Mahathir Mohamad on why the Philippines may suffer from a case of mediocre political leadership

Mediocre political leadership. These are the words Malaysian former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad used to describe a key possible pitfall of “unbridled democracy”. This he said in a speech he delivered on the occasion of his being conferred an Honorary Professor Title by the University of Santo Tomas. Mahathir also added that free-wheeling democracy can make countries unstable and made the interesting point that, “We cannot assume majority of the people must be intelligent.” Almost as if directly alluding to the the last two and a half decades of the Philippines’ history, Mahathir also said…

“Democracy works only when the people understand the limitations of democracy. When people think only of the freedoms of democracy and know nothing of the implied responsibilities, democracy will not bring the goodness that it promises. Instead it will result only in instability and instability will not permit development to take place and the people to enjoy the benefits of freedom and the rights that democracy promises. No sooner is a Government elected when the losers would hold demonstrations and general strikes accusing the Government of malpractices.”

Indeed, Filipinos have been suckered wholesale into believing the following:

1. Democracy is all about elections.
2. Democracy is all about freedom.
3. Democracy is a pre-requisite to prosperity

We simply bought the application off-the-shelf and failed to read the small print.

Elections are not the whole point of a democracy.

Elections are expensive and a necessary evil of a democracy. The fact that our elections are, for the most part, a mockery of the concept of democracy, ironically, is therefore no laughing matter. We invest a huge amount of public funds on elections not to mention the cost associated with discontinuities in governance and policy focus, disruptions in the peace, and reduced labour productivity during the uncertain environment whenever elections are in the air among others. These elections are a national security risk as well. Imagine an imminent military threat suddenly emerging in the middle of a Philippine-style election!

In short, the costs of the practice of democracy must be justified! And for this to be done, one must first understand the true place of the freedom (of which elections are just one form of expression) we enjoy under democracy.

Freedom is not the whole point of democracy.

Democracy is not for the sake of freedom. Freedom is a priviledge of practitioners of democracy and a by-product of this system. The true essence of democracy lies in responsibility and accountability.

The Electoral Process is just one element of the democratic equation and should be put in the proper perspective of our democratic duty. It is our duty to:

(a) Select the right leaders;
(b) Use the system to hold them accountable; and,
(c) Hold ourselves accountable for the quality of the leaders we choose using the system.

It would be fair to hazard a guess that this whole “love of freedom” sloganeering associated with the practice of “democracy” is the work of a political machine averse to accountability. The point of democracy is not freedom as many of us were foolishly led to believe. The point of democracy is the practice of a system that enables us to hold our leaders to account. One can therefore understand why this, by now, puzzling obssession with “freedom” is prevalent today. Who else but our politicians are the biggest trumpeters of the “freedom” we enjoy under “democracy”?

We are, of course, a free society from the perspective of our freedom to be an unruly lot. It is an artificial freedom at best for a society that wallows in squalor is not truly free. We even use this “freedom” to run a publishing industry that capitalises on the stupidity of the masses; allowing it to scrimp on journalistic talent and integrity. Worse and most sickening of all, we use this “freedom” to define ourselves — the only true democracy in southeast Asia. Surely the international community are in on this joke on us as well.

Democracy is not necessarily a pre-requisite to prosperity.

It is the other way around. Prosperity is a pre-requisite to democracy. If we cannot make an off-the-shelf system of governance (one that took hundreds of years for its successful practitioners to perfect) work for us, then we should consider alternatives.

Economic success and wealth-surplus must exist before a truly working democratic system (and not just a sham that is a cover for oligarchic anarchy) can be put in place. Well before the establishment of the United States of America, the Protestants and Puritans (pilgrims) who first settled there already had the so-called Protestant Ethic (a term coined by Max Weber to refer to the combination of Frugality, Hard Work, Discipline, Prudence, Pragmatism, etc of those people which made them economically succeed and accumulate surplus.) This so called “Protestant Ethic”, by the way, is in essence, the same as the Confucian ethic that many Oriental East Asian societies had when they went on in their onslaught towards economic success. (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and today even China). They too possess Frugality, Hard Work, Discipline, Prudence, Pragmatism, and other similar traits. Externally, they look and act differently. But intrinsically, their attitude vis-a-vis economic (wealth accumulation) and societal development followed parallel paths.

Here’s the difficult question:

Are Filipinos collectively known to possess these qualities?

