Mahathir's rule goes `on and on and on'

Raymond Whitaker writes from Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia's PM and his vision for the next century

Malaysia is not an easy country for foreigners to understand. Its politics are as complicated as its racial make-up, but this potential volatility has produced no violence since the late Seventies.

Even a general election cannot raise Malaysia's profile very much. Yesterday voters in the mountains and jungles of Sabah and Sarawak, separated by hundreds of miles of sea from the rest of Malaysia, began two days of polling. But everyone knows that by tonight, when the peninsula has had its say, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its coalition partners, who have won every election since independence in 1957, will be preparing for another five years in office. It will be an unprecedented upset if the Barisan Nasional (National Front) loses its two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

The files of Malaysian press clippings might remain virtually empty were it not for Mahathir Mohamed, the pathologically outspoken Prime Minister. When the election was announced just over two weeks ago, Newsweek magazine shouldered the task of explaining Malaysia to its readers, devoting several pages to the transformation Dr Mahathir has brought about in what was a poor, racially divided country when he took office 14 years ago.

One symbol of that change is the huge Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) complex, the twin towers of which, Newsweek said in a caption, would be the tallest in Asia on completion. Dr Mahathir told an election meeting that the magazine refused to acknowledge that the KLCC towers would be the tallest in the world. "They are not happy that [they have] been certified taller than the World Trade Center in New York or the Sears Tower in Chicago. We do not claim to have the tallest building in the world, but the recognition was certified by an international body," he said.

This body, it turns out, is the US-based Council of Tall Buildings. His complaint encapsulates perfectly a contradiction common in developing countries, but personified in Dr Mahathir: while constantly maintaining a sense of grievance against the West, which, he said in the same speech, "does not want us to progress and live in peace and harmony," he seeks to measure his achievements by reference to it.

Ignoring the fact that Malaysia is dependent for its breakneck pace of growth on Western markets, as well as billions of dollars of Western investment, the Prime Minister is willing to risk considerable economic damage if he feels himself slighted abroad. No country is more aware of this than Britain, whose businessmen found themselves frozen out of Malaysian government contracts for several months last year in the wake of the row over aid for the Pergau dam project.

Such a thing would be impossible in Malaysia, where Dr Mahathir has used his political dominance to crush anyone seeking to thwart him. The press and television's role is to publish his endless finger-wagging attacks on the official opposition, the judiciary has been tamed and the country's traditional Malay rulers brought into line. The Internal Security Act, an unrepealed relic of colonial days that permits indefinite detention, is available for anyone who persists in opposing him.

Dr Mahathir, who is 70 or 71 this year - there is an unresolved question over his exact age - was born in Alor Setar, the centre of Malaysia's rice lands. His resentment of British colonial rule is said to date from being turned down when he applied to study law in Britain. Instead he qualified as a medical practitioner in Singapore.

But if the colonialists aroused his ire, so did his fellow Malays. Not only had they allowed the British to dominate them, he once wrote, they had yielded control of the economy to the Chinese and Indians, roughly a third and a tenth of the population respectively. His views once led to expulsion from UMNO, but by 1981 he was in a position to put them into practice.

Without Dr Mahathir, it is possible that Malaysia would have followed a similar course to India's, suffering chronic slow growth punctuated by bursts of ethnic violence such as the Malay-Chinese riots which took 200 lives in 1979.

Under his constant goading, a country which had little to recommend it 20 years ago beyond a few commodities - such as rubber, tin and palm-oil - is now the world's 19th largest trading nation. Malaysia produces its own car, the Proton, which is sold in Britain, and is the leading exporter of electronics - such as semiconductors and disk drives.

Nor is the Prime Minister finished yet: his "Vision 2020" will make Malaysia a fully developed country by that year. Dr Mahathir is unlikely to be alive then. Although he appears to have recovered fully from heart surgery in 1989, in all probability this is his last election.

But he is not expected to step down soon - speculation in Kuala Lumpur is that 1998, when several major projects will have been finished and Malaysia is due to host the Commonwealth Games, might be deemed a suitable date.

Like Margaret Thatcher, the only British Prime Minister with whom Dr Mahathir can be said to have had anything in common, he would probably like to go "on and on and on". Unlike her, he has the power to do so if he chooses.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - 3-4 Month Fixed Contract - £30-£35k pro rata

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a 3-4 month pro rata fi...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £26,000+

£16000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Telesales Executive is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager

£25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Freight Forward Senior Operator

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This logistics firm are looking...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map