Leader Spotlight: Mahathir bin Mohamad

Name: Mahathir bin Mohamad

Country: Malaysia

Title: Prime Minister

Party: Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM)

Ideology: Progressivism, social liberalism, constitutionalism

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)


The youngest of nine children, Mahathir bin Mohamad was born in 1925 in Alor Setar, British Malaya. As a child, Mahathir excelled in primary school. After finishing his secondary school education, Mahathir studied medicine in Singapore at King Edward VII College of Medicine (now part of the National University of Singapore). After graduating, Mahathir briefly served as a government doctor before establishing his own medical practice. Having been active within politics since his time in university, Mahathir became a member of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysia’s largest political party.

Rise to power:

During the general elections of 1964, Mahathir won a seat in the Malaysian Parliament. Mahathir served one term, losing his seat in 1969. After a fallout with Prime Minister Abdul Rahman, Mahathir was ousted from UMNO. Following reinstatement into the party in 1972, Mahathir was again elected to Parliament in 1973. In 1974 he was appointed to the Cabinet position of Minister of Education, then served as Deputy Prime Minister in 1976. After the retirement of Prime Minister Hussein Onn in 1981, Mahathir was sworn in as Malaysia’s fourth prime minister.

Under Mahathir, Malaysia experienced rapid economic growth and massive development in infrastructure. However, Mahathir’s term was also marked by authoritarian actions, such as crackdowns on journalists and political opponents. In 1998, Mahathir’s Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was ousted from his Cabinet position and from UMNO after allegations of sodomy, later being jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy the following year. Several months before the allegations had spread, Mahathir and Anwar had a fallout over financial policies. Citing this, several world leaders criticised Mahathir, stating that the actions against Anwar were due to his political opposition. Following the controversy surrounding the conviction of Anwar, Mahathir announced in 2002 that he would resign from his position as prime minister, officially doing so in 2003. During his retirement, Mahathir held several positions within Malaysia’s business field. In 2015, he joined thousands of other Malaysians calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak. Deciding to enter politics again, Mahathir left UMNO in 2016 and formed the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM). After PPBM joined the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition in 2017, Mahathir was announced as the coalition’s candidate for prime minister during the 2018 general elections. After the electoral success of Pakatan Harapan, Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in as prime minister for a second term.

Three Recent Policy Issues:

  • Malaysia Development Berhad Scandal Investigations: In 2015, Prime Minister Najib Razak faced accusations of channeling over RM 2.67 billion (approximately USD 700 million) from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a government development company, into his bank accounts. Following Najib’s ousting from his position as prime minister after the 2018 elections, the newly-elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad ensured that there would be thorough investigations into the 1MDB Scandal. Mahathir also stated that those involved would face consequences, including Najib.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, pictured here in 2012. Razak lost his position to Mahathir in Malaysia's 2018 elections. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

  • Chinese Investments in Malaysia: In August of 2018, Mahathir stated that he would be halting two projects in Malaysia linked to China, both worth over $22 billion. Citing fears of falling into debt because of such projects, Mahathir explained that “we do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries.” Mahathir has been open about his concerns of Chinese investment, stating that projects in developing Southeast Asian countries often result in massive debt to China.

  • Constitutional Amendments: Mahathir announced in October of 2018 that he planned to eliminate the death penalty and abolish the Sedition Act. However, instead of abolishing the death penalty completely, in March the Malaysian government stated that the penalty would no longer be mandatory for certain criminal offenses. The decision to impose the death penalty would be left to courts. Meanwhile, Mahathir stated in October that there would be no timeline for repealing the Sedition Act. As of March, government officials have claimed that a final decision will be made soon on whether to abolish or amend the act.

  • Preparing Anwar Ibrahim for the Position of Prime Minister (yes, the same Anwar Ibrahim that he ousted from his Cabinet): Citing his old age, Mahathir stated that he would be willing to step aside from his prime ministerial position to let Anwar Ibrahim succeed him within the next two years. This is not the first time that Mahathir has done so. During Anwar’s time as deputy prime minister in the 1990s, Mahathir also stated that he would be his designated successor before removing him from his Cabinet in 1998. The two have since reconciled. In 2018, Anwar was pardoned for sodomy charges under the Najib government, freeing him from prison and allowing him to work with Mahathir to prepare for the role of prime minister. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah binti Wan Ismail, is currently serving as Mahathir’s deputy prime minister. Mahathir stated that Anwar “is the best man to lead Malaysia now.”

Anwar Ibrahim (center), the former deputy prime minister, pictured with his wife Wan Azizah binti Wan Ismail (right), the current deputy prime minister, at a rally in 2013 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Most Notable Accomplishment(s): Other than serving two non-consecutive terms as prime minister, Mahathir was also successful in establishing one of Malaysia’s most notable landmarks. Following his commissioning of the project, construction of the Petronas Twin Towers began in 1994. After construction was finished in 1998, the towers stood at 451.9 meters (1,482.6 feet) tall and were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004. The towers are still the tallest twin towers in the world.

The Petronas Towers (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Most Infamous Position: Mahathir has been a long-time critic of Israel, blaming the country for many of the issues within the Middle East. In 2003 he stated that “If we think back, there was no systematic campaign of terror outside Europe until the Europeans and the Jews created a Jewish state out of Palestinian land.” Mahathir recently stated in October that “If you are going to be truthful, the problem in the Middle East began with the creation of Israel. That is the truth. But I cannot say that.” Such comments have garnered criticism from Western leaders in Australia and the U.S.

Interesting Facts:

  • Mahathir is currently the oldest sitting state leader in the world at 93 years old.

  • At the end of his first term as prime minister, Mahathir was the world's longest-serving elected leader, having served 22 years in office (1981-2003).

  • Mahathir Mahathir is the first prime minister to not represent the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, the first prime minister to serve from two different parties, and the first to serve two non-consecutive terms.

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