.

(10) Tunku Abdul Rahman (1903-1990) was the son of the Sultan of Kedah and of his sixth wife, a Thai princess; see Tan Sri Datuk Mubin Sheppard, Tunku, his life and times: the authorized biography of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, Petaling Jaya, Pelanduk Publications, 1995; by Tunku himself, (with J S Solomon) Challenging times, Petaling Jaya, Pelanduk Publications, 1985; Lest we forget: further candid reminiscences, Petaling Jaya, Eastern Universities Press, 1983. During the Japanese occupation (during which the Japanese gave Kedah to Thailand), Tunku Abdul Rahman was appointed Supervisor of education, thus becoming the superior of Mahathir's father.

(11) Tun Abdul Razak (1922-1976), son of a Malaysian dignitary of Pahang (a sultanate on the Eastern coast of Malaysia), was a jurist who trained in London at the end of the 1940s, where he created the Malaysian Forum.

(12) Kumpalan Fiam bhd, a governmental agency with the task of developing the sector: it started in 1972 with pineapple plantations and was later privatized thanks to Bramiputra capital.

(13) The Malaysians' revenue was at that time less than 40 percent that of the Chinese, and their influence in the modernization process derisory (less than 2 percent against 36 percent, the rest remaining in the hand of Westerners).


(15) He ordered the construction of a Versailles replica by a French architect, in Putra Yava.

(16) The challenge, Petaling Jaya, Pelanduk Publications, 1986. (translated from the Malay Cabaran!).

(17) Regionalism, globalism, and spheres of influence: Asean and the challenge of change into the 21st century, Singapore, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1989.

(18) Mahathir Mohamad & Shintaro Ishihara, The voice of Asia: two leaders discuss the coming century, translated by F Baldwin, Tokyo & New York, Kodansha International, 1995.

(19) Ishihara, a strong nationalist, wrote with Akio Morita (founder of Sony) A Japan that can say no, why Japan will be first among equals, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1991; he was elected governor of Tokyo in 1999.

(20) Europe and the Islamic world: correcting perceptions, the way to better relations, Kuala Lumpur, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia, 1998.

(21) The way forward, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998 (deals with socio-economic relations among the different ethnic groups in Malaysia and with the "New Economic Policy", operative since 1970).

(22) The challenges of turmoil, Subang Jaya, Pelanduk Publications, 1998.

(23) A new deal for Asia, Subang Jaya, Pelanduk Publications, 1999.

(24) Ucapan Perdana Menteri (speech of the Prime Minister), opening session of International association of historians of Asia, July 27, 2000, Magellan Sutra Hotel, Kota Kinabalu.

(25) Ucapan Perdana Menteri, Tokyo, Speech for the 6th international conference on "The future of Asia" organized by the Nikkei Shimbun, September 6, 2000.

(26) Ucapan Perdana Menteri, Speech given in Maputo, Mozambique (one of the poorest countries in the world) for the conference "Global 2000 international smart partnership", August 21, 2000. In this occasion, Mahathir referred to financial markets traders as "cash cows".

(27) Daily transactions rose from $15 billion in 1973 to more than $900 billion in 1992. In 2000, these will amount to more than $1,000 billion a day; Ucapan Perdana Menteri, "Global 2000 international smart partnership", August 21, 2000.

(28) Hong-Kong, Annual meeting of the World Bank, September 20, 1997.

(29) Ucapan Perdana Menteri, International Association of Historians of Asia, July 27, 2000.

(30) Ucapan Perdana Menteri, "The future of Asia"; Mahathir's' position might be supported by the Pentagon report "Joint vision" 2025 (see Caracciolo and Korinman's article).

(31) Ucapan Perdana Menteri, "Towards Asian renaissance", New Asia Forum, Kuala Lumpur, November 1, 1996.

(32) "You must accept democracy and human rights, otherwise you will see how we, the democratic, will forcefully eliminate your rights and your freedom of self-determination." International Association of Historians of Asia, July 27, 2000.

(33) "Towards Asian renaissance".

(34) As above.

(35) "The future of Asia".

(36) International Association of Historians of Asia, July 27, 2000.

(37) His eldest son married a Chinese, related to Liem Sioe Liong (alias Sudono Salim) owner of the first Indonesian industrial conglomerate (Salim Group) and a Suharto partner; admittedly Mahathir was not enthusiastic about this marriage. His eldest daughter married in the 1980s a Frenchman working for Club Mediterranee.

