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Visionary, who nurtured an Asian ‘tiger’

Not too many people alive in the 21st century can be called the “father of a nation”— in the literal sense.

But Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is one of them. In the 22 years, he was Prime Minister of Malaysia and over 60 years he has been in politics, Mahathir converted his country from a sleepy colonial backwater into one of the tiger economies of Asia. It was one reason that when he stepped down in 2003, he was granted the Malay honorific “tun” and the self-explanatory title Bapa Pemodenan, “father of modernisation.”

Mahathir helped create a prosperous and politically-stable Malaysia. At the heart of this accomplishment was a period of economic dynamism during which the economy grew over 10 per cent a year for nine straight years.

A Malay, who came of age, when Mahathir first came to power saw his living standards roughly double each year of Mahathir’s reign.

The real genius of the Malaysian leader, however, was his remarkable aptitude for merging economic reforms with populist politics in a manner that did not let the latter derail the former.

He inherited a nation whose dominant ethnic group, the Malays, were dogged by poverty. So he introduced a “discriminatory” quota system in education and jobs for them, but ensured it did not disturb the underlying economy. More remarkable was that as the Malays prospered, he actually reduced quota levels in schools.

Similarly, he tackled the small pockets of Islamic fundamentalism in his country by a combination of political co-option and electoral marginalisation. Mahathir has been among the harshest international critics of the US and Israeli policy to the Arab world — to the point where he has been accused of anti-Semitism. However, the US remains Malaysia’s largest foreign investor and Washington praises Kuala Lumpur for its tough stand against terror.

Even while he rejected the prescriptions of the IMF during the 1998 Asian financial crisis, Mahathir was sending so many of Malay’s best and the brightest brains to study overseas that other than India and China, no other third world country has so many citizens with Western degrees and diplomas.

A similar understanding that nationalism requires symbols, but not ones that come at the expense of economic substance, led him to build on a grand scale. The result: the Petronas Towers, the Proton car and the state-of-the-art Multimedia Corridor. Some observers argue that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s politics reflect the patience and prescriptive skills he learnt as a trained physician.

What no one doubts is that if world power today is finding its centre in Asia, one reason is the amazing transformation of one country wrought by Mahathir — the man who first coined the phrase, “Look East policy.” Which is why it is appropriate that he is a guest at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit 2006.

- Pramitpal Chaudhuri

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