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Essay written at Columbia University (2000)

Essay in memory of my teacher, Professor Howard Gruber, Columbia University, whose life is dedicated to the believe in Creativity, Freedom, and Social Justice


Having been introduced to Howard Gruber’s Evolving Systems Case Study Approach in the Fall of 1997 represents a breadth of fresh air in looking at an in-depth and rich perspective in the study of creative individuals. After having studied and taught creativity, critical thinking and futurism for the last ten years of my teaching career, I have attempted to search for diverse approaches especially to the teaching of creativity. My explorations have brought me to the work of Joseph Renzulli, Lewis Terman, Benjamin Bloom, Robert Ornstein, Roger Sperry, Henry Mintzbug, Tony Buzan, Robert Sylvester, Edward de Bono and Howard Gardner- to name a few from the Western tradition. I have attempted to grasp concepts such as intelligence quotient, crystallized intelligence, “radiant” thinking, ecology of the brain and mind, accelerated learning, neuro-linguistic programming, autogenics, instrumental enrichment, and multiple intelligences.

At present I have begun to see the deepest applicability of Gruber’s Evolving System Approach to the study of creative individuals. The ESA seems to me not only promise a longitudinal but also a multifaceted and in-depth perspective to the study of creativity. It is precisely the phenomenological, non-statistical and humanistic dimension of this approach, which makes it a breath of fresh air for my search for a rigorous method of studying creative individuals. Then came the dilemma of choice in the initial stage of finding the subject in order to apply the Evolving Systems Approach.

Names like the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer (nominee for The Nobel Prize for literature in 1995) jailed by the Indonesian government for 14 years for his “writings allegedly sympathetic” to the Communist cause and denied pen and paper almost throughout his thirteen years of solitary confinement, came to mind. John Dewey, an American philosopher and educator who brought the philosophy of pragmatism to the classroom level, Paulo Freire, the Brazilian philosopher-educator whose idea of “conscientization” and subjectivizing of one’s objective condition helped provide impetus for Latin American liberation movements and Jacques Derrida the French post-modernist philosopher whose “deconstructionist” idea of knowledge construction is posing a challenge to the existing empiricist belief in whatever knowledge constitutes – these names came to mind too.

And lastly, albeit his commercially-inclined work on teaching thinking, Edward de Bono’s name was also in my list of candidates. Nonetheless, a name which has never missed my mind, at the early stages of my incubation period of choosing individuals came and was immediately taken up, for whatever impulse I have yet to ascertain, to be the subject of this early exploration of the Evolving Systems Approach.

He is Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who perhaps has been for the last decade quietly haunting my conscience for a number of reasons, which I present in the following, has helped make me understand better what creativity within an authoritarian context and oxy-moronically in the moral domain can mean. I have chosen to study him for the following reasons:

i. to understand the logic behind Dr. Mahathir’s transforming of the nation from a semi-industrial to a heavy industrial and information-based economy following capitalist development paradigm,

ii. to understand how one can survive a prolonged political challenges (16 years of rule) in a complex multi-racial multi-lingual society within the context of a Third World nation producing essentially for the global market dominated by the First World,

iii. to understand creative achievements made given the political machinery at his disposal and how these have been able to hold the general populace “mesmerized” by his epitome and the manner he uses his creativity and problem-solving skills to cling on to power,

iv. to understand how politician solve problems (or choose not to) within the evolving systems of Malaysian politics patterned along the line of authoritarianism successfully masked under the guise of developmentalism,

v. to analyze how propaganda and image-makings are used in the process of holding on to power and how these have successfully shaped Dr. Mahathir, in the eyes of the national and international public, as a hero, championing for the rights of the oppressed whilst at the same time use undemocratic means to silence dissenting voices within the country,

vi. to study the thought process, the logic of arguments, the creation of fear and the effort to create one-dimensionality of thinking in the Malaysian psyche so that his leadership will continue to survive and his corporatist -state multiracial coalition party will continue to rule albeit widespread corruption, unchecked developmentalism and unrestrained arrogance in the way the nation is governed,

vii. to search for pattern of similar leadership style of other Third World leader contemporary to Dr. Mahathir so that perhaps a speculative study on the evolving systems of thinking and use of power of long-surviving Third World leader can be carried out and the pattern generalized within the context of Gruber’s Evolving System’s Approach. This, to me, can be a promising topic of exploration for a doctoral dissertation to be undertaken specifically employing such an approach.


Before charting out the proposal of the Evolving Systems Approach case-study (ESA-cs) of Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (born 1925) (see Appendix I for K’s biodata) and before outlining the, epitome, network of enterprise, and modalities of thought and expression, problem-solving skills, and other selected features in the study approach of this subject, it is important to note Gruber and Wallace (1977) and the meaning of creative development in which it is stated that:

development is not restricted to an uni-linear pathway since an evolving system does not operate as a linear sequence of cause-effect relationships but displays, at every point in its history, multi-causal and reciprocally interactive relationships both among the internal elements of the systems and between the organism and its external milieu. (p. 1)

Indeed, Gruber and Wallace’s definition as such is pertinent as a basis of studying a statesman whose development must be looked at not only within an important historical context but also contingent upon the subject’s own internal systems of thinking as well as the political-economic context the subject shapes and is being shaped. Precisely, Mahathir’s complex and evolving system of thinking and external forces that have influenced Malaysia as a post-colonial nation emerging from hundreds of years of Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and British colonialism – all these considerations lend themselves well to the analysis of creative development within the parameters of Gruber’s Evolving Systems Approach. Within thirty years of its emergence from a century of British rule, coupled with another three hundred years of Portuguese, Dutch, and Japanese dominations, Malaysia has emerged as one of the fastest developing nation-states in contemporary Southeast Asia not only economically but also socially, educationally, and globally.

It has emerged from an obscure and emotionally inferior nation of primary producer of rubber, tin and cocoa, to a post-industrializing country transformed and thrusted into the global arena in its role as a major manufacturer of high-tech products, automobiles, heavy machinery, and is also aspiring to be a Southeast Asia center for educational excellence, multimedia-based production house and “information superhighway” – much to the amazement of many global political economic observer. Whilst all these rapid changes and achievements only four decades after Independence in 1957 certainly is not solely attributable to a state leader such as this one big studied, nonetheless Dr. Mahathir’s visionary leadership, sustained political will, strong survival skills as problem-solver and a clear understanding of the dynamics, complexities, and demands of a chaotic and competitive global political scenario – all these have contributed to the uniqueness of this subject as a case study in political creativity, imagination, and will.

The following components of this essay, predominantly organized as “facets,” will refer to Dr. Mahathir as K (the subject of study). Prior to this however, for political reasons of which I would be in future inclined to be involved in, I present the following “note on research objectivity” pertinent to the “smooth sailing” of this essay.


Before proceeding to outlining the main themes in this paper, ones that will be called “facets,” true to the Gruberian tradition, it is important to note an important aspect of my role as an investigator. It is certainly not an easy task to choose K as a subject of a study due to the political nature of this subject as well as the politicity of K’s existence. I have long been a critic of K’s policies of developmentalism and the manner ideology is used to an extent of creating, in Herbert Marcuse’s term, “false consciousness,” in the psyche of the nation via the employment of mass media heavily controlled by the government.

I have, as a graduate student of political science and education and one who is deeply involved in the study of mind controls, been critical of authoritarianism in governmental conduct, having been trained for a long time in the American education system. In addition to such convictions, it is important to mention that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also holds the portfolio of Home Affairs Minister which has at his disposal the freedom to use the Internal Security Act (ISA) which provides for detention without trial those deemed as threats to the government. The Act, a legacy of the British colonial government, has been used by Malaysia to repress the growth of Communism and to act against the Malaysian Communist party and was continued to be employed even after such a threat no longer existed. In the section of Problem Solving Facet, I will illustrate the context of how the ISA was used in 1987 to repress dissenting views and to perpetually consolidate Mahathir’s power.

