Datuk Seri Mahathir bin Mohammed served as the prime minister of Malaysia for 22 years from 1981 to 2003. He was the longest-serving democratically-elected leader in the world and for a while the longest serving ruler of any kind in Asia. Known in Malaysia as "Dr. M." and the "old man," he was a potent political force in the 1970s, often determining the national agenda.

Mahathir is credited with transforming Malaysia from a rubber-dependent backwater divided by ethnic rivalries into a well-oiled, high-tech Asian tiger. He became a respected—albeit controversial—voice on the international stage and helped Malaysians have pride in themselves. Known for his personalized, paternalistic style, he was the leader of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party. He was the strategist behind his country's rapid economic growth and development.

Under Mahathir, Malaysia was remarkable stable. There were no coups, blood baths or major uprising. Although he was no democrat, Mahathir was not a dictator. He never used the army or the police or brutal methods to retain power. Once voted by Asiaweek as the forth most powerful people in Asia, Mahathir is known for speaking his mind and taking a stand on issues that often angered Washington. Chandra Muzzaffar wrote in Time, “His power pervades. His authority penetrated. His influence permeates.”

Richard Lloyd Parry wrote in The Times: “Dr Mahathir is a towering presence in South-East Asia, the man who more than anyone else shaped the modern Malaysia. After coming to power in 1981, he was unassailable, a figure of vast energy who goaded Malaysians into unprecedented economic achievement while fulminating against the arrogance of the West. Malaysia was a democracy, but a timid one in which the press agreed with almost everything the government said. Those who spoke out against the government were liable to find themselves locked up without trial under the British colonial era’s Internal Security Act. [Source: Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, October 30, 2006]

Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post: Mahathir, has made a career of confrontation. Along the way, he has become the most dominant figure in his country's history and has sought to propel Malaysia into the ranks of the developed world through the sheer force of his will.” When he retired it was “a milestone not just for Malaysia but for all of Southeast Asia. Mahathir is the last in a generation of strongmen. Some, like Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Suharto of Indonesia, were pushed from office. Others, like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, withdrew at a time of their own choosing. "He is a true patriot because he broke our mental barrier. Malaysians thought they couldn't achieve greatness equivalent with that of Western countries," said Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center.[Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, October 27, 2003 =]

“Mahathir was a physician in his home state of Kedah when he was elected to parliament in 1964 and began expounding his ideas about the urgent need to advance the economically backward Malay community. Eleven years later he won a won a senior post in the ruling party, the United Malay National Organization, which has been in power since independence in 1957. He became prime minister in 1981 when his predecessor, Tun Hussein Onn, resigned. Mahathir's supporters cite ethnic peace as one of his greatest achievements. But detractors say he has wrongly exploited the threat of violence to justify repression of political activity and free expression. He has long preached that ethnic Malays should stand on their own feet in this country, where Malays make up a slight majority and the rest of the population is divided between Chinese and Indians. Yet he has ensured that few would stand up to him. =

“Inside the ruling party, he has purged his rivals, most notably his then-deputy prime minister and heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, after Anwar began advancing his own cadres within the ruling party and criticizing Mahathir's economic policies. Mahathir fired Anwar, accusing him of immorality and corruption. Anwar countered by leading his followers to the streets, demanding government reform. In 1998, Anwar was arrested, beaten by the police chief while in jail and then taken to court before the world's news media, with a bruised eye, to face charges of sodomy and corruption. He was convicted in a pair of trials and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The proceedings were condemned by human rights groups and foreign governments as politically motivated.”


Mahathir's Life

The son of a lower middle class hospital worker and schoolteacher in a rural village, Mahathir was born in December, 1925 in in a poor neighbourhood in the town of Alor Setar in the state of Kedah northwestern Malaya. He was the youngest of 10 children. For a while he sold bananas in a wet market.

