Mahathir Mohamad was the fourth prime minister of Malaysia, holding office from 1981 to 2003. He improved the economy and was a champion of developing nations.
Who Is Mahathir Mohamad?
Mahathir Mohamad was a doctor before becoming a politician with the UMNO party and ascended quickly from member of parliament to prime minister. During his 22 years in office, he grew the economy and was an activist for developing nations, but also imposed harsh restrictions on civil liberties. He resigned office in 2003.
Mohamad was born on December 20, 1925, in Alor Setar, in the state of Kedah in northern Malaysia. His family was modest but stable, and his father was a respected teacher at an English language school.
After finishing Islamic grammar schools and graduating from the local college, Mahathir attended medical school at the University of Malaya in Singapore. He was an army physician before forming a private practice at the age of 32.
Entry Into Politics
Mahathir became active in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysia’s largest political party, and was elected to its policy-making group, the Supreme Council. With the support of the UMNO, he won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1964. He wrote a book, The Malay Dilemma, demanding affirmative action for Indigenous Malays and equal status with Chinese-Malaysians, while also criticizing Malays’ “economic backwardsness.” These then-radical ideas earned the ire of Prime Minister Abdul Rahman, and the UMNO banned the book and expelled Mahathir from the party.
Rahman resigned in 1970, and after Mahathir was reinstated in the UMNO in 1972, his political career took off. He was re-elected to parliament in 1973, promoted to a Cabinet position in 1974 and rose to deputy prime minister in 1976. He became prime minister just five years later when his predecessor, Hussein Onn, retired.
Mahathir had a significant impact on the economy, culture and government of Malaysia. He won five consecutive elections and served for 22 years, longer than any other prime minister in Malaysia’s history. Under him, Malaysia experienced rapid economic growth. He began privatizing government enterprises, including airlines, utilities and telecommunications, which raised money for the government and improved working conditions for many employees, although many of the beneficiaries were UMNO supporters. One of his most significant infrastructure projects was the North-South Expressway, a highway that runs from the Thai border to Singapore.
From 1988 to 1996, Malaysia saw an 8 percent economic expansion, and Mahathir released an economic plan—The Way Forward, or Vision 2020—asserting that the country would be a fully developed nation by 2020. He helped shift the country’s economic base away from agriculture and natural resources and toward manufacturing and exporting, and the country’s per capita income doubled from 1990 to 1996. Although Malaysia’s growth has slowed and it’s unlikely the country will achieve this goal, the economy remains stable.
But in spite of these accomplishments, Mahathir leaves a mixed legacy. Although he began his first term conservatively, during the 1980s Mahathir became more authoritarian. In 1987 he instituted the Internal Security Act, which permitted him to close four newspapers and order the arrests of 106 activists, religious leaders and political opponents, including Anwar Ibrahim, his former deputy prime minister. He also altered the constitution to restrictive the interpretive power of the Supreme Court, and he forced a number of high-ranking members to resign.
Mahathir’s record on civil liberties, as well as his criticisms of Western economic policies and industrialized nations’ policies toward developing countries, made his relationships with the United States, Britain and Australia difficult. He banned The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for printing negative editorials about him, and supported a national law condemning drug smugglers to death, resulting in the execution of several Western citizens.
Mahathir retired in 2003 and remains an active and visible part of Malaysia’s political landscape. He is an ardent critic of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, whom he chose to succeed him.
- Name: Mahathir Mohamad
- Birth Year: 1925
- Birth date: December 20, 1925
- Birth City: Alor Setar, Kedah
- Birth Country: Malaysia
- Gender: Male
- Best Known For: Mahathir Mohamad was the fourth prime minister of Malaysia, holding office from 1981 to 2003. He improved the economy and was a champion of developing nations.
- World Politics
- Astrological Sign: Sagittarius
- University of Malaya
- Malaysian (Malaysia)
He became the oldest world leader at 92 when he was sworn into office as prime minister of Malaysia in 2018, a decade-and-a-half after retirement. Mahathir was also prime minister of Malaysia from July 1981 to October 2003.
Is a physician, and one of his nicknames is Dr. M.
After losing his first seat in parliament, wrote a book called “The Malay Dilemma.” The book contained racist stereotypes but helped establish Mahathir as an advocate for Malay rights.
Credited with turning Malaysia into a major trading and economic force in southeast Asia.
1946 – Joins the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
1964 – Is elected to Parliament for the first time.
1969 – Loses his seat in Parliament and is expelled from the UMNO.
1972 – Returns to the UMNO.
1973 – Is appointed a Senator in the Malaysian parliament.
1974 – Is elected as minister of education.
1976 – Becomes deputy prime minister.
July 1981 – Becomes Malaysia’s fourth prime minister, minister of home affairs, and minister of justice.
January 1989 – Has heart bypass surgery.
1998 – Dismisses his deputy Anwar Ibrahim and accuses him of sodomy and corruption.
June 2002 – Announces his resignation.
October 16, 2003 – At a 57-nation Islamic summit in Malaysia, Mahathir claims in a speech that Jews “rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.”
October 31, 2003 – Mahathir retires and passes leadership to his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
September 2007 – Has heart bypass surgery following two heart attacks within 10 months.
May 16, 2008 – The Malaysian government announces it has begun an investigation into corruption by the Mahathir administration in the 1980s and 1990s.
May 19, 2008 – Mahathir resigns from the United Malays National Organization, the ruling party of Malaysia.
December 1, 2013 – Steps down as an adviser to oil and gas company Petronas, due to ill health.
March 30, 2016 – Resigns as chairman of the board from Malaysian automaker Proton Holdings after serving more than two years. Proton is Malaysia’s leading auto manufacturer and was founded by Mahathir in 1983 as the sole National auto company.
January 2018 – Mahathir is named a candidate for prime minister. He says the country is being hampered by Prime Minister Najib Razak and that the opposition parties need him because they “have not been able to get rural Malay votes.”
May 9, 2018 – Mahathir’s coalition wins 121 seats in the country’s parliament, enough to form a simple majority and take control of the House. Voter turnout is over 76% according to Malaysia’s Election Commission.
May 10, 2018 – Is sworn into office as prime minister by Malaysia’s constitutional ruler, King Muhammad V.
February 24, 2020 – Mahathir’s office announces his submission of resignation as prime minister of Malaysia.
November 19, 2022 – Mahathir loses his seat in parliament, in his first election defeat since 1969