Mahathir Mohamad returns, but what about Mahathirism?


Instead of reintroducing authoritarian power, as skeptics had warned, Mahathir has shown an unusual commitment to democratic and institutional reforms, writes Khoo Boo Teik.


  • Fifteen years after he retired as prime minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad returned to that position after the general election of 2018 in Malaysia. The question now is: will & # 39; Mahathirism & # 39 ;, in different ways understand, return with him?
  • Some components of Mahathirism can be expected to be reflected in Mahathir's new policy. He does not have the time to fundamentally reinvent his ideology, especially if, in accordance with the internal consensus of the ruling coalition, he will be prime minister for only two years.
  • The grand ideological construction of ancient Mahathirism can not be reproduced because the old nationalist-capitalist project that previously served can not be rebuilt to its former extent. In an unknown context of & # 39; regime change & # 39; The current administrative priorities of Mahathir and his political debts to his Pakistani Harapan allies will inevitably bring about changes in Mahathirism.
  • Instead of re-imposing authoritarianism, as skeptics warned of the general election, Mahathir has shown an unusual commitment to democratic and institutional reforms.


During the general election in Malaysia on May 9, 2018, Pakatan Harapan (Harapan, or Pact of Hope), a four-party coalition that was formed in 2017, defeated the Barisan Nasional (BN or National Front) that ruled the country for 61 years. The next day Harapan's chairman, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, was sworn in as the Seventh Prime Minister, two months short for his 93rd birthday, 15 years after he retired (in October 2003) and 37 after he became prime minister for the first time (in July 1981).

Skeptics in and out of Harapan were afraid that & # 39; Old Man Mahathir & # 39; Mahathirism would smuggle to the government if Harapan won the election. The question can now be asked in a non-hypothetical form: which parts of ancient Mahathirism have appeared again and can go beyond the new premiership of Mahathir? Time allows only tentative and speculative answers: the post-election order is three months old, while Mahathir, according to Harapan's agreement, will lead the government for only two years.

Recalling Mahathirism

In 1995 I introduced the term Mahathirism (Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press) as conceptual shorthand for the political ideology of Mahathir, itself a compilation of its core ideas of nationalism, capitalism, Islam, populism and authoritarianism. The ideology could be constructed coherently from his speeches, writings and interviews, his practices as a politician and his policy as national leader.

Mahathirism formed a worldview that was more than that of Mahathir, and was shared by the social classes and groups that closely matched his ambitions for Malaysia. Mahathirism held the prevailing ideas for the nationalist-capitalist project of which Mahathir was the most important compiler and executor (Khoo Boo Teik, Beyond Mahathir: Malaysian Politics and its Discontents, London and New York, Zed Books, 2003). At its peak in the first half of the nineties, the project had an hegemonic attraction in the form of Mahathir's popular Vision 2020.

Mahathirism, however, lost its grandeur in 1997-98 when the East Asian financial crisis ravaged the nationalist-capitalist project and the Reformasi movement undermined the prime minister's legitimacy.

Critics and dissidents, especially those whose formative political experience was Mahathir's persecution of Anwar Ibrahim, curtailed Mahathirism into narrativeism & # 39; in the economic management of the regime, and the & # 39; iron fist & # 39; with which the regime led opposition and dissenting opinions (Barry Wain, Malay Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Even this truncated Mahathirism seemed irrelevant when the next two prime ministers, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib Abdul Razak, broke away from Mahathir & # 39; s legacy, which did not show their allegiance to Vision 2020.

Mahathirism one more time?

Neither the time nor the context makes it possible for Mahathir to redefine ideas that he once expressed in the past decades. Only fragments that are found here and there can indicate how the different core components of Mahathirism do today.


Mahathir & # 39; s nationalism had four manifestations. The oldest was Malaysian nationalism, traceable to the movement for independence and concern about "Malaysian economic backwardness." The most promising was a Malaysian nationalism with the idea of ​​a Malaysian nationality (Bangsa, Malaysia). The most pragmatic was economic nationalism that included Malaysian economic equality with the non-Malays in the country and the rise of Malaysia to the developed country & # 39; in the world. Finally, there was the nationalism of an unrelated position in international affairs.

Mahathir's discontent about the size and quality of the Malaysian economic performance has been implanted too deeply to disappear. That is why he would prefer a certain New Economic Policy (NEP) & # 39; restructuring & # 39 ;, unlike Anwar which in 2006 called for the abolition of NEP. For example, Mahathir wants to bring Khazanah back to its original status as a repository of "Bumiputera assets", and not use it to invest in domestic and foreign companies.

Nowadays, Mahathir is more flexible in providing state support to non-Malaysian communities. Before the general election he participated in the Indian community, certainly to win their support (via a pact with Hindraf) but promising special help to 'Indian marginalization'. to light up.