Mahathir was born at his parents' home. His father, Mohamad bin Iskandar originally from Penang; his mother, Wan Tempawan, was from Kedah, both of Malay descent. An aspect of Mahathir's birth set him apart: he was not born into the aristocracy or a prominent religious or political family. Mahathir's father was a school principal whose low socio-economic status meant his daughters were unable to enroll in secondary school, while Wan Tempawan Mahathir had only a distant relationship to Kedah's royalty. Both parents had been married previously; Mahathir had six half-siblings and two full-siblings. [Source: Wikipedia]

Mahathir grew up when Malaysia was a British colony and the Chinese and Indians dominated the economy. The Malay Peninsula under British rule before World War II, Mahathir wrote was “divided into many different Malay states, and each state had its own treaty with the British. The treaties were for British ‘protection,’ it was said, not colonization. The British were not too repressive...Although the British actually controlled the administration fully, they managed to give the impression that locals had status and authority. The Malaysia sultans were called ‘the rulers’ by the British, although they were never really given any power to ‘rule.’ Describing an ordinary Malayan town in the 1930s, Mahathir Mohamad wrote, “The rich families lived in the northern part of town; we lived in the southern. And the Europeans of course, lived in there own quarters . They were very exclusive with their own clubs and private golf course and did not mix with the local population.” On the impact of World War II Mahathir wrote; “The success of the Japanese invasion convinced us that there is nothing inherently superior in the Europeans. They could be defeated, they could be reduced to groveling before an Asian race, the Japanese.”

Mahathir was a hard-working student. Discipline imposed by his father motivated him to study, and he showed little interest in sports. He won a position in a selective English medium secondary school, having become fluent in English well ahead of his primary school peers. With schools closed during the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II, he went into business, first selling coffee and later pisang goreng (banana fritters) and other snacks. After the war, he graduated from secondary school with high marks and enrolled to study medicine.

Mahathir made a name for himself as a Malay nationalist and a firebrand student leader after, the story goes, he was turned down for a scholarship to an English university because his father was not an aristocrat. Some believe his confrontative style has its roots in injustices he experienced growing under colonialism. On his early political activities in university Mahathir wrote: “I got together with my classmates and quietly we began agitating against the Malayan Union proposal. We were not allowed to be involved in political activity, so most of our work took place at night...We moved around the night putting up posters with political messages.”

Mahathir was trained as a physician in Singapore at at the King Edward VII College of Medicine (now part of National University of Singapore). He was a practicing doctor for several years before taking up politics after Malaysia gained independence in 1957. After he graduated, Mahathir worked as a doctor in government service before marrying in 1956. He returned to Alor Setar the following year to set up his own practice. He was the town's first Malay doctor and was successful. He built a large house, invested in various businesses, and employed a Chinese chauffeur to drive his Pontiac Catalina (most chauffeurs at the time were Malay).

Mahathir wife, Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali, is also a physician. They met in college and were married in 1956. They have three sons and four daughters. Mahathir and Siti Hasmah had their first child, Marina, in 1957, before conceiving three others and adopting three more over the following 28 years.

Mahathir's Early Political Career

Mahathir was elected to parliament in 1964. Almost immediately he began expressing his ideas about the need for the economically backward Malays to advance. In 1969, he was thrown out the HMNO and published a work called “The Malay Dilemma”, which outlined the shortcomings of the Malay people, argued the subservience of Malays to Chinese had cultural and genetic roots and criticized the leader at the time, Tunku Abdul Rahman, of “selling Malay rights to the Chinese.”

Mahathir was sent into political exile in Kedah. He was welcomed back in the party in 1971 after Tunku resigned in September 1971. He was rehabilitated within the party in 1972 for pushing affirmative action and was appointed to Education minister in 1974.