Malaysia is controlled so that the government would continue to silence critics of the corporatist developmentalist state and continue to provide a strong political base for a favorable investment climate within the paradigm of advanced capitalist development. This paper, in the form it is written, would probably not be published if it contains critical analyses of K as a problem solver who uses creative means contrary to what he would want to hear. Academic freedom is certainly not a luxury in Malaysia when it comes to critical analysis of governmental decision making, and especially so in the case of K, who has a historical dislike for critical academics.

A writer who engages in such analyses will probably get visits from officials of the Home Affairs Ministry or the Special Branch of the Police Department. However, for the purpose of this study, and in looking apolitically at the case of via the ESA-cs, I have decided to hold on the conviction as suggested by Gruber and Wallace on the investigator’s role in that: The issue of objectivity is critical. In the case study of method, the investigator has two central roles, a phenomenological and critical one. In the phenomenological role, the investigator strives to enter the mind of the subject of the case to reconstruct the meaning of the latter’s point of view. This is an attempt to achieve objectivity by putting aside one’s biases. In this role the investigator comes as close as possible to the case. (p. 35)

Having taken such an “oath” of scientific study as such thus, I may now be able to proceed studying K, albeit grudgingly my skimming off of the criticisms of K’s environmental policies relating to development of the nation, excessive control of the media, authorization outlook towards governing, suppression of dissenting views, and an array of other characteristics inherent in many a Third World politician. All these, I believe are equally important illustrations when put in the context of K’s dilemma as a creator, i.e. in his oeuvres, and in the context of K’s use of critical thinking skills in the overall production of his magnum opus in his fifty-year involvement in politics; sixteen of which as the fourth Prime Minister of a forty-year old independent Malaysia.


Before outlining K’s epitome, it is important to chronicle his brief profile as it relates to his political career as the longest serving Malaysian Prime Minister. 1925 Born in Alor Star, Kedah. Early education in Alor Star, Kedah. 1947 Gained admission into the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore. Joined Malaysian Government Service as a medical doctor upon graduation. 1945 Joined politics 1946 Member of United Malays National Organization (UMNO) 1957 Left government service to set up private practice. 1964 Member of Parliament (MP). 1968 Member of Higher Education Advisory Council. 1969 Lost MP seat in General Election. 1972 Member of University Court and University of Malaya Council. 1974 Chairman of National University Council. 1974 Contested in the 1974 General Elections. Won unopposed and appointed Minister of Education. 1978 Relinquished post to that of Minister of Trade and Industry. 1981 Elected President of UMNO and fourth Malaysian Prime Minister. K’s achievement, which will be elaborated, lies in his success in transforming the people’s social, economic, cultural, educational, and political-emotional state of being, i.e. to bring them out of the shackles of colonialism even after the British has granted independence. K was able to further unite the peoples of Malaysia which consist of radically different races – Malays from Malay archipelago (and considered the “definitive peoples”), the Chinese from Southern China, and the Indians from Southern India – all whom would have otherwise be virtually impossible to co-exist as a group of peoples called Malaysians.

K has successfully engineered and seen the product, which has transformed the thinking of these diverse groups of people into emphasizing their Malaysian-ness rather than identifying themselves through their different racial origins. K’s achievements in the field of economics, in reengineering Malaysia’s economic system through a systematic five-year Malaysian Plans (national strategic planning), have brought enormous changes to the systematic use of the nation’s wealth and has placed the country as one of the first fastest growing economies in the Southeast Asia region. K has been called the “Father of Modern Malaysia”. This nation-state, at the brink of the twenty-first century is currently a model of economic development to Third World countries such as South Africa, Madagascar, Kampuchea, Vietnam, Bosnia, and others which are emerging out of closed-system economies.

K’s achievement in the field of culture and education in the form off massive democratization of education, raising literacy standards, building better schools, and using printed and electronic media in promoting a culture of learning – all these illustrated his creative work synthesizing the best of systems from the United States, Britain, Europe, and Japan – so that the nation can be ready for the demands of a globally interdependence twenty-first century. Education and social improvement such as total alleviation of poverty is given the highest priorities in the five-year strategic plannings and K’s goal is to transform the country into a haven of regional educational exchange so that society will be at par with the advanced industrial nations. Such a goal, according to K is to be achieved with just a blend of technological progress and strong moral and spiritual base.

K’s achievements in foreign relations (see for example, Pathmanathan, 1990) have also been remarkable in the sense that K has now been increasingly known as a spokesperson of the Third World which has long began to feel and to be subjected to the injustices of the world economic system and especially by powerful nations which continue to prioritize military build-up over helping the millions’ poor of the world. K has worked for the regional economic cooperation, championed for nuclear-weapons-free Southeast Asia, send troops to Namibia and Bosnia for peacekeeping, proposed and pushed for reforms in the United Nations Security Council, helped underdeveloped nations restructure their economy, and called for an “Asian Renaissance” in cultural thought in which the major religions of Southeast Asia would come together to set a peaceful agenda for Southeast Asia in the twenty-first century. For these achievements and creative endeavors K has been awarded numerous highest awards from state governments globally, especially those from the Third World in recognition of his efforts for goodwill and international diplomacy (see Appendix 2).

Since 1991 to the present, there are 25 international awards granted from world governments and 14 from the national government. Perhaps the most remarkable achievements has thus far been K’s political philosophy and strategic planning for the nation in a document known as “The Way Forward-Vision”, a futuristically-themed agenda for progress and mindshift K has asked the nation to adopt and worked on in order for Malaysia to counter the ebbs and tides of an increasingly challenging world. K’s Vision 2020 outlined several principles for Malaysia’s sustainable development in all spheres of development (see Appendix 3 for The Way Forward-Vision).

The creative domains outlined above illustrate K’s level of achievement represents the themes in this proposal. They will be looked at within Gruber’s proposition to include “novelty”, “value”, “purpose”, and “duration” in the study of creative products (p.3). The novelty lies in K’s conjuring up of ideas for social transformation which gives a tremendous amount of value to the nation, implemented with a strong sense of purpose over the duration of a long period of time. All these creative works are processes and products in one, theory and methods in a mould, and praxis in their characterization. Whilst a great deal of studies on creative individuals may lie in the domain of science and the arts, K’s study falls in the oftentimes controversial and argumentative domain of political creativity – an area perhaps many a study on creativity would shun as worthwhile an endeavor.

However, in the emerging subcategory of Creativity in the Moral Domain (see Gruber and Wallace, 1993), the study of one’s creative achievement vis-à-vis social and political imagination to effect changes in the public sphere and utilitarian context, this kind of study may perhaps be of critical value. This is especially so when we juxtapose the notion that as the world enters into the twenty-first century, leadership imbued with morally creative sense is all the more needed and its study documented so that we may learn what altruism can mean in a world plagued with issues of distributive injustices, militarism, covert recolonizations, and a loss of spiritual and philosophical sense. Such a rationale thus forms the basis of my choice in studying a politician such as Mahathir Mohamad.


