Mahathir Begins Rule in Malaysia

The outspoken Datuk Seri Mahathir bin Mohamad began his twenty-two-year rule as Malaysia’s prime minister, presiding over the country’s rapid economic modernization, growth, and prosperity as well as its increasing prominence in Southeast Asian politics. His political longevity indicated a widespread basis of support in democratic elections.

Summary of Event

Datuk Seri Mahathir bin Mohamad’s experiences before 1981 suggest several directions that would affect his total political career. His formal association with the United Malays National Organization United Malays National Organization (UMNO) came in 1946, the year of the party’s founding. His career as a medical doctor began while working for the government, but he soon set up his own private practice. He continued to serve in executive administrative positions for the UMNO over the next few years, but his place within the party ebbed and flowed. A low ebb came only five years after his election in 1964 as a member of parliament for the Kota Setar Selatan area. In the third general election in 1969, he was narrowly defeated by his Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party opponent. The loss perhaps partly stemmed from Mahathir’s public declaration that he did not need Chinese votes to keep his parliamentary post a bad calculation in Malaysia’s multiethnic environment. Malaysia, government
[kw]Mahathir Begins Rule in Malaysia (Apr. 13, 1981)
[kw]Malaysia, Mahathir Begins Rule in (Apr. 13, 1981)
Malaysia, government
[g]Southeast Asia;Apr. 13, 1981: Mahathir Begins Rule in Malaysia[04470]
[g]Malaysia;Apr. 13, 1981: Mahathir Begins Rule in Malaysia[04470]
[c]Government and politics;Apr. 13, 1981: Mahathir Begins Rule in Malaysia[04470]
Mahathir bin Mohamad, Datuk Seri
Abdul Rahman, Tunku
Hussein Onn, Tun

However, it was the major crisis of the spring of 1969 widespread racial rioting pitting Malays against Indian and Chinese minority communities that led to the UMNO decision to oust Mahathir from the party Supreme Council and even to ban him from party membership. In what would become his typical outspoken style, he criticized Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman for his inability to govern effectively.

While “banished,” Mahathir wrote The Malay Dilemma (1970), Malay Dilemma, The (Mahathir bin Mohamad) his first and most controversial book. In it, he tried to analyze the need for a delicate political balance between the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities and the poorer Malay majority. After nearly three years on the margins of Malaysian politics, Mahathir rejoined the UMNO in 1972. By 1974, he succeeded in reestablishing his position as an elected member of parliament and advanced to a key post as minister of education. He rapidly climbed the ranks of the UMNO over the next few years. In 1975, he became a UMNO vice president and was soon elected deputy president of the party in 1976.

It was perhaps Mahathir’s loyal service to the party that caused Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn to appoint Mahathir as deputy prime minister in 1978. His political skills, however, explain why Tun Hussein appointed him minister of trade and industry, encouraging him at the same time to present his candidacy to head the UMNO. This move proved successful when the thirty-second general assembly of the party elected Mahathir president of the UMNO in June, 1981.

Mahathir’s almost immediate accession to the prime ministership in July, 1981, came when Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn resigned because of health reasons. It was not long before the personal marks of Mahathir’s political style marks that would dominate the twenty-two years of his leadership in Malaysia began to appear. Before the end of July, Mahathir removed the ban on his book. He did this, however, while simultaneously presenting a public apology to former prime minister Abdul Rahman, who had been the object of frank criticism by Mahathir in the early years of independence. Mahathir’s decision to increase the number of cabinet posts seemed to indicate a desire to be certain that the government could meet increasingly complex demands in the coming decade. At the same time, he assigned to himself the key portfolio of minister of defense, a position he held for five years.

Two years after coming to office, Mahathir championed new legislation that reduced the influence of the traditional sultanic families, specifically under the Constitutional Amendment Bill of 1983. In part his actions were aimed at increasing national identification with his own and other political parties as main theaters for politics. If one considers, however, that the princely families represented Malay ethnic identity par excellence, the direction of Mahathir’s moves might be seen as a way of reducing tensions between the Malay majority and the economically more prominent minority groups, especially the Chinese.