The present day Philippine style Democracy is slightly modified carbon copy of the American System. But economic and cultural realities point to the fact that our society has not yet evolved to the point that using an American-derived system would be appropriate. We have a long way to go before we can start mimicking their system. If anything, our social, economic, and cultural evolution is still at a stage that resembles the Middle Ages.

Mahathir himself had made quite clear what he believes is the fundamental issue with Indo-Malayan cultures like that of the Philippines and Malaysia. The solution does not lie in political change but in cultural change. He cites as case-in-point the challenge his own country faces

The answer lies in the culture of the Malays. They are laid-back and prone to take the easy way out. And the easy way out is to sell off whatever they get and ask for more. This is their culture. Working hard, taking risks and being patient is not a part of their culture. It should be remembered that in the past the Malays were not prepared to take up the jobs created by the colonial powers in their effort to exploit the country.


To succeed, the Malays must change their culture. They must look towards work as a reward in itself. They must regard what they achieve through work as the true reward. There should be some financial reward but this must not outweigh the satisfaction obtained from the result of their work. ….

…. Changing culture is far more difficult than changing the policies of government. It is easy enough to propose affirmative action but it is not easy to implement it. The recipients must have the right attitude if the results are going to be obtained.

Mahathir’s contemporary, Singapore Elder Statesman and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had his own view about how the entrenched social caste system of the Philippines all but locks its society in a prison of abject wretchedness in his book From Third World to First

There was no reason why the Philippines should not have been one of the more successful of the ASEAN countries. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the most developed, because America had been generous in rehabilitating the country after the war. Something was missing, a gel to hold society together. The people at the top, the elite mestizos, had the same detached attitude to the native peasants as the mestizos in their haciendas in Latin America had toward their peons. They were two different societies: Those at the top lived a life of extreme luxury and comfort while the peasants scraped a living, and in the Philippines it was a hard living. They had no land but worked on sugar and coconut plantations. They had many children because the church discouraged birth control. The result was increasing poverty.

But even within Lee’s formidable mind, all roads still led to the cultural issue that underlies it all…

Filipino professionals whom we recruited to work in Singapore are as good as our own. Indeed, their architects, artists, and musicians are more artistic and creative than ours. Hundreds of thousands of them have left for Hawaii and for the American mainland. It is a problem the solution to which has not been made easier by the workings of a Philippine version of the American constitution.

The difference lies in the culture of the Filipino people. It is a soft, forgiving culture. Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, still be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics. They supported the winning presidential and congressional candidates with their considerable resources and reappeared in the political and social limelight after the 1998 election that returned President Joseph Estrada. General Fabian Ver, Marcos’s commander-in-chief who had been in charge of security when Aquino was assassinated, had fled the Philippines together with Marcos in 1986. When he died in Bangkok, the Estrada government gave the general military honors at his burial.

Does the solution to the chronic failure of the Philippines to prosper lie in politics? Most Filipinos seem to think so considering the sheer chunk of their narrow collective attention their politics seem to routinely capture. It is ironic that the Philippines fancies itself a democratic and supposedly “free” society considering it is trapped in the grip of a more odious form of tyranny — the tyranny of the popular sentiment harboured by a largely ignorant electorate.


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123 Comments on "Mahathir Mohamad on why the Philippines may suffer from a case of mediocre political leadership"

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angel alegre

Democracy will never mature in this country as long as the ‘masa’ will continue to adopt the Aquino mentality that freedom is absolute.

It was the so-called icon of democracy who spawned this mentality of disrespect for the rule of law. Remember Edsa 2? And the succeeding attempts to unseat Arroyo via people power? They thought democracy is all about people power.

The quote below from an article is one of my all time favorites: “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” I did say in one of my earlier blogs that people are so caught up in a so-called freedom yet they forget the responsibilities that go along with it. I can imagine many Pinoys who will cry butthurt after hearing what Dr. Mahathir had to say. He didn’t mince any words. And his experience as a politician amounts to more than 40 years, if i remember correctly. Are the Filipinos better off as a rigid society?… Read more »

Painful truth. 🙁 If other nations see this, why can’t we?


“We cannot assume majority of the people must be intelligent.”

Sums up the main fault of Democracy right there.


The current administration keeps on saying, “we do what the people want.”

Here comes Mahathir: “don’t always listen to the people; most of them lack intelligence!” That’s a big rub-down on the current admin’s rhetoric.

And I like that pic of Mahathir doing the gesture of, “use your head!”

