Remembering What Mahathir Did For Malaysia

My Malaysian friends are really happy that the opposition beat BN to win over control of Malaysia.

It’s been a long wait for them to seek justice for all the crimes (real or perceived) that the previous administration did to them over several decades.

For us across the Causeway, it’s insightful to observe the changes that have happened since the historic Malaysia GE14.

Some of the announcements by the new Malaysian government have been a bit baffling or waffling (from the eyes of a Singaporean), but not unexpected.

It is too early to say whether moving forward, Mahathir will truly save Malaysia.

So let’s remember what he did for Malaysia in the past.


Mahathir is the current Prime Minister of Malaysia. He also held the same post from 1981-2003.


How well did Mahathir lead Malaysia in the past?

A 2015 article by Dan Slater, an associate professor in political science from the University of Chicago, has been making its rounds again. He claims that Malaysia’s mess is Mahathir-made.
Here are some excerpts from his article, which can be read in full here.

1. Although Najib is responsible for the current mess, it originally started with Mahathir


To be sure, Najib’s fingerprints are all over the current mess.
But this road toward ruin commenced with Mahathir, not Najib.


2. Malaysia’s economy was initially healthy when Mahathir first came into power


Malaysia’s economy had been growing healthily for decades… Governance and tax collection were effective, and debts were few.
Natural resource wealth, including oil, was professionally stewarded.
A decade of muscular redistribution to the country’s ethnic Malay majority had restored social stability after the race riots of 1969. 
Incoming foreign investment was copious and about to mushroom even further.
Mahathir commanded one of the most cohesive ruling parties (the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO) and coalitions (the Barisan Nasional, or BN) in the world.
The regime was authoritarian, but not intensely repressive or disliked in comparative terms.
In short, Mahathir was holding a winning hand when he became prime minister in 1981.


3. But Malaysia then became mired in debt


Obsessed with following in the footsteps of Asia’s technological leaders, Mahathir began borrowing heavily to fund his ‘Look East’, state-led heavy-industrialisation program.
Privatisation was part of his growth package, but the beneficiaries were businessmen of loyalty more than talent.
When the global economy went into recession in the mid-1980s, patronage started drying up.


4. UMNO began to split, and become more repressive


UMNO split, largely in reaction to Mahathir’s strong-armed style of rule.
Mahathir’s two most talented rivals, Tengku Razaleigh and Musa Hitam, bolted from UMNO despite their deep personal ties to the party, mostly to get away from Mahathir himself.
Mahathir responded by launching a police operation under the pretext of racial tensions, imprisoning and intimidating political rivals, and cementing his autocratic control.


5. Najib inherited a broken party and indebted economy from Mahathir


By the late 1980s, all of the defining features of Malaysia’s current crisis under Najib’s leadership were already evident under Mahathir.
The regime was increasingly repressive. The office of prime minister was becoming a haven of autocracy.
Ethnic tensions had been reopened to political manipulation. The economy was worrisomely indebted.
UMNO was shedding some of its most capable leaders.
This was the beginning of Malaysia’s sad national decline, under Mahathir’s watch and at his own hand.


6. What did Mahathir do to pull Malaysia out of crisis (e.g. the Asian Financial Crisis)?


He (Mahathir) sacked and imprisoned his popular and gifted deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, largely for his temerity in suggesting that Malaysia needed deeper reforms to regain economic health.
Mahathir didn’t pull Malaysia out of its crisis with economic reform or adjustment, but with more and more borrowing and spending. 
This was possible because Malaysia was still sitting on the fiscal reserves it had been amassing for half a century, since the British colonial period.
Mahathir grandiosely claimed that his imposition of capital controls had saved the economy. 
But capital flight had basically run its course by the time controls were implemented. Mahathir imposed them to facilitate political repression as much as economic recovery.


7. Using racial tensions to win votes


The spectre of anti-Chinese riots in neighbouring Indonesia was then callously manipulated to keep ethnic Chinese voters in the BN fold in the 1999 elections.


8. How similar are Najib and Mahathir?


  • Like Mahathir, Najib assumed autocratic control over the economy and embarked on reckless borrowing and investment schemes, especially 1MDB.


  • Like Mahathir, Najib unleashed a torrent of repression under antiquated security laws to protect his own position amid rising criticism from civil society and from within UMNO. L


  • Like Mahathir, Najib has recklessly played the ethnic and religious card as his position has weakened.


  • And in consummate Mahathir style, Najib has now (in 2015) even sacked his deputy, Muyhiddin Yassin, for questioning Najib’s repression of the media in response to the 1MDB scandal.


9. Why weren’t there any good leaders after Mahathir left?


By forcing the three most capable politicians beside himself out of UMNO during their prime, Mahathir ensured that only relative lightweights would command leading positions in Malaysia’s most powerful political institution.

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