Book Cover. MPH Group Publishing (08-MAR-2011)

Latest released book, “A Doctor in the House,” by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammed – fourth Premier of Malaysia – is a surreal read for history buffs, politically-inclined readers and those who enjoy a solidly pleasant book.  It tells the tales of a medical doctor who lived through a myriad of foreign occupations, raised a family, led a nation for 23 years, and had a simmering penchant for business.

Many people know Mahathir for being the Prime Minister of Malaysia with the longest tenure and the one who played an integral rule in placing Malaysia on the world map – but few realize how much of a role he played in creating some of Malaysia’s most important brands and promoting them globally. It can be said that he had more than a thumb in Malaysia’s economic pie – and though “A Doctor in the House” is full of his memoirs as an individual and mostly, a politician, the reader is unable to ignore his viewpoints on emphasizing role of business and technology, marketing them, and ultimately enhancing the Malaysian nation brand.  Indeed, Mahathir became a brand name himself.

Feast or Famine: Entrepreneurial Instincts Kick In

Mahathir’s curiosity in the business and entrepreneurship realm began during the Japanese Occupation, when he was in his impressionable teens. Although the general Malay aspiration of the time was to become a government clerk, and many of his siblings struggled to serve the struggling government under the strict Japanese regime, Mahathir found that his survival instincts of an entrepreneur had played to his benefit. He and some comrades set up a small stall selling food and it was during that time that difficult period of non-subsidies that it was either feast or famine for the local Malaysian. The young entrepreneurs found themselves more successful than their peers who struggled with desk-job employment with the administration. After a few stints in different trades, Mahathir found himself educated on unfair trade (through learning how to short-change the customer). And it was through this experience that he suggested regimented rules on how to eradicate corruptive practices by businessmen later on. His plight – earning money, moving on, experiencing setbacks and becoming successful – strongly represents the journey of many players of the small-medium industries in Malaysia, whereby entrepreneurship is something of the cultural norm amongst locals. In recent years, the government has also launched graduate entrepreneur schemes and have included entrepreneurship degree programmes and elective courses in universities and colleges to enhance the entrepreneurial substance of the country.

Jostling with the British for the Malaysianisation of Companies

Mahathir talks succinctly about the negative effects of colonisation, and like other countries that have been colonised by the British, the grappling for ownership over some important economic sectors were difficult but slowly achieved over the years. Malaysia is richly endowed with many natural resources such as tin, palm oil and rubber. All three sectors represent a substantial segment of growth for the economy. Exports that have been born out of these raw materials include tyres, gloves, food cans, soap and cooking oil. Crude palm oil, in particular, has always been an earmark for economic discussion relating to Malaysia as the country remains the world’s largest producer of the same, warranting its own index on the Malaysian Bourse.

Malaysia, as a rapidly developing nation – one that is set to achieve the developed status in 2020, a Vision also coined by Mahathir – would have never been in the position to formulate such a strategy had Mahathir and his office not grappled for rightful ownership over the corporations that were channelling tax revenue back to Britain.

The Branding of Malaysia

Mahathir’s idea on the branding of Malaysia came very much by the Vision 2020, the perfect vision for anyone to have, according to optometry – his master plan that he had laid out was to have Malaysia placed on the world map through attaining the developed status without forgoing the Eastern ideals and customs. This, through his own vision, would materialise through a major shift in industries.

From Agriculture to Manufacturing and Finally, Services

Developing countries have been known to make an important shift in sectors (as to capitalise on the more effective economic drivers) and Malaysia was not alien to such a change. Although agricultural projects have always been a forte in the economy, and arguably, still is – Mahathir decided to embark on new projects with emphasis on technology.

Ironically, although his memoirs talk about the fear and uncertainty under the Japanese occupation, when Mahathir first assumed office as Prime Minister in the early 80s, one of the first policies he implemented was the Look East Policy for the business infrastructure of Malaysia. The Look East Policy embalmed a strong belief in looking towards Japan for the better foundation of business culture, such as implementing their self-discipline, business policies and organisational behaviour. It is interesting to note that at a time during the Japanese Occupation, Mahathir attended a Japanese-run school, and it was through certain practices such as radio drills, intermittent breathing exercises long distance running in formation, that he found he had the stamina to accomplish his goals. This is probably how he remained in office for so long and how Malaysia pushed forwards to reap revenue from the manufacturing industry and later the services sector.

One of the first manufacturing-based leaps of faith came through the electronic transistor, which led Malaysia to become a major exporter of microchips ad this was when the country began to draw attention on the world map.

Another major project was Proton, the Malaysian national car. Mahathir decided that he did want to see more Malaysians driving cars, but driving Malaysian cars. Proton has definitely faced much criticism over the years due to government policies that continued to protect the “infancy” of the local car manufacturing sector – even after decades of its existence – by imposing oppressive levels of tax upon foreign imports. Consumers argued that this was curtailing their choice in purchasing better quality cars for the sake of saving a government project. And critics insisted that Proton was one of the companies that were meant to fail under a capitalist market – in order for the sector to grow stronger and produce better quality cars for the local market. On the flip side though, supporters of the shift to the Heavy Industries sector insist the change was a positive one as it propelled Malaysia from being an agro-dependent economy and forced a change in mindset on how to utilise technology to build locally-owned products, and in the case of Proton, the national car.

Seemingly so, the birth of Proton was set to change the mindset of traditionalist Asians, as Mahathir calls them, those who disliked change as compared to the progressive Europeans, who he perceived as people who “wanted to improve on everything.” So in revving the local engine, Proton was meant to improve attitudes, work practices and culture – alongside improving the Proton models as each new one emerged.

Several other government-led corporations that have been recognised globally as well throughout the Muslim world include Malaysian Airlines, Petronas and Sime Darby, but have also received similar criticisms as to their survival.

Breaking into the Services Sector

The Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) was meant to be the launch pad for a paradigm shift in the mindset of Malaysians with respects to ICT, emulating the Silicon Valley in the US. Unbeknown to many though, the MSC was born from the accomplishments of the microchips project and pushed Malaysia forwards into the Information Age with full control over her destiny.

The MSC essentially is one of the mega projects left of Mahathir’s legacy, especially with respects to achieving Vision 2020. Creating a virtually physical corridor from the city centre to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Malaysia’s own F1 Circuit (a project also led by Mahathir), the MSC encompasses a stretch of companies that are strongly affiliated to ICT.

Unfortunately, Mahathir, as much as a founder of many business projects and a marketer of many leading Malaysian brands, was and is a politician to the core. The MSC, he admits himself, hit many stumbling blocks after he stepped down as Premier and although it seems like the private sector in Malaysia has matured in ICT development, a lot of ambiguity still rests with the real progress of the industry, mostly due to the lack of governmental support.

Memoirs of Mahathir

Mahathir is recognised as a brand name across the Muslim world with Malaysia being known to be a progressive Muslim-populated country. It can be said that most modernisation came from the fourth premier who was always forward-looking in wanting to achieve goals for the country. His personal account of how he came to be a government servant, the Prime Minister of Malaysia and his life afterwards (in line with his personal beliefs he has abided by) is a must-read for any person who is inclined to learn about the country or the man himself.

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