Mahathir's relationship with the Chinese community shows how far he traveled from the time that he traded Chinese for the & # 39; Malaysian Dilemma & # 39; criticized. For years, he has been openly praising Chinese contributions to national development, while Chinese voters have been a staunch supporter since 1990 and in 2018 Harapan & # 39; s:

"Our country is what it is today because of the contribution of business, especially the Chinese community, because they are dynamic in many ways." – Mahathir ("You helped Malaysia to make it what it is today, says PM businessmen, Chinese room", The Malay Mail, July 20, 2018)

It is different when he criticizes Najib's contracts for large-scale infrastructure projects with companies from China. Mahathir, who disapproved of their conditions, compared the contracts with "unequal treaties", hoping to preach China's conscience, but appealed to the spirit of his "Buy British Last" campaign from 1981. Then he confronted Great Britain. Now he is arguing with China to review the projects (& # 39; Problem of Malaysia: how to close a better economic deal with China ;, Bloomberg, July 25, 258). He stressed Najib's debt in creating a situation that both Malaysia and China regretted.

In Southeast Asia, in charge of new power rivalry, Mahathir urges Asean states to confirm their neutrality and to counteract militarization. In a crucial signal of policy reorientation, Minister of Defense Mohamad Sabu announced the withdrawal of a small number of troops that the Najib regime in Saudi Arabia had stationed in tacit support for his war against Yemen.

In a new valorisation of nationalism, Mahathir attributed the victory of Harapan to a patriotic multi-ethnic wave to Save Malaysia & # 39; to rescue and help … stand up as an Asian tiger & # 39 ;. None of the younger leaders of Harapan can truly be heirs to the nationalism of Mahathir, if only because this very old man is alone among the living Asian leaders to have played a role in ending colonial domination. (I thank Takashi Shiraishi for this point.)

But Anwar, planned to succeed Mahathir, and younger Harapan leaders speak more intuitively about & # 39 ;, multicultural policies that mitigate ethno-religious differentiation and chauvinism.


Mahathir retains his long-standing positions about Islam. He recommends Muslims to work with "good" & # 39; Islamic values ​​and to live according to religious moderation and tolerance, among themselves and with non-Muslims. He spent little time on religious issues before the general elections of 2018. As he did many years ago, he rejected the politicians of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas, or Pan-Malay Islamic Party) for using religion for political purposes & # 39 ;.

This time he disdained Pas for the rejection of Harapan and tacitly tuning to Umno. Mahathir partly used his discretionary power as prime minister for several leaders of Parti Amanah Nasional (Amanah, or National Trust Party), the Harapan party led by & progress; & # 39; exiles from Pas, to appoint the cabinet. She, with Anwar and his Malaysian comrades of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (Keadilan, or People & # 39; s Justice Party), will "Mahathirs Islam & # 39; keep alive, but add their Reformasi-association of Islam with democracy, freedom, justice and anti-corruption in contradiction to the religious conservatism of Pas, Umno, and some Islamic organizations, official or otherwise.


Mahathir's thoughts on capitalism focused on major economic issues. In the eighties he tackled the inefficiency of the public sector, heavy industrialization and recession. In the nineties he confronted himself with the irrationality of the financial markets and again with the recession. One could describe his Malaysia Incorporated policy as "pragmatic dirigism", inspired by the "East Asian development model." For him, Malaysia Inc. a workable balance on the government market distorted in 1997 by currency speculators. He plans the & # 39; pro-business & # 39; attitude of Malaysia Inc. to encourage domestic investment, attract foreign capital and expand trade. Mahathir saw Malaysian capitalism rise with the & # 39; East Asian wonder & # 39 ;, fall with the & # 39; East Asian meltdown & # 39; and weakened by & # 39; kleptocracy & # 39 ;.

His primary job is to have his inherited debt crisis & # 39; to manage. He will remember the thrift, the budget discipline and the austerity he and then the finance minister, Daim Zainuddin, used to reduce the external debt of the government during the difficult mid-1980s. He has neither time nor resources to launch new economic initiatives similar to those of his first premiership. He was referring to a revival of the National Car & # 39; but his proposal met criticism in public and in Harapan.

While he considers his mission to be soothing – & # 39; to get the economy back on the right track & # 39; – he can adapt the investment regime inventively to create a new trend of rapid growth, as he did intentionally to suspend the NEP restructuring requirements in 1986 and to make investment-friendly policies to attract East Asian production capital in the years after the Plaza agreement.

Other leaders of Harapan do not share the love of Mahathir's conductors, but the peculiarities of the Malaysian political economy oppose their choice for a radically neoliberal policy. Their ideal would be a market-based capitalism disciplined by transparency, accountability, good governance and the exclusion of corporate politics. They would dampen such economic regime with social justice & # 39 ;, minimum wage and needs-based positive action, for example, the & # 39; humane economy & # 39; to produce that Keadilan advocated in his 2008 election campaign (Parti Keadilan Rakyat, KeADilan Manifesto 2008 – A New Dawn For Malaysia, February 26, 2008).


Few things have recently moved Mahathir, just like his & # 39; binding & # 39; with the dissident masses he met before the general election. He admired the Bersih 4 and Bersih 5 demonstrators, regretting that the protests could not quickly throw off Najib and Umno-BN as large demonstrations drove other corrupt leaders elsewhere. In his imagination, the final mass revolt against unjust rule was the anti-Malayan Union movement of 1946. As prime minister he was only present at staged mass events.