(38) According to Mahathir, the process of industrialization failed because of divisions within the Islamic world, whereas a disproportionate focus on doctrinal questions put an halt to the cognitive process: see Ucapan Perdana Menteri, inaugurating speech for the 7th Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers, Kuala Lumpur, June 27, 2000 ; see also his Perspectives on Islam and the Future of Muslims, Kuala Lumpur, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (IKIM), 1993.

(39) Soros Quantum Investment Fund gained $1 billion in profits speculating with the pound in 1992: see BBC News, December 6, 1998, "Mr Soros has aspirations to be more than a speculator ..."; later the market turned his back on him as Mr Soros lost a large amount of money in 1998, forcing him to close a fund and restructure another one. Yet his book, The crisis of global capitalism, New York, Public Affairs, 1998, does not entirely contradict Dr Mahathir's views on financial matters (BBC News, December 4, 1998). However, this does not stop the two hating one another: Mr Soros publicly asked for Dr Mahathir's resignation.

(40) The crisis had as a consequence the eviction of the potential heir and Ministry of Finances Anwar Ibrahim: father of six, he was accused of corruption and sodomy, and sentenced to six years in jail in 1999.

(41) A strong feeling of anti-semitism gives to Mahathir a politically correct image: with regard to this, he prohibited S Spielberg's Schindler's List in 1993. cf. J Sikes & Pete Engardio, "Malaysia's Mahathir: leading a crusade against the west", Business Week, April 25, 1994.

(42) See the ambassador Ronald D Palmer, "Globalism vs. economic nationalism; the Southeast Asia case", American diplomacy, Subah Chandra Bose (1897-1945), was elected president of All India Trade Union Congress in 1938, with the explicit mission of combating the British. The following year, however, he broke with Gandhi, whom he found too conciliating. Bose founded the Forward Block and launched an anti-British campaign. He fled to Germany in January 1941, where he founded the Free India Center, then went to Southeast India. He became an ally of Japan, which in turn helped him organize a liberation army (Azad Hind Fauz) and install a provisional government in Singapore. This army managed to take over a part of British India (today Manipur, near Myanmar), thanks to the support of many Southeast Indians.

(43) See the Majapahit Empire (14-15th Centuries), around Java. It stretched over a great portion of today's Indonesia.

(44) Executive Intelligence Review, February 19, 1999, interview with Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad

(45) See Greg Sheridan, Asian values, Western dreams: understanding the new Asia, London, Allen & Unwin, 2000.

((c) Heartland. This version has been edited by Asia Times Online.)

Front | China | Southeast Asia | Japan | Koreas | India/Pakistan | Central Asia/Russia | Oceania

Business Briefs | Global Economy | Asian Crisis | Media/IT | Editorials | Letters | Search/Archive

back to the top

©2001 Asia Times Online Co., Ltd.
car rental, cheap car rental, alamo car rental, hertz car rental, avis car rental, sears car rental cheap hotel rooms, discount hotel rooms alamo car rental, hertz car rental, avis car rental, sears car rental, car rental, cheap car rental cheap airline tickets, discount airline tickets, airline tickets airline tickets, cheap airline tickets, discount airline tickets, cheap hotel rooms, discount hotel rooms hotel rooms, cheap hotel rooms, discount hotel rooms cheap airline tickets, discount airline tickets, airline tickets alamo car rental, hertz car rental, avis car rental, sears car rental, car rental, cheap car rental car rental, car rentals, cheap car rental, cheap car rentals, discount car rental, discount car rentals car rental, car rentals, cheap car rental, cheap car rentals, discount car rental, discount car rentals car rental, car rentals, cheap car rental, cheap car rentals, discount car rental, discount car rentals,alamo car rental, hertz car rental, avis car rental, sears car rental car rental, car rentals, cheap car rental, cheap car rentals, discount car rental, discount car rentals alamo car rental, hertz car rental, avis car rental, sears car rental, car rental, cheap car rental vacation package, vacation packages discount airline tickets, cheap car rental, discount car rental cheap hotel rooms, discount hotel rooms hotel rooms, cheap hotel rooms, discount hotel rooms hotel rooms, cheap hotel rooms, discount hotel rooms hotels in Bangkok, Bangkok hotels, cheap thailand hotels cheap airline tickets, discount airline tickets, airline tickets vacation package, vacation packages, discount cruise, cheap cruise, discount cruises, cheap cruises discount airline ticket, discount airline tickets, cheap airline tickets alamo car rental, hertz car rental, avis car rental, sears car rental, car rental, cheap car rental airline tickets, southeast asia news, asia news, asian news