K is a politician par excellence whose central conflict and dilemma lies in his preoccupation to liberate the mind of Malaysians from the shackles of neo-colonialist domination. He sees it as an unending struggle to free his people so that they can reach the level of industrial advancement to that of the advanced nations such as the United States, Britain, and Japan. His struggle more so than of his predecessors, is also personal in which he tried to resolve his anger on what colonialism has managed to do. Adshead (1989) wrote K’s precondition for his explained persistence in his struggle:

During the Japanese occupation of Malaysia, from 1942 until 1945, the young Mahathir saw Malays, in his own brothers and cousins included evicted from the employment form Government service clerks and forced to earn a meager living hawking fruits along the roadsides. Mahathir’s schooling was suspended from the duration of his occupation, and he had to work in a coffee stall, and to sell bananas in the weekly market in the town in which he lived. (p.1)

It was within such a historical instance that K was preoccupied with his struggle, leading him to enter politics at a very early age after finishing his secondary school during the years of Japanese occupation and at the early stage of the return of British rule in Malaya. As written by a biographer (Adshead, 1989)

Mahathir’s political career was therefore launched while he was still at school. In his forthright way, Mahathir looked at the long-term position, and recognized that he must become someone of importance and high standing within his own community if his political aspirations are to be realized. Two professions would enable him to do this: law and medicine. (p. 33)

K chose medicine over law and it is this profession later in his development as a politician which has contributed much to his modality of thought in his observation of his society, diagnosing its ills, and administering prescriptions. K’s writing illustrating his observations of the “post-colonial” disease plaguing his people can be analyzed in his 1970 work called The Malay Dilemma, a controversial view of the leadership of the first Prime Minister. In it he outlined what needed to be changed in order for Malaysia to continue to exist in a harmonious state after the May 13 1969 race riots between the major races: the Malays and the Chinese especially, which killed several hundred people. The book was banned for several years and was only allowed to be circulated after K got into power. K was expelled from the ruling party of which he had been a member since 1946. K’s work ten years later called The Challenge, analyzed further the continuing struggle for Malaysia to survive in the 1980s in a world divided by Cold War political ideologies, and at home, the economic imbalances primarily which needed to be addressed. His 1991 writing, in the form of a document called “The Way Forward – Vision” illustrated his view of some of the successes his government has made and outlined bigger challenges for Malaysia to develop in its own mould in a world economic system characterized by anarchy and colored with global injustices. It is K’s magnum opus, “The Way Forward – Vision”, a document which outlined nine challenges to be met in Malaysia’s journey towards becoming a fully-industrialized nation by January 1, 2020 which illustrates K’s preoccupation with nation-building through the constructing of a futuristic mindset. Thus, the Evolving Systems Approach-case study (ESA-cs) of K’s creative endeavors in social transformation can be analyzed by looking at the milieu, i.e. the context of post-colonial dilemmas of nation-building and K’s involvement as a process and a change agent, looking at his political philosophy as both a process and a product.


How do we describe K’s “network of enterprises”? Gruber and Wallace’s (1978) provide a starting point in analyzing K’s system of goals:

[T]he course of a single project is hierarchically organized: projects, problems, tasks. …an enterprise is an enduring group related activities aimed at producing a series of kindred products. An enterprise embraces a number of projects. Most typically, as one project is completed, new possibilities come to the fore, to be undertaken next or later. Finishing a project rarely leads to a state of rest; rather it triggers further work as if completion furnishes the momentum to go on. Thus each enterprise is self- replenishing. (p. 23)

It is commonly acknowledged that K is a political workaholic whose array of projects have kept his nation breathless and always on the toes, since he assumed leadership. One surprise after another has come for the last two decades. K’s latest embarking is the creation of a major “cyber city” outside the capital of Malaysia, to move the nation’s administrative center to one which is based on the concept of an “electronic government,” creation of sub- cyber centers using highly sophisticated network of information technology is under way in all the thirteen provinces in Malaysia.

This creative endeavor is a magnum opus of K’s work in the area of infrastructure development and in line with the aspirations outlined in K’s document, The Way Forward — Vision. Thus, a common pattern in K’s creative work as a state leader is the designing of master plans in the areas known to his profession as a national leader. As in Darwin’s passion for keeping notebooks, K is legendary in his keeping of little notebooks in which he outlined observations, problems, and solutions to the things he has planned to transform. As noted by Abshead (1989):

Dr. Mahathir’s little notebook is a legend among members of the Cabinet. His critics use this as an example of what they feel to be Dr. Mahathir’s over involvement in details of administration. However, he is totally accessible. …He listens to what people say and makes his own observations. These are brought to the attention of various Ministers to check and examine – grouse against red tape, condition of public facilities, street lights that are not working, new ideas that strike him as he travels abroad. These jottings represent his total commitment to his work. (Abshead, 1989, p.168)

There is also continuity in his enterprises. When not working on national proposals as ascribed to him as an elected leader, K reflects upon his society in his writings which have been mentioned earlier, The Malay Dilemma (1970), The Challenge (1986) and The Way Forward – Vision (1991) and recently in 1997 at the age of 72, K took one-month break to work on his memoirs. It is important to mention what K does when he is not working on matters relating to administering the nation.

K’s hobbies can become an important source of insights into his system of thinking. He is one who loves cooking, interior designing, woodworking (he has even built his own boat), horse-riding, travelling, and also writing poems. It can also be analyzed that through these activities, we can find symbolic manifestations translated from the personal to the public and professional domains in the form of significant projects he has initiated through his long years of leadership. I now turn to the discussions of K’s modality of thought and expressions as it relates to the psychological focus of my study.


K, as explained earlier, by training is a physician and looks at the society as a potential patient to be diagnosed of its ills and to be administered prescriptions, therapies, or even when the situation demands, to be performed minor and major operations on. In his own words, K related politics with his medical training:

The first lesson is the methodical way that doctors approach medical problems. Observance, history taking, physical examinations, narrowing the diagnosis and then deciding on the most likely diagnosis and the treatment required. These are useful in any problem in life, and they serve me well in attending to top political problems. … The sense of compassion and the deep understanding that a doctor develops towards patients are also useful in politics. An ability to look at the other side of the picture, the patients’ or the opponents’ side enables understanding and appreciation. Counter-measures can be developed. … If the ailments of a society or a nation are attended to in the same way as the illness of a patient, some good results must follow. The essential thing is to develop diagnostic skills. (Abshead, 1989, p.53)

It is logical to explain K’s preoccupation with looking at Malaysia as a patient in an Intensive Care Unit (after May 13 1969 bloody riots) on a long road to recovery both physically and most importantly, emotionally. This, I believe is a powerful metaphor too out of which K’s political paradigm emerges. It can explain a great deal how K has, in his sixteen-year rule thus far, managed to systematically eliminate his political opponents in a manner as a physician, without remorse, amputates a cancerous organ. This metaphor may explain clearly I believe K’s enduring survival as one of the most long-lasting Third World Prime ministers of the twentieth century. Other modalities of thought and expression, which have become second nature to K’s mental modus operandi, can be analyzed by taking into consideration the hobbies K has undertaken.

If in physicianship he acquired the skills of diagnosing and remedying society’s ills and engineer its program of well-being, cooking is a metaphor for his ability to synthesize ideas and experiment with recipes for national progress; woodworking lets him imagine nation-building as a tedious and artistic endeavor; interior designing allows him to visualize a beautify space for habitats, horse-riding puts him in a frame of mind of a horsemen and a shepherd to those he is entrusted to lead; travelling widens his horizon and open up frontiers for new ideas and for making new friends; and last but not least, poetry writing sets his mind in reflective and interpersonal moods (as Gardner puts it,) so that he may reflect deeply the fate of his nation.

As it relates to the discussion on network of enterprise, if there is an ensemble of metaphors by which we can analyze K with, it is a mix of K as a surgeon-anesthetist, a captain of industry, a school headmaster, an Asian Machiavelli, a Zulu warrior, a company Chief Executive Officer, a don of a political underworld and a rebel who finds new causes. All these metaphors can be applied to K to get a holographic and panoramic view of his modality of thought and expression quite transparent and applicable to different situations. Thus, the sum of modalities of thought K has trained himself in, symbolically manifested through his undertakings either as a profession or as a hobby have been used in his major creative work; governing the nation.

