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Monday, 15 November, 1999, 18:39 GMT
Profile: Malaysia's strongman Mahathir
Dr Mahathir at wheel of sports car Dr Mahathir shows no signs yet of wanting to reliquish control

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is no stranger to controversy.

Malaysia's Snap Election
In 1946, at the age of 21, he joined the newly founded nationalist organisation United Malays National Organisation (Umno), courting attention through a series of provocative articles on the monarchy and the emancipation of women.

He began his career in medicine at the University of Malaya and has always preferred the title Dr to honorifics - such as Tan Sri Datuk - that precede many Malaysian names.

After seven years of running a private medical practice in his home state of Kedah, "Dr M", as he is popularly known, entered active politics in 1964 as an Umno Member of Parliament.

This initial foray into politics was short-lived - in 1969 he lost his seat and was expelled from the party after releasing an open letter attacking the then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, for neglecting the indigenous Malay community.

Nationalist credentials

Exiled in the political wilderness, he developed his ideas in a controversial book entitled The Malay Dilemma.

Petronas Towers Critics say Dr Mahathir is obsessed with prestige construction projects
In it he wrote that the Malays had been marginalised during the colonial era and castigated them for apathetically accepting their second class status.

It set the tone for future attacks on Western neo-colonialists and others he perceives as bent on subjugating Malaysia and threatening its success.

The Malay Dilemma forged the foundations of Dr Mahathir's nationalist credentials - it struck such a chord with younger Umno leaders that he was invited back into the party, re-elected to parliament in 1974, and appointed minister of education.

Within four years he had rocketed through Umno ranks to become deputy leader of the party, and in 1981, he became prime minister.

New tiger

Arriving in office, Dr Mahathir set about putting his ideas into practice, transforming Malaysia from an exporter of rubber and tin, into an Asian economic tiger producing electronic equipment, steel and cars.

Mahathir Dr Mahathir has rarely shied away from doing what he thinks is right
He also took on the mantle of spokesman for the new Asia, upholding Asian and Malaysian values, criticising what he called Western double standards and winning a following among non-Western and developing countries.

His policies created a Malay middle class, including some billionaires, through government patronage and policies of positive ethnic discrimination in employment and higher education.

More visible projects to boost national pride included the world's tallest building, the Petronas Towers and the transformation of palm oil plantation near the capital into the world's first "Multimedia Super Corridor" - a cyber powerhouse intended to rival California's Silicon Valley.

Standing firm

Throughout his rule Dr Mahathir has taken a tough stand against those who oppose him or threaten his power.

In 1987, a challenge to Dr Mahathir's leadership led to mass detentions of his critics under the Internal Security Act and the sacking of judges he deemed too interfering.

National Day celebrations Dr Mahathir has been keen to build a sense of Malaysian national pride
More recently in 1998 his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, fell victim to what Mr Anwar says was a high level smear campaign designed to remove him as a threat to Dr Mahathir's continued rule.

Mr Anwar, who until his dismissal was regarded as the prime minister's heir apparent, says he was sacked because he threatened to expose corruption and cronyism at the heart of Malaysian government.

He and other critics say Dr Mahathir's grandiose schemes are at the root of Malaysia's massive debt, which led in turn to the country's currency crisis. They fear his combative, anti-Western stance will staunch any chance of economic recovery.

But such charges have done little to deflect him from doing what he thinks is right.

After Mr Anwar was sacked, and against almost all advice, he took personal control of the Finance Ministry to do battle with currency speculators he blames for Malaysia's economic woes.

Shunning IMF help as part of what he called a neo-colonial plot, he implemented controversial currency controls effectively isolating Malaysia from the global economy.

The Asian financial crisis - which forced Indonesia's President Suharto from power, led to changes of government elsewhere, and plunged Malaysia into recession - left Dr Mahathir relatively untouched.

Now, after 18 years in office and already South-east Asia's longest-serving leader, Dr Mahathir shows no signs yet that he is willing to throw in the towel.
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See also:
18 Jun 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Mahathir: No tears for 'traitor' Anwar
13 Mar 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysian ministers hail Mahathir's victory
30 Sep 98 |  Asia-Pacific
Opposition emboldened by Anwar saga
13 Sep 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysian PM defends judiciary
07 Sep 98 |  The Economy
Malaysian Prime Minister tightens economic grip

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