In the 22 years he served as prime minister, he managed to lower the poverty rate from 50 percent to 7 percent and moved Malaysia to join the Asian tigers. He adopted the model of Japan and South Korea in education as well as in the Proton project, Astro satellite and other projects.
Mahathir also managed to make Malaysia a tourism hub and made newly-founded universities of the country a source of income by attracting thousands of foreign students.
He established the Perdana Global Peace Foundation, worked for equipping his country with science and technology and as a nationalist played a major role in his country’s political scene.
When Iran raised the flag of dialogue among civilizations in the UN, Mahathir introduced himself as a pioneer of dialogue among religions and civilizations.
Some consider him as a faithful Muslim who believes one should learn lessons from the history of Muslims and Islamic empires and that the first lesson is striving for Muslim fraternity.
But these are only one side of the coin.
Mahathir Mohamad is now facing several challenges in his personal and political life and is struggling to resolve them. On the one hand, his son Mukhriz seeks to reach the top party ranks and replace his father. Mahathir is said to want his son to become a Malaysian leader one day.
On the other hand, opposition parties like the DAP and Islamist PAS party made more gains in the 2013 elections than they had done previously. Also, Chinese Malaysians have also been successful in winning seats in the parliament and now Mahathir, who long struggled to strengthen the position of Bumiputeras, feels danger by the rising power of Chinese and Indian races.
A look at the events on May 3, 1969, and the role of Mahathir in uniting the Malay race will reveal what he has been resorting to in order to resolve this problem 44 years on.
The DAP party, belonging to Chinese Malaysians, is a secular and social democratic party advocating a multi-ethnic political structure in Malaysia. It opposes special privileges for ethnic Malays and seeks racial equality.
On that day, clashes caused by native Malays’ anger over victory of DAP led to the death of over 200 individuals.
In those days, a cold war was underway all over South Asia between communists and their opponents. Malay Muslims mentioned the threat of communism in order to unite Bumiputeras against the Chinese parties around the elements of race and religion.
One year after the May 1948 incident, Mahathir published his book “The Malay Dilemma” while he had failed to secure a seat in the parliament and had been removed from presidency of the UMNO Party.
In his manifesto, he wrote that rivalry between the Malays and diligent Chinese Malaysians is useless and that the government should create a mechanism to ensure the superiority of the Bumiputeras in all economic, political and scientific areas.
Eleven years after publishing this manifesto, Mahathir assumed Malaysia’s premiership and found the opportunity to realize his objective of elevating the status of Malays. His constructive role in building modern Malaysia leaves no doubts about his personal capabilities.
The 2011 parliamentary election results, however, showed that the tip of balance is slanting in favor of Chinese Malaysians. The past two years have been sensitive years as the opposition is gaining power and there is the danger of division among Malays. This has preoccupied the mind of modern Malaysia’s architecture. He needs to make all-out efforts once again but the problem is that this time, Chinese Malaysians have nothing to do with communism. They do not seek to establish any specific ideology but only want to have economic and political gains.
On the other hand, clashing with Chinese Malaysians will lead to tense relations with the powerful China. Therefore, Mahathir needs to find another way to unite Malays and that is the slogan of “Shia Virus”.
Mentioning Shi’ism as a threat would also bring him closer to pro-Western currents and help him get political and economic privileges from Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies including delaying the unpaid debts.
It, of course, could also bring about tense relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, disenchantment of Malaysia’s native Shias with the government, possible union between Shias and opposition parties, and spread of sectarianism among others.
Thus, the slogan of communism’s threat, which led to the May 1969 incident, has now been replaced with the slogan of Shi’ism’s threat. But this last project of Mahathir has just paved the way for spread of religious tensions whose main victims are Malaysia’s Shias.
But the fact is that when phobia is spread against a phenomenon, it could encourage learning about that phenomenon. But learning about Shi’ism, with a 14-century philosophical and historical background, would have very different outcomes than learning about communism, which has tenuous foundations.
Communism was based on a theory that disintegrated in less than a century but Shi’ism, which originates from religious intellectuality, has put behind all modern and post-modern intellectual barriers and has presented and materialized the theory of religious government and Islamic-based economy.
It is time that Mahathir bade farewell to his role as a leader and, as renowned Malaysian author and poet Datuk Abdul Samad put it, did so decently.