It can be said that unconsciously or subconsciously K’s creative endeavors have been a series of metaphors. These metaphors become guiding lights in K’s creations and these “intelligences” (again, as Gardner would insist) become crystallized. They relate to Gruber and Wallace’s point regarding “…one hardy perennial group of questions concern [ing] the modality in which the creator thinks (p. 20). And K’s ensemble of one metaphor, as written above, “represent a field of meaning.”

Through the development of one metaphor to another, K in these latter days as a politician nearing retirement, much of the progress he has brought to the nation can perhaps (scientifically through the ESA-cs method,) be explained phenomenologically through our analysis of K’s inner world. It is interesting to note that, in recapitulating this proposal for a more in-depth analysis of Mahathir the statesman, there is not yet scientific study such as this one proposed (using the ESA-cs method, precisely) which attempt to look at the soul of a nation through the inner workings of the mind of, perhaps, its most glorified Prime Minister. More research needs to be done on the thought processes involved in K’s acts and behavior as a politician.


One of the most central aspects of the study of creative individuals in the Evolving Systems Approach is problem solving. Contemporary definitions of creativity and the creative individual continue to highlight aspect of creating new domains; one definition by Csikszentmihalyi (1996) note that:

Creativity is any act, idea, or product that changes an existing domain or that transforms an existing domain into a new one. …[and] a creative person is: someone whose thoughts or actions changes a domain, or establishes a new domain. (p.28)

The above definition is quite consistent with Henri Poincare’s definition of creativity as a process which:

Consists of making new combinations of associative elements which are useful… Among chosen combinations the most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart. (Ochse, 1990, p.210)

Within the context of the evolving systems approach, we can further understand the problem solving and creativity within the domain of criteria outlined by Gruber as having novelty, value, purpose and duration. (Wallace and Gruber, 1989, pp.28-29) Indeed is not merely sufficient to solve problems but to fashion products or implement ideas to reach the ultimate aim of the process of problem finding and problem solving in one’s creative act. If in the case of scientific and artistic creativity, the subject of study may be analyzed as one who seeks to, in the former, test hypothesis, and conjure theories which can paradigmatically shift the thinking in that particular fields, in the latter, the subject may also be considered as one who attempts to create something new, which calls for a new definition of what is discovered. Elaborating the aforementioned perspectives on creativity, it is imperative, when we look at the creative individual as a problem-solver within the mould of the Evolving Systems Approach, to quote Gruber and Wallace (1978):

Generally speaking, people think in order to solve problems. The excellent problem-solver may have gotten beyond that point: problem solving comes relatively easy. It may be apt to say that the creator sets himself or herself problems in order to think. The creator is not necessarily a better problem-solver. The main point is to develop a new point of view, a perspective from which new problems are seen and old ones are seen in a new light. (pp.30-31)

In this brief study of Mahathir Mohamad’s evolution as a thinker, illustrations abound in K’s work, which almost correspond to Gruber and Wallace’s claim above. In the analysis of K’s writing, one can find major instances in which the opening paragraph suggests K’s “problem-finding” capability becomes relatively at ease in solving them, and arguably, does “not necessarily [make him] a better problem-solver” but helps him develop “points of view” at the peak of his career.

But before I venture into the discussions of the evolution of K’s problem-solving facet, a brief mention of problem solving in the political domain need to be made in order for one to find its similarity in other domains such as in the artistic and the scientific. I refer to the enterprise as a political imagination and social invention. Political imagination cannot be any different from as an enterprise of problem solving, problem finding, and paradigm shifting. Manifestations of the end product may be looked at in the form of social inventions, which have their utilities in the improvement of the lives of a great number of people. Ideas for social improvements be they, in the political, educational, cultural or scientific spheres may be first accepted (or decreed to be accepted) by the peoples whom the national leader governed and perhaps, if these ideas are of appealing quality, may be accepted by peoples outside the territorial states or boundaries.

One such idea may be that of a bank for hard-core poor (The Grameen Bank) tested, tried and true by one Professor Yunus (Friedmann, 1992). Others of such magnitude coming from political will is that of Gandhi’s satyagraha (non-violent movement) which have been duplicated by revolutionary leaders struggling from dominations of the colonials or the oppressors. We saw this in Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Corazon Acquino of the Philippines, and of Dr. Martin Luther King of the United States, and also the anti-Vietnam war protests. The typology of this creative process is described by Wallas, quoted by Osche (1993), of the four stages which include “(1) preparation; (2) incubation; (3) illumination; (4) verification.” Osche also mentioned a pre-stage “problem-finding” (p.185) which “has recently become the subject of special psychological study” (pp.186-187).

We now look at the analysis of Mahathir Mohamad as a problem solver in light of the typology mentioned above. K’s identification of problems in his society and ways to act upon them are manifested in a spectrum of illustrations dating back not only from this most current problem-solving skill in countering the current attack on Southeast Asian currency (July 1997 to the present) but also even before his controversial analysis of his society in The Malay Dilemma in the 1970. The problems he presented and the solutions proposed were controversial enough for the book to be banned for ten years; the ban was lifted by K himself when he became Prime Minister. His writings before The Malay Dilemma have been in the form of newspaper articles on the need to improve the thinking of the Malays, contributed to the Sunday Times between 1946 and 1950 (see Appendix 4 for a list of K’s writings). K’s identification of the problems of the Malays, in the interpretation of the May 13, 1969 race riots, is best illustrated in his opening chapter of The Malay Dilemma written after his expulsion from the ruling party. His diagnosis of the bloody riots is as such:

What went wrong? Obviously a lot went wrong. In the first place the Government started off on the wrong premise. It is believed that there Have been racial harmony in the past and that the Sino-Malay cooperation to achieve independence was an example of racial harmony. It is believed that the Chinese were only interested in business and the acquisition of wealth, and the Malays wished to become Government servants. These ridiculous assumptions led to policies that undermined whatever superficial understanding between the Malays and non-Malays. On top of this the Government glorifies in it either the opposition or its supporters. The gulf between the government and the people widened so that the Government was no longer able to feel the pulse of the people or interpret it correctly. It was therefore unable to appreciate the radical change in the thinking of the people from the time of the Independence and as the 1969 elections approached. And finally when it won by such a reduced majority the Government went into a state of shock which marred its judgement. And so murder and arson and anarchy exploded in 13 May 1969. That was what went wrong. (p.15)

Quite clearly illustrated as K’s problem-finding statement in his first major (and controversial work) lies in the beginning of the paragraph “What went wrong?” and re-iterated with a punch at the end:

And so murder and arson and anarchy exploded on 13 May 1969. That was what went wrong. (Mohamad, p.15)

It illustrates the beginning of K’s style of reasoning throughout his career. The quote on “what went wrong?” thus illustrate the premise upon which K based his analysis of the economic backwardness of his people and how remedial actions should be carried out. K sets himself such a problem not only in order to make him think, but to make the others react to the issues raised. His point of view developed out of his paradigm guides the policies to be made in national development – for better or for worse. It is interesting to note that fifteen years after K wrote The Malay Dilemma with such a problem-finding illustration, he began his second major work The Challenge with a simple style of problem posing. If in the 1970 The Malay Dilemma the problem was with the Malay’s economic backwardness under the rule of its first Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman, in the 1986 published work The Challenge, the problem is with the Malays themselves under his rule who opposes his ideas on national progress. K wrote:

The Malays have emerged from a long period of backwardness only to be pulled in different directions by conflicting forces, some of which seek to undo whatever progress that has been made and plunge the entire community into the Dark Ages. (Mohamad, 1986, p.i)

