Mahathir: The Strongman Returns
Photo Credit: AFP
By Tai Wei Lim

Mahathir: The Strongman Returns

May. 10, 2018  |     |  0 comments

On the morning of May 10, 2018, Malaysians woke up to the return of their long-time political strongman Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. A veteran in Malaysian politics, he is a controversial figure. Mahathir had studied in the Bukit Timah Campus of what was then the University of Malaya. He is of partial Southern Indian ancestry, and he wrote a controversial book The Malay Dilemma that propelled him to political fame but with great social backlash and controversies. In this book, he lamented the progress of his people and how they must catch up. This made him an un-apologetic nationalist for Malaysians.

Having made his mark in social issues, he rose through the ranks of the Barisan political machinery and eventually became Prime Minister of Malaysia (1981-2003). With more than 20 years of Prime Minister-ship under his belt, he was a strongman politician who clipped the political wings of Malaysia’s powerful Sultans. In this sense, he was a strong constitutionalist, in favor of layman politics and constitutional monarchy. Malaysia has a rotating system of monarchs who take turns to be on the national throne. In other words, he had mixed relations with Malaysia’s aristocratic ancien regime.

During Mahathir Mohamad’s early years in office. Photo Credit: Perdana Leadership Foundation

As Prime Minister, a political strongman, and a nationalist, Mahathir turned to the so-called “Asian values” narratives (a critique of Western liberal democracy) to articulate his ideas of the Asian value system, Asia for Asians, Wawasan 2020 (Malaysia to be a developed state by 2020) and unofficial popular slogan Malaysia Boleh (Malaysia can do it). Mahathir associated himself with other Asian values narrators including controversial former Tokyo Governor and politician Shintaro Ishihara and they became images of Asian strongmen who fought for what they perceived as Asia’s voice on the regional and international stages. They were opposed by liberal politicians in Northeast Asia in democratizing South Korea (which democratized after the 1988 Seoul Olympics) and the emergence of the Lee Teng Hui nativist regime in Taiwan. Because of his views on democracy and nationalism, he sometimes had contentious relations with liberals in the West.

The Voice of Asia: Two Leaders Discuss the Coming Century, by Shintaro Ishihara and Mahathir Mohamad, 1996. Photo Credit:

An economic nationalist, he championed the Malaysian national car, the Proton Saga, and paved the way for Malaysia to start its resource extraction industry, including oil that would make Petronas a global powerhouse in the petrochemicals industry. He also championed Malaysia Airlines, supported the construction of the new capital city Putrajaya, as well as Malaysia’s own Silicon Valley — the Multimedia Super-Corridor. Mahathir is highly respected today for his contributions to Malaysia’s modernization and industrialization, especially in the high-tech arena. He also advocated “Learning from the East” by looking at the Japanese model, including adapting the Mitsubishi engine for the Proton Saga.


Mahathir Mohamad played a role in the design of Malaysia Airlines’ logo unveiled in 1987. Photo Credit: Perdana Leadership Foundation

Under his watch, Malaysia became a leading economy in ASEAN, second after Singapore in per capita income. Malaysia built the world’s tallest twin towers, the Petronas Towers, which remain an architectural icon today. Malaysia also became a leading global Islamic financial center and was admired for being the world’s most progressive Muslim economy. Developing economies began to study the Malaysian model of an advanced and progressive Islamic economy. Mahathir is credited with starting the age of megaprojects in Malaysia. In the 1990s, Mahathir was celebrated as a hero in his country — and by others in the region — for resisting the recommendations by the International Monetary Fund to institute currency reforms in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which had toppled the long reigning Suharto regime in Indonesia. Mahathir accused the financier George Soros of meddling in currencies in Southeast Asia during the crisis.

