After 22 years of stewardship of UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) as its president and that of Malaysia as its prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad steps down to enter history as one of the tallest Muslim leaders of the world and the builder of a new Malaysia.


Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad stepped down on October31, completing 22 years of illustrious service to his political party UMNO and his country as president and prime minister respectively. His tenure proved to be the brightest chapter in the history of Malaysia which emerged as one of the greatest economic success stories of the last quarter of the 20th century.

Malaysia was still an undeveloped rubber and tin economy when Mahathir took over in 1981, and gradually transformed it into a developed economy with a sophisticated industrial base, which includes electronics, automobiles, and a broad range of goods and services. The Mahathir years were an uninterrupted saga of rising incomes and living standards, development of a world-class technical and managerial cadre, and integration of different ethnic groups in a viable tapestry of national life.

A rather strange phenomenon observed in Malaysia was that as the economy boomed and prosperity dawned Malay Muslims drew closer to the Islamic way of life. Just the reverse happened in two neighbouring ASEAN countries, Thailand and Singapore, which also witnessed extraordinary growth from the 70s to the 90s. As people prospered in Thailand, a rash of night clubs, massage parlours and prostitution dens appeared all over the country. Singapore fared no better, but Malaysia refused to turn its women into saleable commodity and preferred to retain feminine dignity.

When the East Asian began to economies stagger in the 90s, Malaysia came out of the economic crisis virtually unscathed. Mahathir went to the extent of ignoring World Bank and IMFF advice and was criticised for it. Later it turned out that it was Mahathir who was right, not the World Bank or IMF.

When Mahathir recently blamed international Jewry at the OIC summit for setting the West against the Muslim world and making the West fight Muslims on behalf of the Jews, he was condemned by the US Department of State, and Italy raised the issue at a European Union meeting proposing denunciation of the remarks. Whatever the Western reaction to Mahathir’s remark, the Muslim world seems convinced that Muslim countries are being targeted by the US on behalf of Israel. Otherwise, there is no explanation for the war in Iraq, repeated American veto in UN Secretary Council of moves seeking to censure Israeli atrocities in occupied territories, even though the entire UN General Assembly condemns it.

 Mahathir was vehemently condemned when he made a similar remark during the Asian economic crisis. Mahathir had criticised Jewish speculator George Sorros for destabilising the stock market through manipulation. He turned out to be right even then although the Western media tried to paint him into a corner. The Muslim world sees everyday on TV screens Palestinians hunted down by Israelis using American-supplied Apache helicopter gunships and new Jewish settlements being built on Palestinian land with American money. The Muslim world knew all this even before Mahathir told them so from the OIC platform.


Despite his recognised stature as a great statesman Mahathir had his weakness as well, the chief of them being an autocratic temperament. In this regard he can be compared to Li Kuwan Yew, the builder of modern Singapore. Although Yew curbed democratic rights and civil liberties, he ensured a remarkable rule of law that led to great peace and prosperity. Today, with a per capita GDP of nearly $ 22,000, Singapore is the most prosperous country in East Asia after Japan. Just to have some idea of what it means in actual economic terms, compare Singapore’s per capita GDP, with Singapore’s fellow ASEAN country Myanmar’s, which has a per capita GDP of only $ 112. Mahathir, who is a trained medical doctor (he graduated from Singapore’s King Edward College of Medicine in the early 50s) had a keen interest in the development of education and health facilities on par with Singapore’s.

Last month he attended a meeting of the United Malays Nationalist Organisation (UMNO) which he had led for 22 years as its president. The greatest challenge his successors face now is the schism at the very heart of UMNO caused by arrest and humiliation of Mahathir’s deputy Anwar Ibrahim, who had fallen out of favour in1998. Anwar still enjoys great popularity with the people although Mahathir too has emerged virtually as an icon.

For the schism to heal and for national reconciliation to take hold, Anwar has to be released from jail. Anwar was prosecuted for corruption and sodomy. He was awarded a six-year jail term for corruption. Soon it is going to end, but the sodomy case is in appeal. He was awarded a nine-year term for that. Mahathir had indicated that the reconciliation would come only after he quits the scene.

It is for Mahathir’s successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to heal the schism in UMNO, of which he is president and Malaysia’s prime minister. Before quitting his position as UMNO head, Mahathir made its three vice-presidents––Tun Razak (defence Minister) Mohyiddin Yamin (trade Minister), and Mohammad Taib (former chief minister)––to support his successor Badawi.

It is yet to be seen how truthful these three are to the promise, but much depends on how fast (and how convincingly) the injustice to Anwar is undone. How well Badawi handles these issues would be crucial to Malaysia’s future.g

Mohd Zeyaul HAQUE


Go Back