It is interesting to note that, after consolidating power for the second term, and after narrowly winning the seat in the 1986 General Election in which the Islamic fundamentalist opposition party gained a considerable win, K’s main criticism was directed at the “Malays who leaned closest to Islamic fundamentalism” in which the problem identified was of their inability to differentiate what is the truth and what is not in the religion. K wrote:

One of the saddest ironies of the recent times is that Islam, the faith that once made its followers progressive and powerful, is being invoked to promote retrogression which will bring in its wake weakness and eventual collapse. A force for enlightenment, it is being turned into a rationale for narrow-mindedness; an inspiration towards unity, it is being twisted into an instrument of division and destruction. …Ignorance of what constitutes spirituality, and a failure to see the distinction between materialism and healthy involvement of worldly concerns, render some sections of the Malays (Muslims) community susceptible to the notion that Islam exhorts believers to turn their backs on the world. (p.ii)

In fact, K’s opening chapter did not only find the fundamental Muslims as a problem but also in addition to this, others who are opposed to the dominant ruling party. He added:

At the same time, other sections of the community are being confused by attempts to equate Islam with socialism, using the ambiguity inherit words like justice, equality and brotherhood. (p.11)

K’s preoccupation with the progress of his nation right till the close of this century with the major collapse of the country’s stock and financial markets (along with other Southeast Asian nations’) has shaped his manner of problem-finding in such way that problems are always seen as coming from outside of him; in the 1970s it was from the then prime minister who ostracized and exiled him, in the 1980s it was from those who opposed him, and in the 1990s it is from “forces” outside of this country. In fact, when he was writing to the Sunday Times in the 1950s, the problem identified was with the British colonials. I shall elaborate on this paradigm of thinking in the section on K’s point of view.

One must bear in mind that, in this life history method, of studying K, the father figure is dominant in K’s life in which K was brought up in a home environment of strict discipline which can explain K’s brand of authoritarianism in running the nation and in his style of dealing with his critics. As one who grew up without much inclination to socializing, K has developed a political style of problem solving which illustrates indifference and projects the image Machiavellian. A citation in a recent magazine, Asiaweek, described the link between K’s style of leadership and his childhood in that:

Looking from a telling insight into the political style of Mahathir Mohamad, some analysts like to point to his childhood days. At school, they say knowingly, he was a loner: not given to mixing, always hanging around at the back when the team games were being organized. In adulthood, they like to add his favorite hobbies have included riding and sailing – againrelatively solitary activities. And ones that require keeping an eye on the horizon. (p.1)

It may perhaps be because of his “loner” attitude towards relationship which has contributed a great deal to his ability to objectivize problems and deal with them in manners which are oftentimes contrary to the demands of democracy. Thus, K uses whatever means necessary, using his own logic, paradigmed after his “doctoring view, and being unrestrained in his actions, to stay in power and to maintain stability” in the country. Illustrative of his skill in “objectivizing” and “solving problems” is his 1987 decision to arrest and jail without trial those whom he feel are threatening to erode his power base. Boo Teik (1995) for example, wrote about the 1987 mass arrest, which is important to be quoted at length:

On Tuesday, 27 October 1987, the police launched Operasi Lalang [Operation “Weed Out”] within the first day, Operasi Lalang made fifty-five arrests, all under the ISA [Internal Security Act which provides detention without trial] of DAP (Democratic Action Party) MPs, a DAP state assemblyman, second echelon MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) leaders, Chinese educationists, prominent NGO figures, and university lecturers. Three newspapers, The Star, Watan, and Sin Chew Jit Poh, were suspended indefinitely. Over the next few days, more people were arrested, including politicians from Pemuda UMNO (UMNO Youth) … Gerakan, PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party,) and the PSRM (Malaysian Socialist Party,) local Muslim teachers, members of some Christian groups, and other NGO activists. The arrests spread geographically from Peninsular Malaysia to Sarawak where local environmentalists and anti-timber logging natives were also detained. The waves of arrests, though lessening after October, continued until the number of detainees reached a peak figure of 119 in December. (pp. 284 –285)

Such is a manner the doctor-politician administered his surgical skills in order to suppress the growth of “political tumor” so that his “capitalist-corporatist developmentalist” plans can be continued and his power, authority and legitimization maintained. In closing this section on K’s problem-solving skill, it is also important to note his own definition of how he looks at problems as they relate to how they are solved. K relates medicine to Sherlock Holmes-type of investigation. When asked about his writing skills for example, K said:

… It is easy for me to examine a patient and then prescribe an appropriate medicine … but to be a writer is more difficult…. Medicine is something like detective work. You know that Conan Doyle who wrote The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was a doctor. I read Conan Doyle first, then read medicine. The way Conan Doyle solves his problems is the way the doctor solves his cases. (Teik, 1995, p. 297)

Indeed, if we refer to The Malay Dilemma as K’s earliest significant work on political analysis of the day, it can be quite accurately discerned that the political piece of writing is paradigmed after the medical doctor cum author – Sherlock Holmes thinking. I subscribe to Boo Teik’s (1995) analysis of the manner The Malay Dilemma is written in that it was:

Structured very much according to the methodological way that doctors approach medical problems. It will be recalled that The Malay Dilemma begins with a pathologist’s report on what went wrong, on May 13, 1969 which emphasized that things went wrong, among other reasons, because ‘the Government was no longer able to feel the pulse of the people.’ The book continues with a ‘history taking’ of the influence of heredity and environment on the Malay race. Therefore it proceeds with a ‘therapeutic analysis’ of the Malay value system and code of ethics.’ (p. 299)

And in Boo Teik’s analysis throughout, K is said to follow the processes involved thereafter including the administering of treatment and remedies to cure the nation. Within the context of discussion of K as problem-solver, the metaphor of doctor-politician-Sherlock Holmes is evident. If we are to analyze this metaphor further within the context of Malaysian society, it is also evident that throughout his political career, K has employed a holistic approach to problem solving in the political domain. His remedies and cures for the nation involves amputating his political rivals deemed as cancerous, prescribing depressants for points of view anathema to his political goals, injecting tranquilizers into the populace so that political reality is his and only his, administering strongest medicine to political, economic and social ills, giving stimulants to Malaysians so that they become good workers for the international capitalist system, and performing plastic surgery in areas of concern in all the spheres of Malaysian living so that they become presentable in the eyes of international audience.

Thus K, in sustaining power problem solves by administering and overseeing onto society what doctors and their variants would: hypnosis, placebo, psychoanalysis, essential vitamins, dialysis, mental therapy, physical therapy and of late, prozac.

These are combined with traditional medicine such as those extracted from cultural arguments, religious rhetoric and historical claims. Problem solving approaches as such, employed since he became Prime Minister have obviously worked well in that the nation is free from threats from organized dissenting views, feelings of political fatigue, and doubts of the government’s ability to continue its onward march of state capitalism. In continuing the facets in K’s life and work, we now turn to a brief discussion on what guides K in his struggles or what point of view is taken in his worldview.


After briefly looking at K’s epitome, central conflict, network of enterprise, ensemble of metaphors and problem-solving perspective, we now ask the question: What guides K’s point of view?

I have argued throughout that K looks at issues as ailments to be diagnosed and issued remedies much in the manner physicians would look at them, hence the title of this essay in part; “case study of a medical doctor turned politician.” However, in analyzing his viewpoint as a problem solving and “political imagining” individual, I extend the medical doctor-politician notion to another dimension which guides Mahathir’s thinking.

The themes I will briefly illustrate will be those of “deliverance,” “competition,” and progress through the “catching-up game.” These entails conjuring up images of “I and them,” “we and they,” and “them and us” in K’s leitmotif and political modus operandi within a realpolitik and political realism paradigm characteristic of the thinking of leaders of his generation confronted with the challenges of liberating his people from the shackles of colonialism.

