Malaysian leader and architect of a modern Asian nation
How history  will judge him?
Megalomaniac? Or, a nation builder?

Dr.Mahathir Mohamad  was Prime Minister of Malaysia for 22 long years. He surely transformed this multi-ethnic society of a feudal and backward country into a modern and cosmopolitan people with high living standards.

Yet, there are  gapping holes, no freedoms as we know it in the West, no free press, no liberal open society. Obvious to a new comer is the lack of a well-established  education system, higher education is below par and also other issues.

So, how  the legacy of Mahathir  would be judged? By his own people? By his Asian  peers? By the outside world?

I have just now come back from a brief visit to Kuala Lampur. The Malaysian   economic development deeply impressed me and impacted  me as well.

As for deep impressions, it was almost a sudden discovery I never suspected  in the South East Asian geography. In fact, it was for the first time I closely looked into  the  Asian map, the geography, the islands, the seas and the entire South East Asian region. China lies  over a large geographical space, Japan very tiny island lying  at the northern end of the immense sea! Somewhere lies South Korea we don’t see on these particular vast seas!

Down below Chinese territory we see the land mass that comprise the smaller countries, Myanmar, beside Vietnam, Laos, then Cambodia and Thailand  is the bigger state in this geography. Malaysia, it is a large  peninsular island, in fact two islands twinned together, the peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, Sarawak and Sabah, then down south lies Singapore. We then move downwards towards the vast many islands that make up Indonesia and then other(17,000 islands! 500 languages! And 240 million people!) Countries, including the newly created East Timor.

Now, Malaysia itself is a vast and diverse country. Its ethnic mix is very interesting.20 million people(compared with India’s 100 and odd millions!

Malaysia’s ethnic  population, the Malays, speak Bahasa Malay language. The others are Chinese 38 per cent, Indians about 10 per cent.

Most of the Indians we met  are fourth and sixth generation migrants.
All proudly say of themselves, as “I am Malaysian India “I am Malaysian Kerala” etc.

The capital, Kuala Lampur(KL) simply stunned me and overawed me, to say the least.

It is the most modern and high-tech city, a cosmopolitan city where there are no two wheelers, no autos and no poverty and no dust and no sign of any pollution. The city is so unbelievably clean and what I read about the whole  modern Malaysian  story is all about creating an entirely new Malaysia, creating a pride and self-confidence and to give Malaysians an ethnic unity and  a sense of  a place in the modern world.

Yes, for an Indian coming from India afresh, the modern Malaysian growth story is simply unbelievable.

We have all become so accustomed to politics in Delhi and the states, so much of scandals and accusations, New Delhi and say Bangalore seems a very tiring place to live.

In Kuala Lampur, it is all a sense of vibrancy, so much of wealth, an expanded middle class and the very modern living standards, I counted every two minutes a new Mercedes-Benz was buzzing through  the roads, other cars ,most modern ,latest models are  simply  taking one’s breath away. Our hotel front saw these modern vehicles simply making Kuala Lampur as a transplant of a New York. So much display of wealth  and affluence. A Porsche was parked nearby! The Hilton hotel was 36 floors high and we stayed on the 24th floor. This was certainly a novel experience for travelers from  an Asian country. In Sri Lanka, it was also a  development success story, with all its after-effects of the LTTE menace. But on a lower scale. Autos ply the Colombo city. But in KL they were nowhere. Even the buses were few and they were all ultra modern.

The physical infrastructure is what makes a great difference to Indian developments.

The city centre is really  the most impressive. The famed twin towers, the Petrona Twin Towers are a great story. Why the twin towers only?

Every major construction is a billion construction contract stories here. Our Oxford friends couple, Kishore and Zill, were our hosts (They  were together as students  along with Kartik, my son at Oxford Wolfson College in 1995), now  Kishore, an entrepreneur in his own way, put into my hands a book saying “You must read it to understand modern Malaysian story” was an eye opener.”Malaysian Maverich, Mahathir Mohammad in turbulent times “by Barry Wain, a former journalist who had lived in  Asia for 37 years, makes a very insightful story, he is both a critic  as well as an admirer of the ex-Prime Minister and gives  a balanced picture of what the leader of the Malaysian people, Prime Minister for  22 years, from 1981 to  2003,had achieved and how Malaysia has come this far on the international map is a very engaging story.

I read the three chapters in the book, the first about Mahatiris rise from a humble beginning, as the  youngest  of nine children, his father, a school teacher whose origins are from Kerala and his origins remain a secret, the book says.

