• Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Mahathir Mohamad, the fourth and seventh Prime Minister of Malaysia, has recently been visiting Singapore, for a meeting of the ASEAN community.

The relationship between Malaysia and Singapore has always been tetchy, at best. Singaporeans have a way of looking down their noses at their closest neighbours and supposed rivals. People, such as this writer, who have had the experience of crossing the land border from Singapore into Malaysia would find it hard to miss the patronizing tone with which the people of Singapore, refer to their Malaysian neighbours.

Singapore is one of the most developed nations in the world. Malaysia was doing well for a long time but is not exactly in the same league.

Singapore, a tiny agglomeration of ragged fishing, smuggling and trading communities rejected and cast off as worthless by mainland Malaysia, with whom it was previously in union, a mish-mash of Chinese, Indians, Malays and other Asian stock without a common historical antecedent was made into one of the model exemplars of human social and economic development by the vision and sheer force of personality of its founding Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yu. It is one of the marvels of the age – a model of what is possible if a society is blessed with visionary and dedicated leadership.

The Singaporeans’ snootiness towards their neighbours is unkind, and not strictly based on fact. Malaysia, while not enjoying the superstar status of Singapore, has earned within the world community the status of a model of positive, if less spectacular social and political development. Much of that development took place during the ‘golden era’ of Malaysia, which occurred from 1981 to 2003. It has, mostly rightly, been attributed to the work done by Mahathir as Prime Minister. Having served as Prime Minister for twenty-three years already made him the longest serving leader in the nation’s history. Retiring at seventy-eight, it would be logically assumed that he would be embarking on a well-earned rest, and that he would feel entitled to devote the rest of his life to leisure and contemplation.

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Seeing Mahathir, at 93, shaking hands in Singapore, diplomatically swatting at the snobbery of Singaporean neighbours, and again carrying the burden of the Malaysia project on his shoulders brings a certain disquiet to the observer’s mind. It leaves a sour taste in the mouth. To phrase it brutally,

Why has Malaysia done this to Mahathir?’

Or perhaps it should be the other way?

Why has Mahathir done this to Malaysia?’

The story is that Mahathir truly intended to put up his feet and bounce his grandchildren on his knees. But developments in his country would not let him. The system he thought he had developed and perfected quickly unraveled. Malaysia became a centre for corruption and venality. He had a falling out with two successive Prime Ministers and was increasingly strident in his criticisms.

By 2017, fifteen years after he handed over, he was forming a new political party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM)   and throwing in his lot with the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan. He was proposed as a possible chairman and prime mistrial candidate of the coalition.

On 8th January 2018 Mahathir was announced as the opposition alliance’s prime ministerial candidate for the May 2018 election. To run as his deputy was Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of Anwar Ibrahim, his former political enemy.

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Which brings the discussion to the story of Anwar Ibrahim.

When Mahathir was Prime Minister, he cut a figure of a man who wanted to reach for the high ground, and to Malaysia in the ascendant. The economy was booming. The GDP grew at an impressive rate, among the best in all of Asia. Malaysia was a multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation. Of the thirty million population, fifty percent were ethnic Malays, who were mostly Muslims. The rest were Chinese, Indians, and other indigenous people. The rights of all religions were officially recognized by the state, but Islam was the principal religion of the state. Mahathir tried to parlay the diversity into strength for national development. It was an unwritten part of the Malaysian project that the controlling levers should be retained in the hands of the Malay majority, while at the same time the industry and economic dominance of the Chinese population should be cultivated for national prosperity. All of this was to be done while maintaining harmony and cooperation between the different ethnic groups. It was a tough task, but it mirrored pretty much the nation-building challenge faced by many post-colonial societies in the third world. Mahathir embarked on visionary projects, such as the building of a ‘Cyberjaya’ – a mini-city designed to serve as a hub for development of information technology long before many Asian countries awoke to the possibilities of the technology.

Even when he urged the ‘bumiputra’ to pull themselves up by the bootstraps so that they could effectively compete with other racial groups, his statement was seen as no more than plain talk from a leader offering tough love to his people. The country waxed stronger.

But certain things did not match and tended to put a question mark on Mahathir’s squeaky-clean image. One of them was the sacking and jailing of his deputy and presumptive heir Anwar Ibrahim after what was obviously a falling out. Anwar was indicted, convicted, and sent to prison for ‘sodomy’.

It was a bizarre development that was never fully explained, since ‘sodomy’ was only a crime in starkly religious societies and among such groups as confused Nigerian legislators noted for making absurd laws.

The same Anwar now became the power broker for Mahathir’s second incarnation. It was understood that a deal had been struck for him to hand over the office of Prime Minister to Anwar eventually, presumably after ‘stabilizing’ the polity to his satisfaction. And indeed, he moved swiftly to free Anwar from prison, granting him a full pardon.


Since coming back to power, Mahathir has moved swiftly to sanitize the system – again. He has created a Council of Eminent Persons to serve as government’s advisory board. He has made major changes to the structure of government. His predecessor as Prime Minister has been questioned on corruption charges by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

What really are the lessons to be learned from Mahathir’s, and Malaysia’s current situation? What are the prospects that Mahathir will do in one or two years what he could not do in twenty-three years – build a sustainable system that is able to regulate itself and prevent outrageous behavior? Is he truly going to hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim soon? If Anwar is guilty of ‘sodomy’, why has he been freed, and given the prospect of becoming Malaysia’s Prime Minister in short order? If he is not guilty, why was he charged In the first place? What are the prospects for Malaysia? What are the lessons for other countries, especially those in the third world.

At the very least, the ‘strongmen’ who hold sway In Africa must reflect on the Mahathir lesson – that having an ‘honest’ man rule a nation, even for decades is not enough guarantee of sustainable ‘change’, just as putting a ‘tough’ man at the helm of Customs does not guarantee the building of a good Customs service. Institutions need to be built, in place of personality promotion, grandstanding and sensational trials in the media.

To use a phrase that is getting increasingly shop-worn, a country serious about sustainable development requires not strong men, but strong institutions. How to create those strong institutions in countries riven with corruption and a lack of commonly agreed values remains the million-dollar question.


 Femi Olugbile