Who Is Mahathir Mohamad?
Mahathir Mohamad was a doctor before becoming a politician with the UMNO party and ascended quickly from member of parliament to prime minister. During his 22 years in office, he grew the economy and was an activist for developing nations, but also imposed harsh restrictions on civil liberties. He resigned office in 2003.
Mohamad was born on December 20, 1925, in Alor Setar, in the state of Kedah in northern Malaysia. His family was modest but stable, and his father was a respected teacher at an English language school.
After finishing Islamic grammar schools and graduating from the local college, Mahathir attended medical school at the University of Malaya in Singapore. He was an army physician before forming a private practice at the age of 32.
Entry Into Politics
Mahathir became active in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysia’s largest political party, and was elected to its policy-making group, the Supreme Council. With the support of the UMNO, he won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1964. He wrote a book, The Malay Dilemma, demanding affirmative action for Indigenous Malays and equal status with Chinese-Malaysians, while also criticizing Malays’ “economic backwardsness.” These then-radical ideas earned the ire of Prime Minister Abdul Rahman, and the UMNO banned the book and expelled Mahathir from the party.
Rahman resigned in 1970, and after Mahathir was reinstated in the UMNO in 1972, his political career took off. He was re-elected to parliament in 1973, promoted to a Cabinet position in 1974 and rose to deputy prime minister in 1976. He became prime minister just five years later when his predecessor, Hussein Onn, retired.
Mahathir had a significant impact on the economy, culture and government of Malaysia. He won five consecutive elections and served for 22 years, longer than any other prime minister in Malaysia’s history. Under him, Malaysia experienced rapid economic growth. He began privatizing government enterprises, including airlines, utilities and telecommunications, which raised money for the government and improved working conditions for many employees, although many of the beneficiaries were UMNO supporters. One of his most significant infrastructure projects was the North-South Expressway, a highway that runs from the Thai border to Singapore.
From 1988 to 1996, Malaysia saw an 8 percent economic expansion, and Mahathir released an economic plan—The Way Forward, or Vision 2020—asserting that the country would be a fully developed nation by 2020. He helped shift the country’s economic base away from agriculture and natural resources and toward manufacturing and exporting, and the country’s per capita income doubled from 1990 to 1996. Although Malaysia’s growth has slowed and it’s unlikely the country will achieve this goal, the economy remains stable.
But in spite of these accomplishments, Mahathir leaves a mixed legacy. Although he began his first term conservatively, during the 1980s Mahathir became more authoritarian. In 1987 he instituted the Internal Security Act, which permitted him to close four newspapers and order the arrests of 106 activists, religious leaders and political opponents, including Anwar Ibrahim, his former deputy prime minister. He also altered the constitution to restrictive the interpretive power of the Supreme Court, and he forced a number of high-ranking members to resign.
Mahathir’s record on civil liberties, as well as his criticisms of Western economic policies and industrialized nations’ policies toward developing countries, made his relationships with the United States, Britain and Australia difficult. He banned The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for printing negative editorials about him, and supported a national law condemning drug smugglers to death, resulting in the execution of several Western citizens.
Mahathir retired in 2003 and remains an active and visible part of Malaysia’s political landscape. He is an ardent critic of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, whom he chose to succeed him.
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