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Nikesh Mehta

Counsellor for Foreign Policy and Security

Part of UK in Malaysia

11th April 2013 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Lady Thatcher and Tun Mahathir: Era-defining Leaders

This Blog is also available in Bahasa Malaysia.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir signing a condolence book in memory of Lady Thatcher
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir signing a condolence book in memory of Lady Thatcher

Yesterday morning, I had the pleasure of meeting Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir when he came to the High Commissioner’s residence to write a message in a condolence book to mark the sad passing of Lady Thatcher. Tun Mahathir’s message and some of the comments on our social media channels got me thinking about how Lady Thatcher’s was perceived in Malaysia.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir's message
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir’s message

Most Malaysians remember Tun Mahathir’s Buy British Last’ policy. In October 1981, Tun Mahathir announced that Malaysia would ‘buy British when it is absolutely necessary, when… prices and services are way ahead otherwise… we will show a definite preference for non-British sources.’ This was instigated partly because of the British Government’s decision to charge higher fees for overseas students, but also because of decisions taken by the London Stock Exchange. In early 1982, Tun Mahathir also announced his ‘Look East’ policy with the aim of learning from Japan’s experience.

The stand-off between the UK and Malaysia didn’t last very long. In April 1983, Tun Mahathir withdrew his policy directive following a thawing of relations with Lady Thatcher during a visit to London the previous month. And UK-Malaysia rapprochement was finally sealed during Lady Thatcher’s historic visit to Malaysia in April 1985 – the first official visit by a British Prime Minister following independence.

Looking at the speeches that Lady Thatcher delivered during that three-day visit, I was struck by the heartfelt language used to describe the warmth of the Malaysian people, the strength of the bilateral relationship, and her personal admiration for Tun Mahathir. It was also clear that the leaders had some fascinating foreign policy discussions including on the importance of the Commonwealth and the Antarctic Treaty. Tun Mahathir eventually agreed to host the Commonwealth Summit in 1989 – a Summit that Lady Thatcher thought was the best that she had ever attended.

I was amused by Lady Thatcher’s typically witty retort on Tun Mahathir’s Look East policy: ‘A few years ago, some of our less robust spirits shuddered when they heard you exhorting your businessmen to look East. You told me this afternoon that “look East” did not mean “buy only from the East”… With the evidence which you provided this afternoon that British industry is really welcome here, I am sure that British business will want to invest in the opportunities Malaysia offers and although, Prime Minister, you may sometimes look East and sometimes may travel East, if you look far enough East and travel far enough East, you always come to the West!

I think it’s fair to say that in many respects Lady Thatcher and Tun Mahathir were quite similar. They were born in the same year (1925) and came from humble beginnings. They were perhaps the world’s first celebrity Prime Ministers with personas through the media which went beyond their nation’s borders. They were also charismatic and patriotic individuals but were often perceived as being single-minded. It is undeniable that they were both responsible for defining periods in their nation’s histories.

And there is also no doubt that there was mutual respect between the two leaders. In Lady Thatcher’s autobiography, she wrote ‘…I got on rather well with Dr Mahathir and developed an increasing respect for him. He was tough, shrewd and practical. He had a refreshingly matter-of-fact outlook.

Tun Mahathir was equally effusive in his book: ‘Personally I got on well with Baroness Thatcher… She has done wonders reviving an exhausted Britain. She looked upon her country as I look upon Malaysia. We both want our countries to succeed.’

So, some 28 years following Lady Thatcher’s visit, where do UK-Malaysia relations stand?

I would say that they have never been stronger or more beneficial to both countries. We have had more Royal and Ministerial visits in the last two years than in the previous two decades, and we’re on target to achieve record levels of bilateral trade and investment.

I think Lady Thatcher words have never been more appropriate: ‘…Malaysia is a particular friend: an independent country which has a special place in our hearts. We share your wish for a partnership between equals; a true partnership for the future…’

Let me know what you think and please feel free to post your condolence messages on our Facebook page. We will collate all of the messages and send them to Lady Thatcher’s family.

6 comments on “Lady Thatcher and Tun Mahathir: Era-defining Leaders

  1. Thatcher and Mahathir have some striking similarities as well as some striking dissimilarities. Thatchet is a leader who is willing to do the right thing rather than the popular thing to do. Mahathir in a lot of ways is the complete opposite. His policy of favoring the bumiputeta which went even further during his administrations, makes the Malays lazier and more dependent on the state. Thatcher’s policy of less welfare states, make the British people less reliant on the state and a lot more hardworking and independent. Thatcher prefers less spending by the state, and spends more only on necessary expenditure, such as healthcare and education. Mahathir spends hundreds of billions on unnecessary expenditure on things that does not bring any benefit to the people. Such as KLCC, Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, Proton and so many more. This type of spending is really appealing and popular among uneducated Malaysians. But it is not the right thing to do and it doesbt bring any benefit to our people. Infrastructure in rural areas are pathetic. To these days whenever the monsoon season comes, do expect a huge flood in rural and less developed states, which also resulted in billions of economic losses every year. Last but not least, Mahathir is highly corrupted and Thatcher is not. That part cannot be dismiss. The only similarities I could think of is that they both went on to privatised a lot of state owned corporations and they both are extremely charismatic. However although Mahathir did privatized a lot of state owned corporations, he did not let unperforming state owned enterprise to fail, which still to these day, causes billions of bail outs. I highly truly admire Mrs Thatcher, and I do admire Mahathir’s charisma. But in terms of leadership, Mahathir is not in the same league as Thatcher. No one is in her league except for some very few PM or Presidents. But I truly disagree when people said Mahathir is a great leader. He isn’t.

  2. With gratitude to God, I thank God for her life well spent. May her soul REST IN PEACE. Amen.

  3. My deepest condolence to the family of a truly great Prime Minister

  4. Sincere condolences to a great leader. Her policies and actions has made a marked influence on this world today.

    God bless her

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About Nikesh Mehta

Nikesh (Nik) Mehta commenced his posting as Counsellor (Foreign Policy and Security) at the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur in January 2012. This new role was created to strengthen…

Nikesh (Nik) Mehta commenced his posting as Counsellor (Foreign
Policy and Security) at the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur in
January 2012. This new role was created to strengthen the British
Government’s relationship with Malaysia on issues such as Counter
Terrorism, Counter Proliferation and Transnational Crime.
Nik joined the Foreign Office in 2002 after nearly three years
working as a teacher in rural Japan. His first experience of culture
shock was trying to explain why he was vegetarian to a group of
sceptical Japanese students. Nik spent a year on the NATO desk in London
before serving in the Coalition Provisional Authority as the Political
Officer for southern Iraq based in Basrah.
In 2004, Nik was appointed as Second Secretary (Political) in Kampala
primarily responsible for reporting on conflict with the Lord’s
Resistance Army, the ensuing humanitarian crisis and the subsequent
peace talks in Juba. The posting was particularly poignant for Nik’s
family as his mother, a Ugandan-Asian, was expelled from the country by
Idi Amin’s forces in 1972.
For the last four years, Nik has served in the Foreign Office’s
Counter Terrorism Department, most recently as Head of the Guantanamo
and Rendition Issues Team.
Nik is in Kuala Lumpur with his Australian wife, Anna, and their
three year old son, Arran. You can follow him on Twitter @nikmehta33.