Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003. Arguably he was no ordinary leader. His ideas have always been controversial and transformational. Many called him “leader extraordinaire”. As an avid reader of a wide range of subjects, he was also passionate about science. It was during his tenure as Prime Minister that science assumed prominence in national planning. The first Science Advisor was appointed during his time. Many scientific institutions were established during his term to help drive the country’s science and innovation agenda. Even to this day, his passion for science has not withered. He remains a strong believer in the power of science and innovation in nation building.

Born on 20 Dec 1925, Tun is a son of a schoolmaster. He studied medicine at King Edward VII College in Singapore. He worked as a government medical officer for a while but left in 1957 to set up his own practice in Alor Setar. Married to a doctor, Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah bt Mohd Ali, Tun Dr. Mahathir’s passion is in writing. He started writing while in school. In the 1940s and ’50s, under the pen name “Che Det”, he actively wrote articles on Malay politics and economic issues, which were published in The Sunday Times. He continued writing throughout his career, and one of his most famous treatises, The Malay Dilemma (1970), influenced policy and policy makers in the aftermath of the 1969 racial riots. A Doctor in the House is his memoir that was published in 2011.

It was inevitable that he eventually joined politics. He became Member of Parliament in 1964. However, he lost his seat in the subsequent General Election in 1969. Owing to his keen interest in the country’s education, he was appointed Chairman of the first Higher Education Council in 1968, Member of the Higher Education Advisory Council in 1972, Member of the University Court and University Malaya Council, and Chairman of the National University Council in 1974.

In 1981, Tun Dr. Mahathir was appointed as a president of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), one of the ruling party of Barisan Nasional. Under his leadership, the Barisan Nasional won landslide victories in the 1982, 1986, 1990, 1995 and 1999 General Elections.

As prime minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir’s thoughts and ideas were put to the test. Though many initially criticised his many so called mega projects for development, they later had to swallow their words. It soon proved that those mega projects were the ones which helped Malaysia achieve commendable progress. It was during Tun’s time that Malaysia experienced rapid economic growth and achieve modernisation on par with some of the developed and industrial countries of the world. There is no doubt now that science played an important contributing role in that resounding socio-economic success.

The mysteries of science continue to excite Tun Dr. Mahathir. This is very much evident whenever he has been invited to speak on science. He has always reminded us Malaysians that “There is nothing difficult or magical about science, or even technologies. If only we have a deep interest in them and make an effort to acquire them, we will be able to make it. If we strive hard, it is not impossible for us to acquire the science even to build spacecrafts or rockets”, he said. “Science will have to be demystified by exposing the Malaysian man-in-the-street to the scientific basis and explanations of everyday happenings. This will be achieved through informal exposure to exhibits at science centres, botanical and zoological gardens, science-based museums and simple planetariums. The exposure will be done as early in life as possible. In this way eventually the Malaysian society will consist of large numbers of people with enquiring minds and a desire to search and research their environment. In other words, Malaysians will become more scientifically inclined.” He added.

The fact that the general public tends to look at science as something mysterious and complicated has inspired Tun Dr. Mahathir to suggest that Science and Technology programmes be focused on local experience. To Tun, Science and Technology is a simple, easily understood project. He interprets science as knowledge that can explain all of God’s creations to Man, and should be appreciated. He put across this salient point succinctly at the launching of the National Science Policy in 1970, “It would be wrong for us to discard Science and Technology merely because we have failed to understand it”.

In 1971, at the launching of the New Economic Policy (NEC), Tun Dr. Mahathir emphasised the role of Science and Technology to induce rapid economic growth and overall productivity and to create a strong industrial base for the nation. This effort continued under the National Development Plan (NDP), the 6th Malaysia Plan (6MP) and the 7th Malaysia Plan (7MP). Under this long term plan, Malaysia is set to be a fully developed nation in line with Vision 2020, which was unveiled by Tun Dr. Mahathir at the Inaugural Meeting of the Malaysian Business Council (MBC) in Kuala Lumpur in February 1991.

Under Tun Dr. Mahathir’s leadership, Malaysia has risen to great heights in the industrialisation drive. Science and Technology through research and development (R&D) played a pivotal role in that rise to industrial prominence. The introduction to The National Science and Technology Policy in 1986 and the establishment of The National Information Technology Council as well as the formation of Cabinet Committee on Science and Technology were some of the key steps taken by Tun Dr. Mahathir to put Malaysia ahead as a nation.

Tun Dr. Mahathir’s leadership and vision has moved Malaysia one step further along the road to industrial progress. The launching of the National Car, Proton on 9 July 1985; the blast into orbit of MEASAT1 on the night of 13 January 1996; the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) that is equipped with an integrated telecommunications network to meet sophisticated and value added needs, are just a few of the projects on Science and Technology that were implemented under his leadership.

Today, Malaysia is still progressing under the strong socio-economic foundation that he helped establish. Malaysians continue to enjoy the prosperity that came from the industrialized economic growth that he initiated. Tun Dr. Mahathir has left his legacy for the future generation not to just benefit from but to continue to build upon for future generations. The award is named after him to honour his contribution and success for transforming Malaysia from country dominated by low cost agriculture to a developed industrialized country. Mahathir Science Award is a way for us to thank him and to remember him for his unwavering belief in science and his effort in transform Malaysia into a modern industrialised nation through Science and Technology. It is befitting for a man who has done so much to further the cause of science for humanity.