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Ever since he became Prime Minister of Malaysia in July 1981 at the age of 56, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has exercised an extraordinary dominating influence over his country’s public life. An economic modernizer without fear of registering a scepticism of democracy and human rights, he has bent the politics of Malaysia to his will and in the process has successfully subordinated the constitutional monarchy, the judiciary and the predominant political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) which he has led continuously despite a major
challenge in 1987 which was only narrowly defeated. His sustained political dominance was demonstrated in the way in which he removed his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, from national and party office in 1998. Indeed, in so doing, he effectively rewrote the rules of Malaysian politics.
Dr. Mahathir is exceptional as a Malay leader in contrast to his three predecessors as Prime Minister. He is not only authoritarian but also highly combative and confrontational and adept at open invective. Such behaviour is out of keeping with Malay cultural style and indeed with the notion of “Asian values” which Dr. Mahathir has espoused. It may be that his medical training as well as his personality has been a factor in shaping a political style that brooks no opposition to his diagnoses and prescriptions. His sense of rectitude in telling Malaysians that they should swallow the equivalent of so many pills a day in their own interest conjures up the image of medical infallibility translated to politics.