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Southeast Asian Studies

Why Mahathir Mohammad Is Known as One of the Most Successful Leaders in Southeast Asia

 In this essay, I would like to study the figure of Tun Dr. Mahathir (TDM) as a versatile figure in studying the nation-state in Southeast Asia. However, I want to see the figure for TDM in person. This is due to the Acheh people; the name of Tun Dr. Mahathir (TDM) is very famous. Since I was a santri in 1990, his name has been known by every santri in East Acheh. At that time, his name was juxtaposed as an Islamic reform figure from Southeast Asia

For anyone who wants to delve into the Islamic reform movement, the name TDM should be used as the primary reference. The influence of TDM in Acheh is undeniable. This is due to the relationship of the Achehnese with Malaysia, which has lasted for hundreds of years.

For example, Syed Naquib Al-Attas, when developing policy ideas on the development of Islamic education at ISTAC, he referred to his philosophy of thought from the foundations of Hamzah Fansuri’s thought that had been sown in Acheh in the 16th and 17th centuries AD. 

Not only that, Andaya, one of the authors of the Malay World, also described how Acheh contributed to strengthening the Malay identity. The same thing was done by TDM in changing the Malay World by seeing the glory of Acheh as one of the important factors when he built Malaysia, as he wrote in his book Malay Dilemma.

The presence of TDM is not like in the era of Sultan Iskandar Muda’s kingdom. However, he led in the modern era but still defended two things: the existence of the Malay constitution and the emergence of the concept of the nation-state. 

So far, some Muslim leaders have found it challenging to run the wheel of government, as they are confronted with the concept of the nation-state that tries to assert the role of ethnicity and religion in government.

 However, through Islamization and vision 2020, Tun Mahathir managed to integrate Islam and development in Malaysia. This is one of the reasons why his name is so well known in Southeast Asia. What is so special about this TDM?

Of course, so many works have peeled back how special TDM is. The first feature is the ability of TDM to study the history of the glory of Islamic kingdoms in the archipelago. The spirit of success is applied in the wheel of government and reflected in his thinking. 

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Here, admittedly or not, Malay historical factors became the basis for TDM in developing the idea of ​​a modern Malay identity. He took history as a lesson.

The second privilege is to take the spirit of the nation-state concept in economic development. Here TDM does not do the process of secularization in Western thought where religion and state must be separated. 

However, TDM does the process of Islamic secularization as once practised in the Prophet in Medina. The Islamic secularization of the TDM model is quite difficult to challenge. The spirit and soul in this process of secularization are Islamic values ​​that the nature of Western secularization cannot replace.

Those who are not about the self-concept in the modern era tend to misjudge the figure of TDM, which seems to be friendly to the West. So far, Mahathir appears to be anti-Western, despite Malaysia’s national development model as done by the West.

 At the same time, the West could not block TDM, as he provided a public space for Western values ​​to be applied as the basis of Western economic activity.

The third privilege is the ability to read the signs of the times. Despite having a high level of intelligence, a leader must be able to read the signs of the times to create mental and spiritual readiness for the country he is leading. 

Therefore, it is not surprising that the sharpness of TDM’s thinking is sometimes challenging to understand by some parties. For example, in 2001, when people were afraid to talk about the Islamic State, TDM loudly said that Malaysia was a fundamentalist Islamic State. 

However, this view of TDM is not considered radical thinking. If viewed from the aspect of takwîl, TDM uses the ushuliyyah (fundamental) approach in challenging the atmosphere of the times, where Islam is being criticized on the global stage. 

The same thing was done by TDM when he cried in 2002 in one of the UMNO general meetings because he saw that he had not succeeded in leading the Malays. 

Here, he succeeded in leading Malaysia but did not bring the Malays to face challenges in his own country. In the General Assembly, TDM said:

This does not matter if the Malay individual has become a strong person who has their abilities, the ability to compete without the privileges that today they consider their right. However, they are not only not gallant individuals; on the other hand, they cannot face the slightest competition for goods. Without the experience of competing with others, if protection is suddenly lost, they cannot survive (Mohammad, 2002: 21).

