Machiavellian Mahathirism

Mahathir Mohamed is the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia and arguably the most powerful man in Malaysian political history. To this day his political clout in decision-making is felt in day-to-day politics even after stepping down from the prime ministerial post 11 years ago. I will attempt to draw specific levels of analysis in proving that this man was in practice a Machiavellian politician, while trying to be impartial in whether or not such an approach in a developing democracy was a good or bad thing. Prior to attempting this, however, I will present one qualification: that I, and the limitations 1000 words impose on me, will be unable to address and sometimes ignore significant nuances and events of the time. But having said that, I will attempt my best to present a fair picture of the incredibly powerful and shrewd politician who was also the world’s longest serving Prime Minister.


Mahathir Mohamad (left) having a conversation with his deputy, Abdullah.

Considering the extremely demanding party-oriented nature of Westminster-style politics Malaysia utilizes – being a former colony of the British – and the looming threat of populist and Islamist movements especially during fragile times in Mahathir’s tenure, his time in office was considerably long. To paint a picture of how long he served, his predecessor served five years and his successor six, both dwarfed by his twenty-two years in Malaysia’s de facto highest office (on paper the highest office was, and remains to this day, the King’s). What makes this man so Machiavellian in my mind is one particular aspect of his rule that he adhered to, that many agree contributed to his strangely long tenure, aptly summarized by Machiavelli in The Prince:

“it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with”

Though Mahathir obviously did not ignore the latter, as I will prove near the end – being Machiavellian does not necessitate ignoring popular “love” anyway – but he obviously saw that consolidating his power through fear as more effective than through love of his people. There are two pieces of evidence supporting this argument, firstly his support of the Internal Security Act and his willingness to utilize this law to quash popular dissent, and secondly his political maneuvers that served to consolidate all three branches of the Montesquieu-separation-of-power-style government Malaysia had into his hands alone.

Firstly, what is the Internal Security Act (ISA)? Basically, it’s a Colonialist-era law in Malaysia allowing “preventive detention without trial for up to two years” (emphasis added) on anyone who “threatens the security of the country or any part thereof”. The act also includes a clause that makes arrests immune to judicial review.

In 1987, amid an unstable economy and growing discontent against the government, the Malaysian Prime Minister ordered the police to carry out the infamous Ops Lalang, literally translated to “Weeding Operation”, and fully utilized the ISA for his political gain. According to Amnesty International, “106 people across a wide political and social spectrum were arrested” under this operation without trial, citing their alleged provocation of racial tensions. This particular incident significantly eroded – or weeded out – the growing popular discontent against the ruling party from all fronts, be it the Islamists, the Intelligentsia, or of course the opposition parties. To consolidate his power and retain national stability, he reverted from his more liberal stance during the beginning of his tenure – when he released 168 ISA detainees who were arrested without trial – to a more Draconian one, as he felt the situation necessitated and as Machiavelli advocated.

To further consolidate his power and extinguish dissent once and for all, he moved for the Judiciary branch, the branch in which a few members of his own party had tried to utilize to bring him down. Seeing the situation as it was, he pushed a bill through parliament that severely limited the High Courts’ power to conduct judicial reviews of the Executive branch. He then forced a permanent and immediate suspension of the President of the Supreme Court, one of the few men who openly questioned the Prime Minister. The message being sent was a clear one: “Question me, and face the consequences”. This particular message was one that reverberated through all of Malaysian politics during his reign.

In this BBC interview, at 2:50, he says all you need to hear to prove his Machiavellian tendencies:

Stephen Sackur: You are tearing your own party apart though, that is the problem. And that is what many people inside your party believe.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad: Well sometimes it may be necessary. I told people that I’m a doctor.

If I find one leg becoming gangrenous…

I remove it.

Another aspect of his Machivellian tendencies is his garnering of significant support from his citizens. My elaboration from this point on is when I think it is undeniable that Mahathir Mohamad had Machiavellian influences. While suppressing dissent and free speech, he never fought unnecessary battles. He kept the general populous appeased via nationalist policies. He left the monarchs to their devices, and his opponents, secular or Islamist, docile. He was described as a dictator by many, but most others saw him as a visionary, and few, if any, actually hated him. Machiavelli allocates the whole of Chapter XIX in describing why a Prince must avoid being hated at all costs, and Mahathir, as dictatorial as he may have been, did all he could to avoid hatred from any of the interest groups in Malaysia, and in fact looked to appease them. His effort paid off. To this day, he is known as “Bapa Pemodenan”, or the Father of Modernization. He started Proton, the first national car company, arousing patriotism from all Malaysians. He led the initiative to build the Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest structure in the world at the time. In 1991, he concocted Vision 2020, a highly regarded Malaysian dream to reach a developed status by 2020.

He was cunning and relentless. He was a dictator and a visionary. He was sometimes loved and sometimes criticized. He was powerful. Mahathir Mohamad was Machiavellian.