Country profile: Malaysia

As Malaysia readies itself for a general election, we meet two of the country’s most influential political figures, former Prime Ministers Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and Tun Abdullah Badawi

Malaysia’s fourth, and longest serving, Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is now 87-years-old, and yet he remains razor sharp of mind and spirit, and his views are still influential domestically and beyond.

During his term of office from 1981-2003, Tun Mahathir was widely respected for charting his own course, re-imagining the globalised world and Asia’s status within it. According to Think Magazine’s Sholto Byrnes, the Tun stood up “for differing and localised visions of what a globalised world might be” and in doing so his international status was elevated to that of “a very tall leader” in the view of Nelson Mandela. During 1997, as a Prime Minister, he also earned respect from Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz, then the Chief Economist of the World Bank. In a move that saved Malaysia from the even deeper economic woes of its neighbours, Tun Mahathir defied the IMF free-market austerity prescriptions amidst the Asian financial crisis.

"Malaysia can!'

It was part of a wider approach that helped rekindle the nation’s pride, and raise self-esteem. I suggest that this had been one of his most important legacies, and he agrees. “We gave pride, respect and confidence back to the nation,” says Tun Mahathir. “People began to think that they could achieve what others can. We now have a nationwide slogan called ‘Malaysia boleh!’ or ‘Malaysia can!’

As well as encouraging this new spirit, Tun Mahathir initiated a series of infra-structure projects, including the North-South Expressway and the iconic Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Petrajaya, the new administrative capital raised from the jungle was also his brain-child. Advanced infrastructure is in place here, in the nearby Cyberjaya – Malaysia’s Silicon Valley – and across the Multimedia Super Corridor of which they both form a part and for which he is also responsible.

Peace and stability were vital to the development process. He explains: “Malaysia is a multi-racial country. Conflict between the races cause instability, and instability hampers development.

“During my time there was no instability, and because of this we were able to develop Malaysia much faster than most other multi-racial or single-ethnic countries.”

The former Prime Minister says Malaysia is still on track to become a developed nation by its target of 2020, saying, “We are still growing at a fast rate”. He high-lights travel and tourism as an area full of opportunity. He says, “Tourism is a big industry for Malaysia, with 34 million tourists already visiting every year – and more and more coming”. He also points out seaborne trade, and the technology-based industries, during our discussion.

Human capital

The following day I meet his successor, a leader who offers a different perspective, but reinforces the message of optimism. Tun Abdulla Badawi, Malaysia’s Prime Minister from 2003-2009 is a warm and generous host, welcoming our party – which includes Emirati Salem AlShaikh, the newly installed Chairman of Malaysia -based Global Vision Holdings – for a late breakfast, and giving us more than double the original time planned in his diary.

The conversation around the breakfast table is wide ranging. He is a rare breed of modern politician who listens as much as he talks, and one who is as interested in the latest developments overseas as much as he is keen to convey a deeper under-standing of Malaysia.

Whereas the fourth Malaysian PM Tun Dr Mahathir speaks largely of economic growth, business and trade, his successor first talks animatedly about the importance of human capital to his country, and of education. But he too echoes the message of on-going economic growth: “We are on the right track, and we are pushing very hard. And, despite what is happening around the rest of the world, we are doing well,” he tells me.

He also believes the country might even hit its developed nation status a little earlier than the planned target of 2020: “If we could beat it by two years, it would be very good,” he says, revealing his under-lying confidence in beating the deadline.

“We are moving as fast as we can, and I can’t help but notice the drive here. Malaysia is a country that has demonstrated a capability for all-round improvement and development.”

These days the Tun may focus first on human capital when he speaks, but he was another PM that championed and oversaw major economic developments during his premiership, particularly the launch of the far-sighted Iskandar Malaysia project, the enormous special economic zone in Johor – covering an area of 2,217 sq km – intended to capitalise on its synergies with and proximity to Singapore. The ‘economic corridor’ has now  successfully established an ecosystem that covers a number of industries including creative, educational, financial, healthcare, logistics and tourism.

His all-round good-humoured approach is illustrative of the country’s growing self-confidence and echoes the brio of his predecessor Tun Mahathir. And like him, Tun Badawi is also clearly excited about Malaysia’s future prospects.