If we analyze his writings and political actions from the publication of The Malay Dilemma in the 1970s to his reaction to the Southeast Asian financial turmoil at the turn of this century which has bankrupted Malaysia by at least 25% of its currency and sent the economy into chaos, we find a pattern of K’s point of view which is consistent. The Malay Dilemma epitomizes his feelings on what went wrong with the nation and illustrated his point of view that the then Prime Minister and his government was no longer effective in delivering the Malays out of the shackles of injustices at the national level. The Malay Dilemma is K’s point of view that he has the solution to all the ills and that the view of the government can no longer be accepted in guiding the nation. Thus, it is the “I versus them,” couched in themes of deliverance, which characterized K’s point of view.

The Challenge epitomizes K’s I-them characterization again, in which the enemies are the opposition parties particularly the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) which is considered a threat to the well-being of the nation. In the publication, K again set the “I versus them” point of view in expressing his regret that these “counter-productive” forces are misguiding the people from the true path of progressive Islam and on the personal political level have almost robbed him of his necessary two-third majority in the 1986 General Elections. In his The Way Forward – Vision, a document consisting of a “Vision 2020” document, his point of view is that of a progressive and technologically advanced Malaysia which will compete in the global arena against the advanced industrialized countries. In all the major documents thus, the themes are those of delivering the nation from the ineffectiveness of the then government, “cautioning “ the nation from the influences of the opposition parties, and rallying the nation to compete with advanced nations of the post-Industrial West.

Justice, in K’s sense of the word, consist of bringing his people out of the oppressed condition, making them aware of their strength, sovereignty, making them work hard as good, productive, and obedient citizens, and bringing the nation to a respectable level so that Malaysia can compete and “catch up” with the world’s advanced economies. In translating such a concept however, K has throughout his career employed the rhetoric of “we against them.” The “them” are such as “the government of Tunku Abdul Rahman (the first Prime Minister)” the “opposition parties, “the West,” “the western media,” the “rogue speculators” and those which he can characterize as obstructions to his goals to sustain power and consolidate political strength both nationally and internationally.

Just like a traditional medicine man believes that his mystical powers are derived from his ability to communicate with powerful forces within him, and just like a modern doctor deriving his from his training, experience and communication with his patients, K sees political power as the paramount necessity to get things done. This point of view is illustrated in a recent interview for a magazine in which when asked if he enjoyed power, K answered:

I am not saying that I enjoyed power but I find that it is useful in carrying out the things you want to carry out. If you don’t have power and you put out a very reasonable proposal, nobody will implement it. You have to have power. [and when asked why some people suggested that K is addictive to power and wouldn’t want to let it go, K answered:]… it’s not the question of wanting to let it go. I sense I may be wrong of course, that people do not want me to go just yet. They keep on telling me that. Of course they may be sycophants. But the fact is that they say that what I am doing has made the country what it is today. Well, they say, I may be wrong, they may be wrong. (Asiaweek, 1997, pp.12-13)

To K, power has brought him achievements in his 16-year rule so far and when asked if this has been a little bit too long, K said:

People will think it is too long. But one thing you can be sure of is that the certainty of your demise will undermine your ability to run the country. The problem with many countries is that their leaders are only allowed to do one term. People don’t respect that one term because you are going to go out anyway. (Asiaweek, 1997, p.9)

Thus, from K’s point of view, power to make creative changes to the nation and to solve problems in all areas of governance comes from one’s clinging on to it and also from one’s ability to believe that he will continue to reign “as long as the people need him.” Such a point of view is characteristic of the one held by many Third World leaders who are astute and shrewd politicians who have maintained power more than the nation can endure.

Names like Suharto of Indonesia (20 years), Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore (20 years), Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines (20 years) and Fidel Castro of Cuba (more than 20 years) are among those who can be analyzed as having similar points of view concerning power to make changes and to solve problems. From K’s point of view, creativity and problem solving in the political domain can be exercised if one has the power to eliminate all barriers by whatever means in order for his agenda to be successfully carried out. Hence, these creativity and problem-solving methods include variants of xenophobia, creating “enemies” for the nation to rally against, enhancing his public image perpetually in the state-controlled media, and looking for scapegoats such as the “West”, “Western media”, “Jewish conspiracy”, and “George Soros” to cover up his shortcomings. His view on his “frankness” and “directness” (clearly a “Western” trait) however is trumpeted, illustrated in the Asiaweek interview in which he spoke against the label “ultra-Malay” he has been characterized as:

I was never an ultra. That was a label given to me because I tended to speak my mind. I called a spade a spade, as they say. So, one way to negate the effect of anybody is to label him as being slightly off center. A little bit mad. That way, anything that he says will be treated as coming from a mad man or an ultra. I was never an ultra. I was just willing to speak my mind. Even now I’m still saying it. I never minced words. If I find something wrong, I’ll say it, whether it is with regard to the Malays or with regard to the Chinese or with regard to other countries – big or small – I just speak my mind. I think that things need to be said and I’ll say it. (Asiaweek, 1997, p.9)

It is ironic then that those arrested for their strong viewpoints – on religious freedom, on environmental degradation, on more accountable democracy – who called “a spade a spade” but do not have the power K has can be detained without trial. Whatever the irony is, K’s point of view prevails of which him being the most powerful man in the country, has guided him in his problem solving and creativity approaches. To him, his opinions are supreme, more than those of collective decision of the Independent judiciary of which he has silenced over the last many years since he was given power. An interesting example of how K maintained his point of view throughout his career can be illustrated by a comment made by a former Lord President as he compares K with the Prime Ministers (Tunku, Razak, and Hussein) before him:

Hussein Onn, after his retirement, said that the greatest mistake I ever made was to make Mahathir my deputy … And the Tunku said many times that we have a diabolical PM [Prime Minister]; he is autocratic. … you have to agree with Mahathir on everything or he’ll try to destroy you. But with the Tunku, Razak, and Hussein, you could disagree with them and they still asked you home to dinner. (Mitton, p.4)

For K thus, power is to be used to the limit in consolidating his position so that he can continue to create and solve problems. K’s point of view is that no one or outside forces should attempt to undermine his opinion or his power base and it is this point of view which has guided him in taking the steps to deliver his people from injustices, prepared his nation for international competition, and carried his country through the marathon of catching up with the advanced countries.


In discussing K’s creativity and problem-solving approaches, it can be said that their development follows a topographical pattern of communitarianism in thinking. Consistent with my previous analysis of K’s point of view characteristic of the “we versus them” thinking, it can be said that K’s early work, The Malay Dilemma argues for equality in participation for the Malays against the non-Malays (the Chinese particularly) so that the indigenous people can have its 30 % ownership of the nation’s economic pie in all areas. The Malays are to be taken out of their inferior economic status of merely being agricultural producers and through education, economic participation, and rapid urbanization be lifted out of the injustices left by the colonials who governed via the policy of divide and rule. In his analysis of the root of inequality and the need for urbanization in order to affect the necessary changes, K wrote:

The fact that in Malaya, the Malays are mainly rural and the non-Malays are urban, means that there is an inequality in the progress and development of the communities. A developing nation or community should have gradually urbanized itself. But despite the fact of being under the same political system during the British regime, the Malays have not followed the course of development which characterized other rural agrarian communities in other parts of the world. … The importance of urbanization in the progress of a community lies in the more complex organization which the town and cities provide. This makes urban dwellers sharper and more knowledgeable. The rural dwellers on the other hand are cut off from these experiences and are subjected only to the age-old pattern of life that characterizes the countryside. Their sum total of knowledge is therefore minimal and their capacity for change limited. The rural community is thus more static when compared with the urban community. In short, there is inequality of development between the urban and the rural areas. (Mohamad, 1970, pp. 79-80)

Upon assuming work as Minister of Education, K translated such a communitarian view with policies which would ensure that the Malays gain 30% participation in universities for example so that the “professional class” of Malays would later be created and in turn will create an urbanized society with such equality in participation. Not only K advocated and implemented policies towards redressing the racial imbalances but also called for a “mental revolution” in the Malays and the non-Malays; the former are to be made ready for changes for a McClelland- type of modernization drive and the latter are to accept the affirmative action programs to be implemented.