The restoration of democracy after the 1969 crisis caused disputes in the UMNO, a struggle of power which increased after the death of Tun Abdul Razak. The ailing Datuk Hussein Bin Onn replaced him, but the fight for control shifted to appointing the deputy prime minister. Mahathir bin Mahamad was chosen, an advocate of bumiputra who also tried to benefit the other ethnic communities. [Source: Wikipedia]

The government policy on education in the 1970s was driven mainly by Mahathir first as Education Minister and then as Prime Minister, with the aim of transfering economic power to the Malays. Mahathir greatly expanded the number of secondary schools and universities throughout the country, and enforced the policy of teaching in Malay rather than English. This had the effect of creating a large new Malay professional class. It also created an unofficial barrier against Chinese access to higher education, since few Chinese are sufficiently fluent in Malay to study at Malay-language universities. Chinese families therefore sent their children to universities in Singapore, Australia, Britain or the United States. Mahathir also greatly expanded educational opportunities for Malay women – by 2000 half of all university students were women.

Mahathir's Character and Hobbies

Mahathir stood up for the rights of Malays but at the same time harangued them for being backward, uneducated, greedy, lazy and ungrateful to his party and said they were underachievers and they failed to recognize their weakness, choosing instead to blame others. He also publically scolded hi minsters and members of his party.

Mahathir was infamous for his controversial remarks and pro-Islamic activities. In 2008, he urged the world's 1.3 billion Muslims to boycott Dutch products following the release of the anti-Islam movie Fitna by the right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders. He also urged all Muslims to boycott the anti-Islam documentary Islam: What the West Needs to Know and called for the arrest of the film directors Gregory Davis and Bryan Daly. He said that Orang Asli were not entitled more rights than Malays even though they were natives to the land. On his blog he compare the Orang Asli in Malaysia to Native Americans in the U.S., Maoris in New Zealand, and Aboriginals in Australia. He was criticized by spokespeople and advocates for the Orang Asli who said that the Orang Asli desired to be recognized as the natives of Malaysia and that his statement would expose their land to businessmen and loggers.

On his outspokenness, Mahathir once said. “I’m brash and abrasive but that’s because I’ve noticed when people are nice and polite they never get anywhere.” On another occasion he said, "Shooting from the hip is not good for hitting targets but sometimes it serves a useful purpose.” Although his statements may have helped him appear as a fighter before Malaysians, during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-98 they did not inspire confidence and trust among people in the international financial community and ended up making a bad economic situation worse.

Mahathir does not drink or smoke. He likes Italian opera and golf and used to fly around in a Falcon 900 executive jet. As prime minister Mahathir was known for his keen eye for detail and his meticulousness. He was known for inspecting the toilets at airports, checking drains on city streets and ordering bureaucrats to plant trees.

Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post: “Mahathir has promoted himself as a great visionary. But he has busied himself with the smallest details, ordering that all government employees wear name tags and taking a personal interest in the cleanliness of public bathrooms. He has cooperated closely with the United States in combating terrorism. But he has also repeatedly antagonized the West, suggesting early this year that the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks could be considered "collateral" damage in a wider war between militants and the West. He warned Malaysians this summer that greedy Westerners were determined to "colonize us directly or indirectly."[Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, October 27, 2003]

Mahathir Retires

After 22 years, Mahathir retired in October 2003. He handed power to his anointed successor, Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi, who went on to convincingly win a general election. Mahathir formally left office at the age of 77 when the Malaysian king formally accepted his resignation. He was the last of the great Asian strongmen—which included Marcos, Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew—to go. In one rally, 50,000 supporters showed at a soccer stadium to wish him well. Mahathir began his retirement by flying out for a European vacation. "I just want to take a rest," he said.

Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote; “Mahathir retired as a lionized figure among Malaysia’s 25 million people on October 31, 2003, after firmly establishing the country as a booming Southeast Asian tiger economy. When Mahathir became prime minister in 1981, the country was a tropical backwater, reliant on rubber and tin mining. Today, with an annual per capita income of US$4,036, it is on the verge of being classified as a developed country, and one of its biggest tourist attractions is the Petronas Twin Towers, formerly the world’s tallest buildings. [Source: Sean Yoong, Associated Press, October 25, 2004]

Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post: There was no way Mahathir Mohamad was going quietly. With only days remaining in his 22-year tenure as prime minister, the irascible Malaysian told a summit of Islamic leaders recently that Jews rule the world by proxy. Rebukes rained down from Western leaders. But in that same address he also skewered his fellow Muslims, calling them a backward people, crippled by religious superstition and enfeebled by infighting. As for the ethnic Malays who make up the majority in his country — and whose cause he has championed since first taking office — he has persisted in scolding them to the end like recalcitrant schoolchildren. Lazy and ungrateful, he carps. [Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, October 27, 2003]

In January 1999, Mahathir engaged in a major reshuffling of his cabinet. The most significant change was that Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was appointed as deputy prime minister and minister for home affairs. In December 1999, after the BN coalition won a decisive victory in national elections, Mahathir announced that he would not run again for office and officially declared Abdullah as his chosen successor.

June 2002, Mahathir announced that he was going to retire. He announced that he planned for his deputy prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, to replace him and then took off for a vacation in Italy. Most Malaysians, even members in his own party, were caught of guard by the announcement. In announcing the decision, Mahathir said simply that he had been in power long enough.

Mahathir announced his resignation in a prepared speech before his party's annual congress, setting off a long, meticulous transition. Some cabinet members shed tears in the his last cabinet meeting—his 883rd—before his official retirement. For a while there it seemed as if Mahathir he might never retire. When asked when he planned to step down, Mahathir said in February 1999, "I will stay here unless somebody shoots me or tries to assassinate me."

Mahathir was still in reasonably good health. He had heart bypass surgery in 1989. Afterwards he seemed like a man reborn. He woke up early, went to bed late and seemed to work harder than anyone. Comparing himself ro an overworked laborer, Mahathir said in September 2000, "I work practically 24 hours a day. If I claim overtime and add that up, the government owes me millions of dollars."

Mahathir After His Retirement

After his retirement, Mahathir still played a significant role behind the scenes by influencing the choice of cabinet positions. He continued to let his opinions be known and make controversial remarks. His primary targets were the Jews and his successor as prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

In October 2006, Voice of America News reported: Mahathir said “he will continue to criticize the government of his hand-picked successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, dimming hopes the two men could patch up a rift that has gripped the nation. The two men held a one-on-one meeting Sunday to try to resolve their differences, but the always outspoken Mr. Mahathir told reporters later that he was not satisfied with the talks.The former prime minister is unhappy with Mr. Abdullah's decision to put several major infrastructure projects initiated during Mr. Mahathir's 22 year-rule on hold, among them a new bridge linking Malaysia and Singapore. Over the past several months, Mr. Mahathir has accused Mr. Abdullah of corruption, nepotism and incompetence, all of which, he says, undermine support for the United Malays National Organization, the political party that has run Malaysia for the past four decades. Mr. Abdullah has denied those accusations but has generally responded with silence to Mr. Mahathir's attacks. [Source: Voice of America News October 23, 2006 ^^]

Mahathir told reporters he will continue to speak his mind if he feels government policies are not benefiting Malaysia. "I will continue to [criticize] until there is some change and until I achieve some results because I'm 82 years old and people believe that if they delay long………then I would not be able to speak," he said. Mr. Mahathir says the government is trying to prevent him from airing his grievances in public and says Mr. Abdullah has turned Malaysia into a police state. ^^

In November 2006, Mahathir suffered a mild heart attack. John Burton wrote in the Financial Times, “A mild heart attack suffered by Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian prime minister, could defuse what had been expected to be a contentious annual meeting of the country's ruling party. Dr Mahathir, 81, had been expected to use the meeting to pursue his feud against Abdullah Badawi, his successor, whom he has accused of economic mismanagement, corruption and nepotism. The former prime minister, who has had a history of heart problems, was admitted to hospital and was expected to stay a week for observation, likely forcing him to miss the assembly of the United Malays National Organisation. Dr Mahathir was scheduled to attend the meeting as an invited guest in his capacity as a former UMNO president, although he lost the right to address the assembly when he lost a party election to be sent as a delegate. [Source: By John Burton, Financial Times, November 9, 2006]

Dr Mahathir has said that Mr Abdullah should be replaced by Najib Razak, the deputy prime minister, unless the government changes its policies. Dr Mahatir's criticism of his successor has found support within the UMNO, whose members worry that country's affirmative action programme benefiting the ethnic Malay majority, the party's base, is being diluted by Mr Abdullah.

