Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed took office as the forth prime minister of Malaysia on the 16th July 1981. For 22 years until he stepped down in October 2003, Dr Mahathir was not only the longest serving prime minister of Malaysia but has also been credited for engineering Malaysia’s rapid modernization earning him the soubriquet of Bapa Kemodenan Malaysia (father of modernization).

Malaysia’s physical transformation is obvious. After all, Dr Mahathir presided over a period of phenomenal growth and at the end of Dr Mahathir’s tenure, Malaysia bristled with concrete symbols from the gleaming airport to the impressive skyline.

Dr Mahathir left office in a blaze of endearment and glowing tributes. Three years later, the period for veneration is over and the shenanigans of Dr Mahathir’s rule are slowly being untangled and the warts of his administration are beginning to show.

A reappraisal of his legacy will show that the transformation of Malaysia has come with a price.


The Malaysian judiciary before Dr Mahathir though conservative was however fairly independent and was the envy of the region. Today it is a mere shadow of its former glory. In fact there has been cases of the Chief Justices who left office in a shadow of controversy.

Judicial independence from the executive was so severely compromised that it was reduced to becoming a chimera in the Dr Mahathir’s period. The judiciary not only became subservient but also the tool of the executive.

A clear case of political subservience can be seen in the Lim Guan Eng case. Lim Guan Eng was sentenced to 18 months jail under the Sedition Act and Printing Presses and Publication Act for publicly exposing the case of statutory rape of a 15 year old girl. On the other hand, the then Attorney General conveniently withdrew the criminal charges for statutory rape against the Former Chief Minister of Malacca. In a strange twist, the 15 year old girl in the Lim Guan Eng’s case gave evidence on oath that the Chief Minister did indeed have sex with her.

For the Malaysian judiciary, a critical watershed was the removal of Tun Salleh Abas as the Lord President and the suspension of five Supreme Court judges and the eventual sacking of two of them. In the aftermath of the crisis, even the Supreme Court was renamed as the Federal Court while the Lord Presidents position was renamed to Chief Justice.

There are various interpretation of these events but the main outcome has been the judiciary becoming politically compliant and the strengthening of the hands of the executive.

Then there was the Anwar Ibrahim saga, when in 1997 Dr Mahathir used homosexual shenanigans as the reason to sack Anwar Ibrahim the then Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister. The government brought sodomy and abuse of power charges against Anwar Ibrahim. No matter what the twist and turns were in this highly published case, once Anwar Ibrahim incurred the wrath of Dr Mahathir, the outcome became a forgone conclusion. Anwar Ibrahim was found guilty and sentenced to six years imprisonment for corruption and nine years imprisonment for sodomy.

Much has been written about this saga but the root cause which led to the expulsion of Anwar Ibrahim from the government and party was power. Dr Mahathir perceived Anwar Ibrahim moves as an attempt by Anwar and his supporters to grab power. This earned Dr Mahathir’s wrath and he responded with vigour and without scruples.


At independence Malaysia inherited English as the language of public education. However, English language became a politically sensitive issue and was viewed as a relic of the colonial.

Thus in the aftermath of the 1969 race riots and in the upsurge of Malay nationalism, English was sidelined and replaced by Bahasa Malaysia as not only the national language but the National Education Policy made Bahasa Malaysia the medium of instruction in schools.

It was also thought that with Bahasa Malaysia as the medium of instruction, it would give Malay students an equal footing or even better a head against Non Malay students. Thirty years later, unfortunately it is the Non Malays students who have became adept in Bahasa Malaysia, English and their mother tongue being another advantage. Whatever initial advantage the Malay students had has been surpassed with the Non Malay students being conversant in almost three languages. The Malay students are now doubly disadvantaged when Dr Mahathir reversed the teaching of maths and science from Bahasa Malaysia to English

Now in a globalised and knowledge based economy with English and Mandarin becoming a prerequisite, nationalism has come with a heavy price.

This can particularly be seen in the field of Information Technology. In 1996, Dr Mahathir came to California to promote Malaysian Multimedia Super Corridor. Bill Gates described it “amazing”. Ten years later it is Bangalore, India which is making waves and much of it has to do with competency in English.

Thirty years later, after Bahasa Malaysia becoming the medium of instruction, and now recognizing that the Malaysia’s education system was losing its competitive advantage and particularly the standard of English was deteorating, in a complete reversal of policy, Dr Mahathir attempted to remedy the situation by ordering the teaching of maths and science in English. However, having allowed and watched the rot set in , the reversal came a little too late.

