(b. Alor Setar, Kedah, 20 Dec. 1925)
Malaysian; Prime Minister 1981–2003 The son of a Malay headmaster of an English-medium school in Kedah, Mahathir was educated at Sultan Hamid College, Alor Setar, and the University of Malaya in Singapore where he qualified in medicine. He worked as a medical officer in Kedah and Perlis 1953–7 and as a general practitioner 1957–64 when he was elected Member of the House of Representatives for Kota Setar Selatan.
An ‘ultra’ in the leading party, the United Malays National Organization, Mahathir was forced into the political wilderness after the 1969 race riots when he accused Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman of ‘giving the Chinese what they demand’. He resumed medical practice and wrote The Malay Dilemma (1970) in which he diagnosed the causes for the economically inferior position of Malays in genetic and cultural terms and prescribed positive discrimination to ensure their position as the ‘definitive race’. Although the government embarked on a similar course with its New Economic Policy, this book was banned because it touched ‘sensitive issues’.
In the 1970s Mahathir was readmitted to UMNO and, after brief membership of the Senate, was elected to the House of Representatives as Member for Kubang Pasu in 1974. He served in the government of Tun Abdul Razak (1970–6) as Minister of Education (1974–7) and under Tun Hussein Onn as Deputy Prime Minister (1976–81) and Minister of Trade and Industry (1977–81). In 1981 he succeeded Hussein Onn as Prime Minister and president of UMNO.
As Prime Minister (an office he has combined with those of Minister of Defence 1981–6 and Minister of Home Affairs 1986–99), Mahathir brought a new vigour to government and economic management. The first Malaysian Prime Minister not to have come from the Malay aristocracy nor to have been educated in Britain, he tilted at the special relationship with Britain and the constitutional privileges of Malaysia's king and sultans, while his ‘Look East’ policy was inspired by Japan's economic success. Commanding an effective party machine, controlling the media, and benefiting from the country's remarkable economic growth, Mahathir survived leadership contests, splits in UMNO, and challenges from the Islamic Party (PAS). The Barisan National (a coalition dominated by Mahathir's UMNO) under his premiership sustained an overwhelming majority in the federal Parliament as a result of successive electoral victories. Having instigated Malaysia's economic success in the 1980s and early 1990s, the country suffered in the Asian recession in the late 1990s. In 1998 he had a strong disagreement over economic policy with his Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who was more Western-facing than Mahathir. Ibrahim was sacked and arrested the next day on charges of corruption and sodomy, amid much protest in Malaysia. In 1999 Ibrahim was sentenced to six years in prison for corruption and nine years for sodomy (a charge which he successfully appealed against in 2004). Mahathir still kept a firm grip on the country, with his tough image reinforced by these events. In 2001 he provided support to the USA after 9/11, but did not support the invasion of Iraq, with his comments increasingly being directed against the West. He resigned in 2003, and was succeeded by his new deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. At the time, he was the longest-serving elected head of state in Asia, having been Prime Minister for 22 years. He resigned from UMNO in 2008 after the ruling coalition for the first time lost its two-thirds majority in parliamentary elections, in protest at Badawi's stewardship of the party.
Subjects: Politics — Contemporary History (Post 1945).