Despite wearing his Malay nationalism on his sleeve, Mahathir ultimately persuaded most non-Malays that he was not simply a communal leader but someone who cared for all of Malaysia's communities
Dr Mahathir Mohamad is stepping down after serving more than 22 years as the leader of Malaysia and its ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). Today's gleaming, modern Malaysia is unimaginable without Mahathir and UMNO, which also produced Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country's first prime minister. Like Mahathir, Malaysia's fourth prime minister, Tunku led the government and the party for more than twenty years. Generation-long reigns seem to have served Malaysia exceedingly well since independence.
Indeed, the continuity delivered by these two men is the secret of Malaysia's success as a rapidly developing multi-cultural state. Both began their careers as Malay nationalists who sought to promote the rights of the Malay majority after the British left. But they also recognised that the country's sizable, and economically powerful, Chinese and Indian minorities, among other groups, were critical to the country's development and should be persuaded to accept the new Malay-led state as their own.
Mahathir became prime minister in 1981 when the region was on the eve of historic change, following the end of the Vietnam War and Indonesia's stabilisation following the bloody civil strife of the 1960s. The global economic system was buoyant and East Asia, not least Mao's China, was more deeply committed than anyone expected to support that system.
This encouraged Mahathir to make a clean break with the British colonial heritage. His call to 'look East' marked the beginning of an ambitious industrialisation policy that culminated, during his 10th year in power, with the Vision 2020 plan to catch up with Western levels of development. By 1997, Mahathir was at the pinnacle of his power, inspiring the country to believe that it would not be long before all of the country's communities would see themselves as sharing a common Malay nationality.
But the Asian financial crisis that struck later that year halted the region's trajectory of rapid growth. Against most international advice, Mahathir imposed capital controls and a fixed exchange rate for the ringgit to buy time for recovery.
He also sought to shift the sense of crisis away from economics to politics (where he retained an iron grip) by removing his designated heir, Anwar Ibrahim, who was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. Anwar's arrest and trial stunned the country, but Mahathir surprised few Malays either allies or opponents by restoring his authority so thoroughly following the crisis that he was able to handpick Abdullah Badawi as his successor. The launch of the war on terror provided Mahathir with another opportunity to recover politically. In the face of a world frightened by Islam, Mahathir was able to affirm a neglected facet of his leadership, repeatedly reminding the world that he presided over the one country in the world where a Muslim majority and large non-Muslim minorities live in peace. There are several reasons for this success, and Mahathir deserves much of the credit.
Despite wearing his Malay nationalism on his sleeve, Mahathir ultimately persuaded most non-Malays that he was not simply a communal leader but someone who cared for all of Malaysia's communities. In time, he made people forget that he had opposed Tunku Abdul Rahman for not being sufficiently 'Malay' and for conceding too much to the Chinese and Indian coalition partners in Tunku's early post-independence governments.
Mahathir, the first commoner to be Malaysian prime minister, became a leading Asian moderniser in another fundamental way, as well. He quickly took up a divisive constitutional battle against the hereditary Malay rulers, the nine sultans, and succeeded in curtailing their privileges and powers.
Having overcome the inertia of communal suspicions and dynastic traditions, Mahathir was able to drive the country onto a course of rapid industrialisation. Initially, his ambitious plans to make Malaysia an economic model for developing nations exposed him to both ridicule and admiration. Many thought that he was moving too far, too fast; that he was expecting too much from Malays asked to make the cultural quantum leap from village to boardroom in a generation.
But he was determined to break the traditional Malay mould and succeeded in building a new albeit still small urban middle class. Mahathir appears to have been spurred on by the successes of the neighbouring island-state of Singapore, briefly a part of Malaysia, on its swift march to First World status. Having studied for his medical degree in Singapore, he appreciated the country's commitment to modernity. He will not want Malaysia to fall far behind.
This competitive approach towards Singapore is in line with the concerns he expressed in his influential book, The Malay Dilemma. His thinking has become more adventurous and he has moved on to tackling the world of cyberspace and multimedia corridors. But the goal is still to build a Malaysia where Malays will always lead non-Malay minorities in shaping the country's future. That, perhaps, is the greatest continuity of all in Malaysia's legacy of generational rulers. DT-PS
Wang Gungwu is Director of the East Asia Institute, University of Singapore