Thus, through the New Economic Policies drawn up every five years, starting from 1970, racial inequality in terms of income distribution and membership of wealth became the feature of Malaysia’s strategic planning. Communitarian thinking within the milieu of communal politics became the guiding force of K’s development as a problem-solver. Whilst in The Malay Dilemma, K’s thinking is based along that of Malay nationalism and the need to create a professional class of Malay urbanites, in The Challenge, K’s rhetoric and policy analysis moved towards Islamic-based arguments. As noted in earlier sections, The Challenge was an outgrowth of ideas documented in the midst of the growing pressure on the government to Islamize Malaysia and particularly to counter the pressure from the Malaysian Islamic party which was growing more popular.

K attacked parties based on socialist principles; the Democratic Action Party and the Malaysian Socialist Party – these two together with the rural-popular based Malaysian Islamic party formed a coalition known as the “Angkatan Perpaduan Ummah” (The Brigade of People’s Unity) and almost robbed K’s ruling coalition of its needed two-thirds majority. K’s development as a thinker thus moved from a Malay-centric communitarian to a “syncretist of convenience” who warned people against Western-styled capitalism and socialism (and Communism) and advocated Islamic form of economic thinking. In his opening chapter of “The Poor are Poorer, the Rich, Richer!” the following excerpts illustrate K’s development of such syncretist perspective:

In recent times, the ideology and logic of materialism have all too easily influenced human society. This is the direct result of the impact of Western thought and system of values, which fanatically focuses on the material as the basis of life. Values based on the spiritual, on the peace of mind, and on the belief in feelings loftier than desire, have no place in Western psyche. … Based on these materialistic concepts and values, a slogan has been concocted to influence the minds and hearts of the people. It goes: ‘The poor are poorer, the rich, richer!’ Created by socialists in the West, the slogan has spread and infected the rest of the world. Among the communities caught in its trap are the Malays of Malaysia. (Mohamad, 1986, p.4)

It is to be noted that towards the late 1980s at the time K has translated most of his ideas set forth in The Malay Dilemma, the government’s policies have created several millionaires among the Malays whose idols are those purported to be the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, the Du Ponts and the Carnegies of the United States as amongst them. In buffering the criticisms that the Malaysian rich are getting richer, K thus advocated an Islamic version of capitalistic and socialistic thinking. K quoted Islamic conception of justice in wealth distribution:

The history of Islam clearly shows that its followers practice moderation in all their dealings. Wealth is not disapproved of and certainly not forbidden. What Islam wants is that the rich help the poor voluntarily through arms and also through the payment of the religious tithes, zakat and fitrah. In this way society is not faced with the problem of excessive imbalance. … Since the payment of the zakat is one of the duties of the rich, they cannot feel proud about it or consider the poor indebted to them. But if they give alms, i.e. over and above what is compulsory, their kindness will certainly be appreciated by society. This will further improve the social climate and make for an even more peaceful and happy society. (Mohamad, 1986, p. 15)

Thus, K rejects American styled- capitalism and the then Soviet Union -styled socialism in toto as they are both based upon materialism. He advocated a mixed economy based on religious principles namely Islam and have consistently used this leitmotif to ideologically sustain power throughout his development as a creative and problem-solving individual. Exactly where the between rhetoric and reality lies is demarcated in his thinking is not known albeit many a writing critical of the government’s development policies have pointed out to the fact that Malaysia still remains a Third World country producing for the global capitalist market. The current turmoil in the Southeast Asian economy has however pointed out clearly the infallibility of such an economic system which is vulnerable to any Domino effect of the fall of Asian capitalism. K’s thinking along communitarian ideals continue to be developed in his conception of Malaysia as a fully industrialized state by January 1, 2020. In his recent document The Way Forward – Vision K outlined challenges the nation needs to meet in order to become competitive in the global market. His communitarianism lies in his belief that not only Malaysia needs to compete as an economic grouping to compete with existing trade blocs such as the Asian Free Trade Area (AFTA), North Atlantic Free Trade Area (NAFTA) Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) and the European Economic Community. His vision for East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) , although announced in 1990, is still waiting to be realized as the proposed members of the caucus felt that the proposal is to give Malaysia the greatest advantage.

Throughout his 16-year rule thus far, it can be concluded that K’s creative development has not changed in the sense that communitarianism, rather than cosmopolitanism in thinking remained K’s guiding principle, consistent with his central conflict of rallying “we against them”, although creative ideas of magnitude have indeed been produced through the power he holds and yields. Creativity and problem-solving approaches are to be employed from his point of view predominantly and that he produces is novel, of purpose, of value, and within a certain time frame insofar as they come out of his mould. During the present economic quagmire, K is still insistent that the country does not need to include members of the opposition party to advise the government what steps to take in order to save the notion from total economic chaos. Nor does K want international agencies such as the International Monetary Fund to bail Malaysia out. Hence, K’s creative development revolves around communitarianism in political will and actions.


In looking at the last facet, interpretive work in this preliminary study of Mahathir Mohamad as a creative problem solver in the political domain, I have chosen to analyze the central idea of The Way Forward – Vision or popularly known as “Vision 2020”; a document which was originally written as a speech by K to the Malaysian Business Council and delivered on 28 February 1991. The Way Forward-Vision can be said to be a culmination of K’s work throughout his career as a Prime Minister. It charted the challenges the nation need to face in order for it to develop at par with the advanced nations of the world. K outlined nine challenges summarized as follow:

The first of these is the challenge of establishing a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny…

The second is the challenge of creating a psychologically liberated, secure, and developed Malaysian society with faith and confidence in itself, justifiably proud of what it is, of what it has accomplished, robust enough to face all manner of adversity. …

The third challenge… is that of fostering and developing a mature democratic society, practicing a form of mature consensual, community-oriented Malaysian democracy that can be a model for many developing countries.

…The fourth challenge is establishing a fully moral and ethical society whose citizens are strong in religious and spiritual values and with the highest ethical standards. …

The fifth challenge… is the challenge of establishing a matured, liberal and tolerant society in which Malaysians of all colors and creeds are free to practice and profess their customs, cultures and religious beliefs and yet feeling that they belong to one nation. …

The sixth challenge is the challenge of establishing a scientific and progressive society, a society that is innovative and forward-looking, one that is not only a consumer of technology but also a contributor to the scientific and technological civilization of the future. …

The seventh challenge is the challenge of establishing a fully caring society and caring culture, a social system in which society will come before the self, in which welfare of the people will revolve not around the state or the individual but around a strong and resilient family system.

The eighth is the challenge of ensuring an economically just society… in which there is a fair and equitable distribution of the wealth of the nation, in which there is full partnership in economic progress. …

[And lastly] the ninth challenge is the challenge of establishing a prosperous society with an economy that is fully competitive, dynamic, robust and resilient. (Mohamad, 1991, pp. 2-3; emphases added)

Throughout the documents K elaborated the modus operandi for the nation to be fully industrialized via its own mould with the full participation of every citizen, government agency and the private sector. If we examine its meaning, The Way Forward-Vision is indeed a well-crafted vision document which would help the nation achieve the status of a fully developed nation by January 1, 2020. In it contained statements of hope which are indisputable by nature, as all the ingredients needed for a multiracial, capitalistic and nationalistic society to progress are inherently present. It reflects K’s philosophy of governing and contains themes which are continuations of what have been said since the country gained independence.