Hyden Toro
Prime Minister Mahatir should understand that the Philippines, is never a Democracy. It has always been a Feudal Monopolistic Oligarchy. With the Monopolistic Oligarchs, having their own, followers and private armies…Our elections are almost becoming : “Town Fiestas”…with voters looking on the physical appearances of leaders. Instead of their competence to lead. This is the reason, we have many ShowBiz personalities, who are barely educated, becoming: President, Senators, Congressmen, Governors, etc…we even have Comedians, as our political leaders…It will take a SuperHuman leader to change this situation. The Mindsets of our people are also brainwashed, by Sanitized News, from propaganda… Read more »

Freedom without discipline tends towards anarchy instead of prosperity and efficiency. Noynoy is not a creature of discipline. Then again neither are pinoys in general, full of short cuts and inconsiderate behavior.

Robert Haighton

Napoleon once said, when asked to explain the lack of great statesman in the world, that to get power you need to display absolute pettiness. To exercise power, you need to show true greatness. Such pettiness and such greatness are rarely found in one person.


I’m hoping that every Filipino will read this article.Especially the President himself and his men. Please have this article translate in different dialects so that everyone can read this and reflect once and for all.


The problem is he is not the one who is in the country and did not eight for it thats why he doesnt appreciate our democracy. He didnt felt the devastation that Gloria made by making anomalous projects that stole billions of money fro the treasury and rigging the elections last 2004. Thats why the people are exposing her lies but what did Gloria did? She silenced them.

From a friend: ‘Mahathir is right. I would highlight the point about accountability. There is nothing in Philippine society or culture that demands accountability. The reason that the various levels of government do not achieve results is that voters do not demand results nor are politicians punished by voters when they screw up (or when a president like BS fails to keep a single campaign promise two years into his term of office). I always use Imelda Marcos as an example – as Lee Kuan Yew is quoted as also doing in the article – because no other country would… Read more »
Domingo Arong
BenignO: But this guy Mahathir is also known in his own place as “the Marcos of Malaysia” And note that, the population in Mahathir’s Malaysia is only a little over 28 million (2010) which is only about 30% or less than a third of the Philippines’ 92 million or so (2010). Then, there’s Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore with a population of only 5.1 million, of which only 3.2 million claim to be its citizens. Comparatively, Singapore’s population is only 3.5% of the Philippines’ over 92 million and less than one-half (44%) of that of Metro Manila’s 11.5 million (2010)!… Read more »
Domingo Arong


Well, as I said, I have different view of people like Lee, and I’ll stick with it.

Domingo Arong

Fallen Angel

Owing to a rapidly AGEING population in Singapore, what used to be the “stop at two” policy in 1969 is now: “three or more, if you can afford.”

You ask: “Was our population boom a consequence of some fatal flaw in our culture?” Frankly, I don’t know. I haven’t really studied that line; but for possible answers, try reading the latest 2009 U.N. report on WORLD POPULATION AGEING:


I’m reminded of Adlai Stevenson’s(?) reply when told he had “the thinking man’s vote” when running against Eisenhower:

“That’s nice, but I need the majority to win.”

robert carino

wow! to take advice from someone who was at the forefront of constitutionalizing racism in his country, forcing the minority race into nothing more than cash generators for the bumiputras. wow! such enlightenment.

benign0, I admire quite a lot the points you have raised in your article. However, if you don’t mind, there are things, theoretically, that I have to raise critically as well. As much as I can, I will try to provide the evidences needed in support of my contentions. First, I will agree that democracy does not necessarily lead to economic prosperity. However, it is a pre-requisite: inclusive political institutions are needed in order to foster inclusive economic institutions. Genuine democratic, or to be very specific, pluralistic institutions actually have fostered the development of their economies. Let me direct you… Read more »

mahathir is the champion of corruption and also moved to curtail civil liberties. this is your idol?

Di Marunong MgIngles

champion sa corruption pero bakit maunlad ang bansang pinamunuan nya?

Is the Philippines suffering from mediocre political leadership? Why? Who is to be blamed? I can say it’s a yes. The reason lies in Mahathir’s statement: “We cannot assume majority of the people must be intelligent.” And because of such, people elect representatives to do ways that would be satisfying for us and best for our country as a whole. Our problem is that there is somehow a silent unbridled abuse happening. Our elected leaders during election are all pro-people but once they are in position, some forgot why they should be there for. And we people just accept these,… Read more »