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Malaysia in transition

Meet the 5 brains behind Malaysia's Mahathir-nomics

Council of elders includes Hong Kong-based tycoon Robert Kuok

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad chose five people experienced in business or economics to support his new cabinet.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad knew whom he would recruit as advisers long before winning the May 9 election, as the 92-year-old leader approached some of his closest lieutenants -- most of whom served during his first stint as prime minister -- weeks before the vote to tap their expertise.

Mahathir formed the five-member advisory council, known as the Group of Eminent Persons, ahead of a full cabinet, indicating his trust in the team to help set the new government in the right direction.

The group will spend the next 100 days studying a range of issues including the country's laws, economics and finances in order to devise institutional reforms. A more urgent exercise involves finding ways to sustain Malaysia's budget as the ruling alliance delivers on election promises to cut government largess, eliminate the goods and services tax and reintroduce fuel subsidies.

The council also will make recommendations to the government on how to resolve the $4.5 billion financial scandal involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state fund. 

Here is a look at the personalities of the five advisers.

Daim Zainuddin

Daim Zainuddin served as Malaysia's finance minister from 1984 to 1991. (Photo by CK Tan)

Daim, a former finance minister, is known as an economic troubleshooter for steering Malaysia out of two recessions in the mid-1980s and 1990s. He once made the drastic move of cutting the prime minister's salary to showcase prudent spending.

A lawyer by training and proven businessman even before joining politics, Daim was entrusted by Mahathir to cultivate Malay entrepreneurs who would go on to lead some privatized state companies, a hallmark of Mahathir's economic policy during his 22 years as prime minister through 2003.

The 80-year-old Daim and former trade minister Rafidah Aziz, both held in high regard by many Malaysians, surprised the public this year by campaigning for Mahathir. 

Zeti Aziz

Zeti Aziz drove a consolidation of Malaysia's banking industry and expanded the Islamic finance industry while she served as central bank governor from 2000 to 2016.   © Reuters

Malaysia's former central bank governor holds a sort of celebrity status in the financial market. Many credit Zeti for the nation's stable banking industry and monetary policy, on top of a robust Islamic finance market.

Zeti's 16 years as governor began in 2000 in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, and she presided over a large-scale banking consolidation. Malaysia's more than 20 commercial banks were asked to merge and recapitalize, which reduced their number to eight. Yet some of those entities -- such as Malayan Banking, CIMB Group Holdings and Public Bank -- grew much larger as a result, enabling them to make early moves into neighboring countries and snap up local banks in markets that were less mature at the time.

On monetary policy matters, Malaysia has a reputation for farsightedness in managing the overnight policy rate to accommodate economic growth and rein in inflation. The country also expanded its Islamic finance industry under Zeti's leadership, introducing innovative financial products and Islamic bonds, or sukuk, globally.

She retired in 2016 amid the domestic investigations into 1MDB. Under her watch, the Bank Negara Malaysia became the only agency that penalized 1MDB and AmBank Group with record fines for lapses in prudential management. 

Zeti, now age 70, heads the Asia School of Business, a post-graduate institution.

Hassan Marican

Hassan was president of Petroliam Nasional, or Petronas, for 15 years through 2010 before being replaced by former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Under Hassan's leadership, Petronas expanded beyond Malaysian shores, gaining footholds in upstream and downstream businesses globally. Petronas is the only Malaysian company on the Fortune 500 list.

The 65-year-old holds several senior positions in Singapore, including serving as chairman of Singapore Power and Sembcorp Marine. 

Robert Kuok

The 94-year-old founder of Shangri-la Hotels and Kerry Properties is the eldest of the advisers. Kuok, who is based in Hong Kong, attended his first meeting with other members of the group on Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur.

"All of us wish our country well," Kuok told reporters when asked for his thoughts on the new government. The nonagenarian keeps a low profile, seldom gives media interviews. In his autobiography "Robert Kuok: A Memoir" published last year, he regarded Chinese like himself as the "most amazing economic ants on earth." Kuok wrote, "They work harder than anyone else and are willing to 'eat bitterness', as the Chinese say."

Kuok established himself as a commodities trader after World War II, dabbling in essential foods including rice, sugar and wheat flour. He later turned to shipping, logistics, property and hotels, expanding his business from Hong Kong since the 1970s while casting an eye toward mainland China. His business relationships and standing as an overseas ethnic Chinese have made Kuok known for his connection to China's government, including President Xi Jinping.

With a fortune of $15.4 billion, Kuok is ranked the richest Malaysian by Forbes.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram

An economist by profession, Jomo served for seven years as the United Nations assistant secretary-general for economic development.  Jomo, 65, is recognized for his studies of the Malaysian political economy as well as his critical view of Mahathir's privatization drive during his first stint as prime minister.

In recent months, Jomo condemned the scandal at 1MDB, questioning attempts by the Najib government to sell assets to bail out the fund. The economist also expressed concerns over a train link being constructed by Chinese contractors, disputing the need for the 688km line connecting Malaysia's capital to a rural town at the border with Thailand.

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