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Mahathir Mohamad: Epitome of politics of popularity

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Mahathir Mohamad: Epitome of politics of popularity

Dr Mahathir at his office

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As he celebrates his 99th birthday today, Dr Mahathir Mohamad stands as one of the most influential and polarising figures in Southeast Asian politics; with a legacy marked by rapid industrialisation, economic growth, and political resilience, he has etched an indelible mark on Malaysia’s history

Touseful Islam

Publisted at 12:44 PM, Wed Jul 10th, 2024

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While Malaysia has mended itself to a meteoric rise, one name is synonymous with it - Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

As he celebrates his 99th birthday today, Mahathir Mohamad stands as one of the most influential and polarising figures in Southeast Asian politics.

His legacy, marked by rapid industrialisation, economic growth, and political resilience, has etched an indelible mark on Malaysia’s history.

Modest upbringing to maverick uplifting

Born on 10 July 1925, in Alor Setar, Kedah, Mahathir Mohamad was the youngest of nine children in a modest family.

His father, Mohamad Iskandar, was a schoolteacher, and his mother, Wan Tempawan, was a homemaker.

Despite the family's limited means, Mahathir’s parents prioritised education, instilling in him a strong work ethic and a thirst for knowledge.

Mahathir’s academic journey began at Sultan Abdul Hamid College in Alor Setar, where his brilliance shone through.

He later pursued medicine at King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore, becoming a doctor.

This profession, coupled with his involvement in local politics, set the stage for his future role as a national leader.

Political ascent into popularity

Mahathir's political career took off when he joined the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in 1946.

His fiery rhetoric and unwavering commitment to Malay nationalism garnered attention. However, his outspoken criticism of the then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, led to his temporary expulsion from UMNO in 1969.

Undeterred, Mahathir penned "The Malay Dilemma" in 1970, a controversial book that criticised Malay political and economic weaknesses while advocating for affirmative action policies.

The book’s impact was profound, laying the groundwork for his political comeback. Reinstated in UMNO in 1972, Mahathir’s political star began to rise, culminating in his appointment as Prime Minister in 1981.

Mahathir’s tenure as Prime Minister, spanning from 1981 to 2003 and again from 2018 to 2020, was marked by transformative policies and bold economic initiatives.

Under his leadership, Malaysia underwent rapid industrialization, shifting from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing powerhouse.

The introduction of the Look East Policy, which emphasized emulating Japan and South Korea’s work ethics and industrial strategies, played a pivotal role in this transformation.

Mahathir’s Vision 2020, aimed at achieving developed nation status by the year 2020, encapsulated his ambitious aspirations for Malaysia. His policies fostered economic growth, improved infrastructure, and reduced poverty rates.

The construction of iconic landmarks like the Petronas Twin Towers symbolised Malaysia’s progress and modernisation.

Rise marred by controversy

Mahathir’s political journey was not without controversies.

His tenure witnessed authoritarian measures, including the detention of political opponents under the Internal Security Act and the suppression of media freedom.

The Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-1998 also posed significant challenges, yet Mahathir’s unorthodox economic strategies, such as capital controls, were credited with stabilising the economy.

Despite stepping down in 2003, Mahathir remained an influential political figure, often criticizing his successors. His remarkable return to politics in 2018 at the age of 92, leading the Pakatan Harapan coalition to a historic victory, underscored his enduring appeal and political acumen.

His second tenure as Prime Minister focused on anti-corruption measures and economic reforms, though it was cut short by political turmoil in 2020.

An unfading popularity

Mahathir’s popularity can be attributed to several factors.

His visionary leadership and economic policies transformed Malaysia into a modern, industrialised nation. His steadfast commitment to Malay rights and nationalism resonated with the majority Malay population.

Moreover, his willingness to confront Western powers and assert Malaysia’s sovereignty earned him respect on the global stage.

The doctor's pragmatic approach, blending economic liberalisation with authoritarian governance, created a unique political model.

His legacy, though marred by controversies, is characterised by his relentless pursuit of national progress and development. His ability to adapt and remain relevant in the ever-evolving political landscape is a testament to his enduring influence.

Mahathir Mohamad’s life and career encapsulate the complexities of leadership in a rapidly changing world.

His contributions to Malaysia’s economic transformation, coupled with his political resilience, have cemented his status as a national icon.

The economy of Malaysia is the fifth largest in Southeast Asia and the 36th largest in the world in terms of nominal GDP.

When measured by purchasing power parity, its GDP climbs to the 30th largest. Malaysia is forecasted to have a nominal GDP of nearly half $500 trillion by the end of 2024.

As Malaysia continues to navigate the challenges of the 21st century, Mahathir’s legacy remains a beacon of inspiration and a reminder of the profound impact of visionary leadership.

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