Mahathir Mohamad tours the site of the Petronas Twin Towers shortly after officiating a topping-out ceremony for the 88-story building in Kuala Lumpur, 1996. Photo Credit: AP

In terms of ASEAN construction, Mahathir is one of the wise men of Southeast Asia. His counsel was sought in important ASEAN formative matters and he had rapport with other wise men of ASEAN, including Fidel Ramos of the Philippines, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Suharto of Indonesia, the Sultan of Brunei, and the late King Bhumibol of Thailand as well as his inner circle. Amongst these wise men, he is one of the few still alive and active in the political scene, and this makes his revived Prime Minister-ship even more stunning in the 2018 elections. Mahathir is often in favor of greater ASEAN integration, and many expect him to continue with this track.

Composite photos of Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew in 1990 (left) and 15 years later in 2005. Photo Credit: The Star Online

Mahathir had a testy relationship with his successors. He removed Anwar Ibrahim (on sodomy charges) and Abdullah Badawi (whose son-in-law is in incumbent PM Najib Razak’s cabinet), before settling on Najib. He called his support for Najib the biggest mistake of his life. In his late years as Prime Minister, Mahathir was seen as being out of touch with contemporary affairs by his critics. He was perceived by his critics as being overly protective of national industries like Proton and Petronas. Mahathir was also accused by his critics of cronyism. He stepped down and turned his energies to the private sector, overseeing the national projects that he had started.

Anwar Ibrahim with Mahathir Mohamad in 1996. Photo Credit: AFP

Eventually, his relations as an elder statesman with Najib came to a head when the latter was accused of being embroiled in the 1MDB scandal. Disagreements between Mahathir and his protégé resulted in Mahathir’s resignation from Barisan in 2016. This seemed ominous because Mahathir reportedly had a tense relationship with the Tunku at the formative years of Barisan party. And this set the ball rolling until the events of May 9, 2018 when Mahathir’s newly-formed party emerged victorious in the election. A 92-year-old man had beaten an almost 60-year-old political party to form the next government. This was unprecedented in Malaysian, Southeast Asian, and perhaps even global history.

Mahathir Mohamad (right) takes his seat next while Najib Razak (centre) looks on in 2003. Photo Credit: Reuters


The 2018 Malaysian election started off with an assured victory for Najib. As the campaign drew on, some signs emerged of Mahathir’s popularity with defections of key Barisan figures to Mahathir’s party. When the results were out, despite gerrymandering by the government in power at the time of the elections, Mahathir had a decisive victory and it seemed voters in rural as well as urban areas were in favor of bringing him back. Mahathir is trying to get a royal pardon for Anwar as part of the deal for their alliance. He has insisted that, if Anwar wants to come back to power, he would have to run for elections in a district.


The return of the strongman is a game changer. Mahathir is likely to continue with pro-ASEAN policies. He may continue strong relations with the West and Japan. It remains to be seen whether his brand of nationalism of yore has mellowed with age and whether he can get along with new generations of Western leaders (some of whom are also strongmen leaders like current US President Donald Trump and the more liberal counterparts in Western Europe and Canada). It also remains to be seen if he can strike accord with the new generations of strong and charismatic conservative leaders like Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Other contemporary strongmen in the region include Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, President Xi Jinping of China, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un of North Korea, the military regime in Thailand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Mahathir is coming back to a forest of strongmen in the region.


The most important question on many observers’ minds is whether Mahathir will roll back the exceptionally friendly relations between China and Malaysia cultivated during Najib’s administration. Malaysia is a major beneficiary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Many Sino-Malaysian projects have already started, with the East Coast Rail Link, ports in Kuantan and upcoming projects like Malacca port and private sector projects like Forest City. Some optimistic observers argue that this will continue given Malaysia’s goal of becoming a developed economy by 2020. Connectivity, it appears, is needed regardless of any regime. However, the format as well as mode through which continued economic cooperation takes place will depend on Malaysian domestic political developments under the incoming Mahathir-led government as he tries to build a wide rainbow coalition for a grand reconciliation. Mahathir is also likely to seek justice for the accusations of 1MDB corruption associated with Najib. Many will be observing how this will pan out.

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