The same town, Alor Star, the capital of Kedah state, the other side of the Kedah River. On the other side was born, the high society, in fact the royal society heir, Tunku Abdul Rahman, one of the many sons of the Sultan of the state! And a Cambridge educated man of easy habits, the Tunk(a price in Malay language) became the first Prime Minister of an independent Malaysia in 1957. United Malay National Organisation(UMNO) is like the Indian National Congress, still  the ruling party. Though born lower middle class. It is of some great credit, Mahatir became interested in politics from early age. Mahatir’s mother was a Malay and that too a “Penang Malay” and that was old world! Penang and Maleka were the original towns where the British first settled. KL is  a new city, just  a century or two ago  was just a waste land of sorts.

Mahathir Mohammad, the maverick!

Mahatir’s early years were marked by hard work, ambition, though he first aspired only for a government clerk’s job and yet he saw either law or medicine would give him a place in society. Finally he became a medical doctor.

The first chapter gives a fairly positive account of a rising Malay young man and an aspirant for bigger dreams.

His wife, Siti Hasmah, a doctor herself, was an able partner, who played an active role in his dreams and aspirations.

While we visited all the important landmarks, the twin towers, the Andul Razak(second PM) memorial, the fabulous  Suria mall(where the biggest book shop, Kinokuniya stunned me again, it was perhaps the biggest bookshop I saw outside Europe!)

We also visited on our way back to the airport, the very new government city, where the government offices were moved, including the grand Prime Minister’s office and residence, the whole complex is called, Putrajaya(Putra refers to the first PM)

Chapter seven of the book narrates Mahatir’s many of the grand projects. He undertook giant national highways, the 966 km north-sought highway system took 13 years and cost RM 3.42 billion. The international airport,70 km from KL cost RM 9 billion. The Penang birdge,8.4 km  of it on water cost RM740 million. Formula one race track RM 270 million. The massive Bakun dam, in 1993,took 14 years, in Sarawak, 80,000 hectares of tropical  forest cleared, 10,000 rural dwellers resettled, cost huge sums. The administrative capital, Putrjaya, cost RM 20 billion!.You have to see it to believe it. It is  by any standard unprecedented in the modern world! Seri Perdana, the PM’s residence cost RM17 million.

The Petrona twin towers, then the “world’s tallest”, 452 meters  tall, now no more) cost mind-boggling sum.

The one conspicuous failure, critics point out, is the  cyberjaya, the Silicon Valley. He sought the help of Bill Gates, who though promised help, didnt take off. Bangalore stole the show! The critics pointed out, the Silicon Valley needed a very good higher education. This is lacking even now  there. Though Mahatir named universities to teach his thoughts!

He was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize that eluded him.
He was of course a highly controversial leader. He dabbled in  many business ventures, his party indulged in much corruption.

Of course Asian countries seem very different even in  political corruption. Here our judiciary, executive and Parliament and press are well-established. In Asian countries there are much undemocratic practices.

Malaysia is endowed with natural resources, it is the world’s leading palm oil, rubber  producing country. It is also a top petroleum and natural gas producer and exporter. So, Petronas, the oil and gas company is the major source of government’s revenues. It is also the world’s top tin producer.

So, we see a fast growing country and there is much faster growth in modern infrastructure, especially in highways, bridges, new cities and high-rises! KL’s  standard of living is definitely ,say eight or ten times higher than  what we see in a city like Bangalore.

KL’s metro rail line is all automated, stops and starts and  it is more than ten years old!

In every area of  development, Malaysia seems to have overtaken India by at least a decade! This opens our eyes in India. We ,Indians seem to be slow  and somewhat complacent and  there is much empty talk by our leaders here, it seems.

Mahatir ,no doubt is a great Asian leader. Like his many neighbours, Lee Kuawan Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and  Deng of China and Suhrato of Indonesia and some others he was an Asian autocrat and an authoritarian. He never talked of India. Nor about the Indian leaders, as far as I can see. In fact, recently he criticised India as having too much democracy! Yes, this may be true from his point of view.

But then respect for human rights, for a free press and other indicators of human development is not talked about in Malaysia as I expected. People don’t read newspapers, it seems. No news stands and  only very low standard press often about business and other things.

Malaysian Parliament, with 219 MPs, have 93 of them as ministers!33 Cabinet Ministers. Biggest Cabinet than that of India? But then, the Malaysians have delivered! Not so in India! Thoughts for us, everybody! May be in India too we are moving towards a sort of technocratic polity? Men, once in power, move up, automatically, as we see in Malaysia. The  current Prime Minister is Najib Razak, he moved up the scale from Dy PM, in 2010. The current Opposition leader is of course, the former DY PM, Anwar Ibrahim, who was acquitted by the  Supreme Court on the day we arrived in KL!
Malaysia  doesn’t seem to be a liberal and open society.

Also, I noticed no computer shops either! It is surprising to see too many flashy cars ,too clean city streets!

Where have all the poor people gone?

By any standards, you can’t hide the great heights of economic development Malaysia, a proud Asian nation, has achieved.

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