The Way Forward — Vision illustrates K’s vision as a futurist and strategic thinker and also his never-ending insistence to accelerate the nation’s development process so that Malaysia can compete in the world system. If we examine it for its meaning we would note that K’s vision document, a creative product based on principles of problem solving have its novelty, purpose, value and duration. The novelty of it is in its strategic plan for the twenty-first century, the purpose is to guide the nation towards full industrialization, the value is in its utilitarianism for K’s society and lastly the duration is K’s cumulative work and for the nation to achieve the goals by the year 2020.

If we analyze the document in more detail, we may find that it is a testament of K’s and his government’s commitment to free enterprise and capitalism couched in cultural and religious terms. As in K’s argument in The Challenge in which he attempted to denounce “godless” capitalism and socialism, The Way Forward — Vision attempts to achieve a similar effect. It attempts to harness the continuing support of the people by drawing out plans which would be acceptable to even the most fanatic of all opposition Islamic party, socialist and communal-based party members.

The idea of capitalism with rural and religious bases, economic development with inevitable trickle-down effect, social maturity with democracy and liberalism – all these are propagated well enough “to the year 2020!” In fact, the term Vision 2020 is a metaphor for a continuing state of being for the nation to have a clear view; a “20/20 Vision” in an eye doctor’s language, so that K’s government will have a “rain check” beyond the year 2000. Analyzing the document in further detail, we may also find that it is written in a language of “competition and combat,” of getting ready to go to war with the economic superpowers of the world, and of preparing the nation spiritually and religiously before the war.

Although Malaysia is a historically peaceful nation, which only in its post-Independence history has had to fight against Indonesia’s aggression in 1965, the document does reflect economic militaristic tendencies. Boo Teik (1995) observed:

The language of contest and preparation for combat is not derived from any militaristic tradition in Malaysian politics; there is none. But it is fitting that Vision 2020, the ideological expression of Mahathir’s ‘mature’ nationalism, should be so permeated with capitalism’s idiom of combat and contest. Within this scenario of trade wars and struggles for market shares, Vision 2020 specifies that its ‘first strategic challenge’ lies in ‘establishing a united Malaysian nation’ possessed of a ‘sense of common and shared destiny,’ shored up by a ‘full and fair partnership’ and made up by one ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ or ‘Malaysian race.’ (pp. 330-331)

To K, the meaning of the document lies in his ability to draw up such a plan as a testament of his ability to still maintain power after 16 years. It also reflects his achievement in bringing the nation through successive stages of industrialization much of what he envisioned in his early work The Malay Dilemma. K wrote in the document:

We have already come a long way towards the fulfillment of these objectives [challenges of Vision 2020]. The nine central objectives need not be our order of priorities over the next three decades. Most obviously, the priorities of any moment in time must meet the specific circumstances of that moment in time. (p. 3)

There is ambiguity in the above statement if we analyze the document as a goal to be met by January 1, 2020. But if we look at K’s vision of a developed nation as one of a process of “being and becoming” we may find that what is meant is that there will be sectors in the Malaysian economy, predominantly the corporate, which have already achieved the objectives. These are the ones which have accumulated wealth internationally and whose workers get paid two or three times higher than those in the government sector.

Other ambiguities can be discerned in K’s work in which such questions may reflect them:

· Can the current political arrangement, i.e. politics along communal lines ensure a fair and equitable translation of policies?

· Can continuing suppression of alternative voices ensure the growth of a liberal and tolerant society?

· Can a highly advanced corporatist capitalist state ensure equal distribution of wealth?

· Can policies drawn along the lines of competition and robustness ensure the creation of cooperative economic regions around Malaysia and in turn create an interdependent, cooperative and non-aggressive international distributive justice system in the next millennium?

The above questions are but a few critical questions relating to K’s The Way Forward – Vision. Nonetheless, the document illustrates further K’s maturity in translating his actual conflict as I have discussed at length in previous sections. In The Malay Dilemma, the conflict is to liberate the Malays from the non-Malays and the then government, in The Challenge, it is to warn the electorate from political parties adverse to K’s coalition government and in The Way Forward – Vision, it is to prepare a liberated Malaysia for competition in the aggressive global market. The document is thus K’s interpretive work on what he constitutes as his epitome as a glorified state leader who will continue to bring his people right into the twenty-first century with the confidence that his government will continue to rule beyond January 1, 2020.

Thus in brief, this analysis of K’s magnum opus can be said to be a testament of his ability to state, in the language of futurism, his confidence that as long as the country is under his rule, he will decide what shape it will take and which way forward it will follow. The paradox of K’s political actions juxtaposed with the magnum opus and all his creative development projects is clear however:

[K’s] own prime ministerial vision of reform and progress was ‘mass-oriented’ to the extent that his biggest challenge is to move all the people, not only government officers, but the whole population of this country so that they are aware of their respective responsibilities, their respective roles in national development. But as his policies, campaigns, and slogans showed, he far preferred the masses to play their part according to his script and under his tutelage. (Boo Teik, 1991, p. 201)


In analyzing the mind of Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, a medical doctor – turned politician, statesman and an emerging controversial Asia leader, I have attempted to use Gruber’s Evolving Systems Approach in looking at the subject as a case study of a creative thinker and problem solver. The facets outlined are but brief illustrations of the mind of a complex individual who has used political imagination to maintain power and use it in the manner he desires. Creativity in the political and moral domain, that is, to bring about novel charges to bring out people out of the shackles of mental domination has been the thrust of my discussions.

I have included a note on research objectivity in the earlier part of this paper. From the brief summary of my paper above, I now close not with a traditional conclusion but instead with a note on the dilemma of concluding.

Here are the reasons:

i. K is a complex individual whose analysis must go beyond what has been discussed. Although I have tried to discuss his facets with a positive frame of mind, the flow of the discussion and the tone of my writing have unconsciously veered towards critical analysis. This illustrates the complexity of looking at K as a subject who epitomizes morality in the creative domain.

ii. As an antithesis to the point above, I have also discovered that K’s life and creative products he gave form to in the form of social inventions have indeed brought wide ranging positive and moral changes to his people albeit the manner he creates them can be one of “vengeance”, true to the tradition of frankness and sincerity he claimed to adhere to and much in tandem with the central conflict which has guided him throughout his political career.

iii. There are obviously pros and cons to the interpretation of his actions and the policies he brought forth. If we are to analyze these in Edward de Bono’s term, there are “pluses”, “minuses”, and “interestings” to his beingness as a political being. He has his aims, goals and objectives he has held on fast to. He has his point of view he has tried to defend and he has been able to rationalize the consequences of his actions.

With the three main reasons thus, I make the claim that this paper is a preliminary analysis of K’s creative and problem-solving mind which existed in a particular milieu, developed in accordance with changing times and is exercised so that whatever he creates has novelty, value, purpose and duration. The strength of K’s character and the paradox of his existence may have to be looked at from a pragmatic point of view. In fact, many political analysts have attributed the term “pragmatist” to describe K’s personality.

This preliminary study obviously has its limitations – time and depth of each facet. In fact, the facets “social context”, “K as a person ’ and “creativity in the moral domain” were not able to be attempted. They would be valuable dimensions to add to the holographic perspective of this preliminary inquiry. However, these facets will indeed be explored in a larger work, perhaps to be carried out with even more depth and rigor.

As a note of ending nonetheless, suffice it is to say that the Evolving Systems Approach to the study of individuals in the political domain represents a “breath of fresh air” in looking at the complexity of an individual such as Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s fourth and longest serving and most glorified Prime Minister.


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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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