Visionary, who nurtured an Asian
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
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
A Malay, who came of age, when Mahathir first came to power saw
his living standards roughly double each year of Mahathirs
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 Malaysias 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 Malays
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 Mohamads 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