There is a general decline in English competency. Thus it did not come at a surprise when the Human Resource Minister recently revealed that there are almost 60,000 unemployed graduates mostly Malays and most of them were not proficient in English.

Under Dr Mahathir, not only there was a gradual decline in the Malaysian education system but the education system itself became polarized. Teachers instead of teaching were often more concerned with forms and dressing. Instead of building on the heritage of the mission schools, school administrators worked hard to malay-nise the school.

While in the past, children of all races mixed freely and studied together and thereby building common bond, friendship and understanding, many parents and particularly the Chinese seeing national schools were on a slide lost faith began to send their children to vernacular schools. Schools could have been the best place to initiate and cultivate national unity but that opportunity has long gone. Malaysians have regressed and have become polarized from school age.


Industrialisation and privatization has been the centerpiece of Dr Mahathir’s era. Dr Mahathir wanted to transform Malaysia from an agricultural based economy to a regional industrialization hub. To achieve this, Dr Mahathir had his ambitions, initiatives and plans and launched his favoured projects with flourishes of economic nationalism. In the end many of the projects entailed huge problems, flaws and abuses and even needed government bailouts at the expense of public funds.

An example is Perwaja Steel which was Dr Mahathir’s showpiece steel plant which was to spearhead the country’s industrialization is today a spectacular failure, having lost billions by mid 1990.
Proton another of Dr Mahathir’s pet project is now floundering with plummeting car sales and is looking for a suitor. On the other hand late upstarts Thailand’s motor industry has grown and developed to the extent that Rayong is called Detroit of the East.

Together with industrialization, privatization was to have been the centerpiece of Dr Mahathir’s efforts to leapfrog to a first world status from a third world one and privatization of government assets were carried out with a zeal. Privatisation was also meant to be an effective tool for redistribution of wealth. A noble vision. Unfortunately, Malaysia’s privatization first launched in 1983, got off to a wrong footing because many projects were instead awarded to political favorites without competitive bidding. Worst still, handpicked elite who were linked to Dr Mahathir and UMNO who got the big awards and they in turn saw it as an instant ticket to richness.

The government’s public assets were privatized at discounts but the government used public funds to renationalized assets at prices far exceeding market levels. The government linked businessmen were doubly blessed by firstly benefiting from the privatization and secondly when crisis struck to be able to walk away unscathed from the debts and liabilities. Soon government linked businessmen were comforted to know that it was alright to fail for the government would ultimately bail them out using public funds.

It was this blurring of the relationship and boundaries between business, politics and state which inevitably gave rise to patronage, bailouts and corruption and with the consequence of billions of public funds been wasted or squandered.

The proof can be seen in the aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis. In the 1997 economic crisis, the top 10 borrowers hogged a staggering US 36 billion of the non performing loans and these borrowers were the fortunate few who had Dr Mahathir’s imprimatur.

Much is said about Dr Mahathir’s defiance of the International Monetary Fund following the 1997 economic crisis which was widely blamed on East Asian corruption, cronyism and nepotism. Many economist have praised Dr Mahathir’s handling of the crisis using unconventional method and it must have been most gratifying for Dr Mahathir. To be fair, Dr Mahathir’s capital control seemed eminently sensible in September 1998 when there seemed no end to the Asian crisis.

Dr Mahathir blamed the 1997 on the currency speculators and particularly George Soros for the financial crisis. During the worst of the Asian crisis Dr Mahathir even hauled out a copy of the protocols of the Elders of Zion and blamed the Jews rather than his own mismanagement. Dr Mahathir conveniently forgot that his government was also responsible for the very expensive speculative failures when Bank Negara suffered multi billion ringgit losses from its massive purchases of sterling before the sterlings collapse in September 1992.

For Dr Mahathir, it was the currency speculators, the west and the Jews which caused the crisis but never his mismanagement.

Dr Mahathir has been praised for saving Malaysia but lost amidst the laudatory praises is the question as to how did Malaysia end up in this mess in the first place. Was Malaysia’s economy so pernicious that it could take one man George Soros to cripple Malaysia’s economy?

Looking back, Dr Mahathir Mohamed should bear responsibility for it was his own flawed policies and major failures in implementation and for not checking abuses in high places, political and corporate which had created the mess. It had to take the 1997 crisis to lay bare his economic management.

Reevaluating Dr Mahathir legacy will show that although he had the hardware but by using the wrong software, the drive has developed major fault.

Norman Fernandez