By contrast, his participation in the Bersih and election meetings was not patronizing or manipulative. He mocked the & # 39; young & # 39; Reformasi people who demonstrated against him as anarchists. But the Bersih demonstrators were really in awe of him by organizing, organizing, and keeping their meetings organized!

Mahathir had enough of his old populist self to feel that, in the fight against a corrupt and repressive regime, the dissident masses were renewing their society. When he addressed the Bersih 5 bus, he could have said that they belonged to his Bangsa Malaysia. He may not do that because too many people combined Vision 2020 with an economic dream of development. Anwar could promote this populist part of Mahathirism, because Anwar had gone further than anyone else in prison to imagine a new nation and society along non-ethnic lines.

Before the elections, Mahathir had a few re-enactments of his old brushes with monarchy. A few Malaysian rulers openly disdained him. Mahathir remained as challenging for them as in the constitutional crisis 1983-84. As before, he now insists that the monarchy must not exceed its constitutional position and powers.


Mahathir's most unexpected and remarkable deviation from Mahathirism is his anti-authoritarian twist. After their meeting of atonement & # 39; On 5 September 2016, Anwar said that "Mahathir embraced the reform agenda".

Here was not the philosophy but the frustration the true catalyst of the & hug; & # 39; from Mahathir. He had instructed Najib to leave his office; urged Umno to replace his leader; asked Parliament to move a vote of no confidence to the Prime Minister; launched a nationwide, million signing application for the resignation of Najib; and appealed to the Board of Rulers to remove Najib – without result. He shuddered at Najib's use of state institutions to suppress dissidents who challenged him about the 1MDB and other financial scandals.

He was pleased that he was accepted by opposition members and dissidents, some of whom had been previously imprisoned. Mahathir's new bonds taught him to appreciate the basic parameters for controlling abuse of power and protecting civil liberties and human rights: real separation of powers, the rule of law, non-affiliated state institutions and freedom from the mass media.

Faithful to the Harapan Manifesto, Mahathir's leadership has promoted a more democratic and freer political environment by withdrawing politically motivated suits or by destroying unjustified sentences against dissidents; repeal of various repressive laws; and allow a much freer media.

It has reportedly removed partisans from different high positions. The previous attorney general, the highest judge, the director of the MACC, the secretary general of the Treasury and the governor of Bank Negara (the central bank) have been replaced by new, highly qualified and reportedly non-partisan officials ("More than a dozen purified in Pakatan's first 50 days, "The Malaysian Insight, July 3, 2018).

Several senior officials from government-related companies or government-related investment companies have resigned or had to leave otherwise, apparently because they called themselves the political instruments & # 39; wanted to be from Najib. In total the administration has 17,000 & # 39; political appointments & # 39; terminated and some agencies closed as part of its institutional rationalization.

When he was the first prime minister, Mahathir carried out bureaucratic reforms. His goal was to improve the performance of the public sector and not to fight corruption. This time, Mahathir explicitly wants to reform a government that, according to him, has several layers deep & # 39; has become corrupt. He maintains institutional & # 39; cleaning & # 39; at a rate and on a scale that has not been observed before.

To public approval, his government has attacked impunity for high-level corruption, especially by resuming the official investigation of 1MDB (which was suspended by the previous Attorney General) with the cooperation of foreign jurisdictions. The police raided the houses of the Najib clan and grabbed an unimaginably large number of cash, expensive jewelery and luxury handbags and watches.

From mid-August 2018, Najib has been accused of criminal offense, corrupt abuse of power and money laundering – seven charges that are all traceable to 1MDB, although it is now an almost negligible part of the total 1MDB funds. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has frozen 408 individual and / or business bank accounts (some from Umno and BN parties) suspected of receiving money from 1MDB.

Mahathir's campaign for democratic and institutional reforms requires time and effort to achieve lasting results. In principle, the reformers of Harapan should be motivated to support and continue what Mahathir has begun.


The meaning (s) of Mahathirism shifted with social changes and political conflicts. That was true for Mahathir's first premiership, and goes for the second, because some notes about the return of Mahathirism & # 39; sufficient here to conclude.

Firstly, Mahathir can recycle some components of Mahathirism, not because he & # 39; never has changed & # 39; in his career, 9 but because he does not have the time to reinvent his ideology substantially. (Whether Mahathir was changed is discussed in Khoo Boo Teik, "Once Mahathir, always Mahathir?" Aliran, April 18, 2018.)

Secondly, it is plausible that Mahathirism will show some changes corresponding to the current tasks of Mahathir and the political re-adjustments and ideological reinvention of Harapan.

Thirdly, the grand ideological construction of his former nationalist-capitalist project can not be replicated, since the project can not be resurrected to its former extent.

And finally Mahathir's most critical deviation from his old ideology carries this supreme irony of new Mahathirism: the original target of Reformasi has become his spearhead.

Source: ISEAS Perspective, Singapore, 17 August 2018. Publication: 2018 No 46

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