In September 2007, Mahathir had more heart problems. Reuters reported: Mahathir “underwent surgery and was back on a respirator on Sunday after a recent heart bypass led to a chest infection, a hospital statement said. Mahathir, 82, went back into the operating theatre at Kuala Lumpur's National Heart Institute around midnight on Saturday to have infected tissue cut out of his chest, an aide to the former premier added. "He is on full support," the aide said, adding that Mahathir was still not conscious and was breathing with the support of a respirator in the institute's intensive-care unit. Mahathir underwent a quadruple bypass, his second heart operation, on Sept. 4 and was reported to be recovering well before he suddenly went back into intensive care in recent days. "He is currently stable and has been put under routine post-cardiac surgery support," the institute said in a brief statement. [Source: Reuters, September 24, 2007]

Mahathir’s Anti-Israel, Pr-Palestinian Activities After His Retirement

In May 2005. Mahathir accused Israel of barring him from Jerusalem and Jenin. Associated Press reported: Mahathir “said Israel's government barred him from visiting the West Bank town of Jenin last week to prevent him from seeing Israeli atrocities against Palestinians, news reports said. "Jenin is a place where the Israelis caused massive destruction and killed many Palestinians," Mahathir was quoted as saying by local reports after his return from the West Bank. "That is why they prevented me from going there." Mahathir, who angered Jews and Western leaders for an inflammatory speech to Muslim leaders in 2003, said he was held up for more than two hours by Israeli border police. As he entered the West bank from Jordan, . He also said he was told he would ot be able to visit Jerusalem. [Source: AP, May 24, 2005]

In January 2010, at The General Conference For The Support of Al Quds, Mahathir stated, regarding the Holocaust and Israel, that: The Jews had always been a problem in European countries. They had to be confined to ghettoes and periodically massacred. But still they remained, they thrived and they held whole Governments to ransom...Even after their massacre by the Nazis of Germany, [Jews] survived to continue to be a source of even greater problems for the world...The Holocaust failed as a final solution. Mahathir also stated that: "Creating a state for them was thought to be a better solution. It could be if some European territory had been allocated to make a permanent ghetto for the Jews. But of course if this was done then the affected European state would rise in arms and kill all the Jews the way they had been doing before. So the debate was about creating an Israeli state in Uganda, Africa, or somewhere in Latin America or Palestine of course."

Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker, “I saw Dr Mahathir, whose views are still widely read on his daily blog, Che Det, at a demonstration protesting the Israeli attack on Gaza. As I arrived at the Bangsar Sports Complex, he was finishing his diatribe against “the Jews” and “Jewish atrocities,” wildly cheered by groups of schoolchildren in Palestinian-style scarves and black tudung. They disappeared as soon as the former prime minister, smiling a little menacingly at the young, left the scene. Later, I read in a newspaper that the government had planned to mobilise “about five million pupils and 360,765 teachers from more than 10,000 schools,” to protest against what posters in the Bangsar Sports Complex termed “Holocaust II.” [Source: Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, May 19, 2009 ]

I looked around the now depleted hall, and was puzzled by posters that read, in Malay, “Stop the atrocities against us.” I turned to an elderly Chinese-looking gentleman sitting behind me. “Who is this “̃us’?” I asked. With a sly grin, he replied, “Don’t you know? It means the Malays.” What atrocities had the Israelis perpetrated against the Malays? “Palestinians, Malays “” they’re all Muslims,” the old man said. He shifted his chair closer. “I’m just here to observe,” he said, lowering his voice. “I’m not pro-Palestinian at all. I have Jewish friends, you know. Lend a hundred thousand dollars to a Jew and you’ll always get it back. Lend it to a Muslim and he’ll cheat you, for sure. They’re all liars and cheats, the Muslims.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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