Some of the above TDM privileges are then wrapped with authentic thoughts about human identity and a nation’s reality. However, the speed of this TDM mindset is sometimes challenging to follow if not adequately understood according to the philosophy of thought.

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 In this category, TDM thinking can be included in the group of interpretive and implicative thinkers. This level of thinker means he understands how aspects of the influence or effect of his thoughts on others. Usually, here is the task of analysts or think tanks working behind the scenes, where the results of their thinking are implemented or made into a policy result of their thinking. 

Nevertheless, there are also groups of thinkers at this stage who write their ideas in books, then scholars or scholars make it as a basis to look at the social aspects of human life. Science has begun to feel beneficial for a group of people; whether the results are good or bad, then scientific standards are needed to assess them.

Of course, the existence of TDM in Malaysia has been felt beneficial for more than 30 years. The brilliant ideas of TDM have always been activated in the reality of the nation-state in Malaysia. Thinkers in this category are always able to apply their ideas to society. 

Thus, consciously or not, the community is always waiting for such thinkers’ presence. The ways of thinking of TDM through the above privileges have been seen in the development in Malaysia. In addition, TDM became the bridge between the Islamic World and the Malay World with the West. Malaysia today is a blessing from the idea of ​​TDM, which is always authentic or original.

Finally, I would like to close with the mainstay that the newcomers only appear once in each episode of history. They are present to support their people and are consistently missed by the people. The innovators will also not be forgotten. 

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The genius of the innovator but because the self has been connected between the so-called micro and macro cosmos (alam al-saghir and ‘alam al-kabir). The figure of TDM has been given an advantage in the realm of al-saghir. By doing this, he can control his mind and is poured into the form of the idea of ​​building a nation-state.

TDM has been the leader of Malaysia, and even now, some of his views are still considered. People, of course, will not object to their thoughts, not because they are incapable, but because what they think is feasible, so the person who challenges must first do what TDM has done before. 

Of course, this glory of thinking has been inherited in the Malay thinking tradition for hundreds of years. Only Malays are often unable to understand how the stages of thinking of the Malay model. So, sometimes the way of thinking of TDM is opposed by the Malays themselves. 

In fact, from the beginning, this Malay thinking model, by putting forward Islamic values, ​​has become the basis of TDM’s thinking in terms of meta-theory. So in the context of nation-state studies, TDM has also incorporated Malay values ​​into one of the essential elements of Asian Values.

This essay has shown how the contribution of TDM in various aspects of approach in studying nation-states. It can be concluded that TDM has become an iconic thinker from the Malay World to the Islamic World. He is also a representative in the West. He cannot only “criticize” his people but at least be able to remove them from the crisis of identity or identity into a developed country in Southeast Asia. 

However, episodes of contemporary history in Malaysia would not have been wholly written if they did not involve the role of TDM in it. This essay has examined some of the roles of TDM from a philosophical aspect of thinking. TDM is vital in studying nation-states, not only in Malaysia but also in the Southeast Asian region. 

Kamaruzzaman Bustamam Ahmad

Kamaruzzaman Bustamam-Ahmad (KBA) has followed his curiosity throughout life, which has carried him into the fields of Sociology of Anthropology of Religion in Southeast Asia, Islamic Studies, Sufism, Cosmology, and Security, Geostrategy, Terrorism, and Geopolitics. KBA is the author of over 30 books and 50 academic and professional journal articles and book chapters. His academic training is in social anthropology at La Trobe University, Islamic Political Science at the University of Malaya, and Islamic Legal Studies at UIN Sunan Kalijaga Yogyakarta. He received many fellowships: Asian Public Intellectual (The Nippon Foundation), IVLP (American Government), Young Muslim Intellectual (Japan Foundation), and Islamic Studies from Within (Rockefeller Foundation). He is based in Banda Aceh and can be reached at ceninnets@yahoo.com.au

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