New Mahathir biography paints a balanced portrait

By David Plott*
(From The Jakarta Globe of May 10, 2010)

As Malaysia’s longest-ruling prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir Mohamad was never fond of an independent press, especially the Western press, given how prickly he could be toward criticism. So it is with some irony that Australian journalist Barry Wain’s biography, “Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times,” turns out to be a remarkably balanced portrait of a political leader who has, in turn, been vilified by his critics and idolized by his supporters.
It is also a book that promises to play a pivotal role in defining Mahathir’s legacy, precisely because of the lengths to which Wain has gone to research and candidly assess Mahathir’s spectacular successes and failures.
What gives this biography special appeal is that Wain, a former editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal, had access, through numerous interviews and e-mail exchanges, not only to Mahathir himself, but also to family members and a wide variety of political allies and enemies. Wain also exhaustively researched the complex business empire that grew over the years around the ruling United Malays National Organization — cementing its decline into corruption and cronyism — as well as the intricate machinations in which Mahathir engaged during his 22 years in power to maintain control over the party and the levers of government.
The result is a portrait of Mahathir that provides ample evidence, both for those who argue that he should be credited with Malaysia’s transformation from an economic backwater to one of the world’s top 20 exporters, and for those who blame him for saddling the country with a political system marked by deeply entrenched corruption, brittle institutions and a legacy of wasteful mega-projects. In short, both Mahathir’s detractors and admirers will find their man here.
Wain’s delicate balancing act, deftly managed in prose that is always lucid, is successful primarily because he remains focused on what fundamentally motivated Mahathir during his long years in power.
Mahathir was a determined nationalist and an avid champion of the country’s ethnic Malays. His unwavering ambition was to drag Malaysia into the ranks of the world’s modern economies, restore national pride in the wake of the country’s colonial era and command respect for Malaysia on the world stage. He was also driven by a desire to ensure that the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society pursued a secular path that maintained social stability.
Wain articulates in detail the goals that shaped Mahathir’s behavior at every stage of his political career. This exceptional biography comes across as both deeply sympathetic to Mahathir’s vision and scathing in its account of some of the things he did to realize that vision and the extraordinary lengths to which Mahathir went to remain in power and to cripple anyone who might represent a challenge to his authority. He believed that unless he was at the helm, the goals for which he had devoted his entire life would be at risk. Put simply, the ends, for Dr. M, justified the means.
The first of the three parts of this biography are devoted to Mahathir’s early years and his rise to prime minister at 56. Born into humble beginnings in a poor neighborhood in Alor Setar, the capital of Kedah state, the young Mahathir learned early the stinging effects of colonial Malaya’s dominance by the British and the social hierarchy within local society. The discrimination he experienced because of his socio-economic background had a lasting effect on him and made him keenly sensitive to personal snubs of any kind, genuine or perceived (Britain, as well as Malaysia’s royal families, would years later experience the withering effects of Mahathir’s wrath when he introduced the “Buy British Last” campaign and moved to reduce the influence of local royalty on politics).
From the outset, he stood apart from others in government and politics. “Not only did Dr. Mahathir not smoke or gamble, he strongly disapproved of the lifestyles of senior civil servants and politicians who spent their leisure hours in bars and dance halls — and on the golf course, a game played by the first three prime ministers.” But it was his bare-knuckles approach to political combat and his uncanny sense of how to maneuver through the organizational complexities of party politics, that set him apart from rivals for leadership of UMNO.
When he finally became prime minister on July 16, 1981, “he gave little indication initially that he would rewrite the political rulebook and become the longest-serving and most controversial premiere in the nation’s history,” Wain writes.
In the years that followed, Mahathir was continuously engaged in a Herculean struggle on two fronts simultaneously — to transform Malaysia into a modern, dynamic and secular developing nation and to maintain control of a ruling party that was periodically convulsed by internal divisions and challenges to his leadership. On both fronts, he proved to be brutal in pursuing whatever means it took to achieve his ends.
And on both fronts, he took steps that intertwined business and politics in ways that enabled him to push forward his many modernizing projects and solidify the financial strength of UMNO so that its political patronage would ensure its hold on power.
But ultimately, Wain argues, this came at an enormous price in terms of wasted state resources, widespread corruption (although Mahathir himself never personally benefited) and a weakening of vital institutions such as the judiciary and the police.
Wain’s fascinating account of Mahathir’s years in power is filled with startling revelations and plenty of previously undisclosed material. Surely the one most likely to provoke controversy is his contention that under Mahathir the government squandered, through corruption and ill-conceived business ventures and mega-projects, some 100 billion ringgit ($31 billion) in taxpayer’s money. Mahathir has publicly challenged that figure, calling on the government to convene an independent panel to investigate the claim and suggesting he might sue the author.
Like so much else in this biography, Wain’s effort to assess Mahathir’s legacy is finely balanced. “He put Malaysia on the map, and most Malaysians were pleased about it,” he writes. But Mahathir did so at a price. “For while he held Malaysia together for 22 years, the political-administrative system atrophied and decayed under his personalized brand of governance.”
It may well be that if the political reform movement in Malaysia — led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, whom Mahathir ignominiously fired in 1998 and jailed — eventually succeeds in breaking UMNO’s hold on power, Malaysia’s political system will develop in such a way as to erase memories of the negative legacies of Mahathir’s years in power. Should that happen, perhaps history will only remember the many positive contributions Mahathir made to Malaysia. That would be the ultimate irony.

*David Plott is a member of the Jakarta Globe’s board of editorial advisers. He is also managing editor of Global Asia.