It was primarily through grassroots social and higher-level economic development policy that the attributes of “Mahathirism” would emerge. In the realm of social security, a significant if revealing program was inaugurated in April, 1984, only months before Mahathir’s candidacy for the renewed presidency of the UMNO passed without opposition. New legislation provided for maternity and leave benefits for families having at least five children. Publicly the move was justified as an encouragement to increase the country’s productive capacity by the year 2000, but potential political rivals questioned whether it was camouflage for broadening support among the lower classes (mainly Malay).

It is difficult to assign specific dates corresponding to developing stages of Mahathir’s economic development strategy for Malaysia. One well-known aspect of his vision was his emphasis on his country’s contribution as a “way station” on the “information highway.” This role would be enhanced by attracting investments by foreign electronics companies seeking lower labor costs in an environment eager to broaden all levels of technical skill.

Mahathir supported changes in what the previous government had designed as the New Economic Policy New Economic Policy, Malaysian (NEP). Part of his plan emphasized programs that would economically improve the lives of bumiputra (children of the soil) ethnic Malays as well as other indigenous groups, as distinct from immigrants. A first stage called for involving the state as a controlling participant in the capital of already existing (mainly British) economic concerns. As his guiding leadership took form, Mahathir repeatedly widened his definition of Malaysia’s economic and political goals by emphasizing Asian development models, using the term “look East policy.”

In time, many government contracts in key development sectors went to Korean and Japanese firms. In terms of bumiputra philosophy, this helped Mahathir avoid charges of overly dominant Western participation in Malaysia’s development. A revealing symbol of his determination to balance economic factors in a way that would leave major decisions in the hands of Malaysia was the granting of a contract to build a “showcase” bridge from the mainland to Penang Island to a Korean firm, even though French investors had submitted a lower bid.

In short, Mahathir, even in the early stages of his prime ministership, revealed an intention to carry out political and economic policies that he believed would be in Malaysia’s long-term interests, risking as he did many times over the next two decades possible alienation of domestic and international critics of his often domineering style of leadership.


There have always been a number of internal issues of political and socioeconomic importance for Malaysia that go beyond the specific role played by Datuk Seri Mahathir bin Mohamad. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that his long-term leadership placed a particular imprint on Malaysia’s domestic and international profile.

Several issues that carried forward from Malaysia’s earlier history were constant concerns, not only for Mahathir but also for those who tried to oppose him politically. First, the country had to address the dynamic issue of immigration by large numbers of Chinese and Indians who played key roles in the economic and social fabric of Malaysia. While the Indian community participated in secondary or tertiary levels of agricultural mainly rubber plantations and trade activity, the Chinese became involved not only in the labor market but also in commercial ventures that with time grew substantially. Mahathir had from the outset tried to avoid the impression of overlooking the political importance of this fact.

A second key issue involved finding an appropriate delineation for the traditional influence and authority of the sultanic families who, under the colonial system, had been recognized as representative authorities in different traditional regions of the Malay Peninsula. In Mahathir’s view, any policy that aimed at lessening this traditional symbol would have to find ways to maintain the loyalty and confidence of the Malay ethnics. Some suggest that his grassroots social reform policies, particularly in education, were designed to meet this goal. Malaysia, government

Further Reading

  • Hilley, John. Malaysia: Mahathirism, Hegemony, and the New Opposition. New York: Zed Books, 2001. Concentrates on evolving reactions to Mahathir’s dominant political style.
  • Lahiri, Imankalyan. Mahathir’s Islam: A Social-Political Construal. Kolkata, India: Ekush Satak, 2005. Examination of Mahathir’s policies toward Malaysia’s key issues of cultural identity.
  • Mahathir bin Mohamad, Datuk Seri. The Challenge. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Pelanduk, 1986. One of several of Prime Minister Mahathir’s books outlining his view of Malaysia’s contemporary and future political, economic, and social prospects.

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