“As I retire from the nation's highest elected office, I call upon every Malaysian to rise to the occasion to face the challenges as they emerge and shoulder the responsibilities of citizenship,” he said.

“If we do this, there is no reason why we cannot continue to be successful and make this county a model for the world to emulate.”

In the session, characterised by everyday political banter rather than mourning for the passing of an era, Mahatir presented a mid-term review of the 8th Malaysia Plan, which ends in 2005, predicting real GDP growth at an average of 6% a year.

Status

This, he said, would put the country on track to realising its target of becoming a developed nation by 2020.

However, before that, Asia's longest-serving elected leader faced a question and answer session in which opposition MPs probed his commitment to democracy.

Mahatir justified his more autocratic leanings by saying that the multiracial nature of the country’s society needed a strong leader and that too much freedom would result in anarchy. 

He defended such measures as detention without trial of terrorism suspects and the banning of communists from elections as essential to maintaining democracy.

“Anarchy can take place because of an obsession with democratic freedoms. The belief that if democracy is implemented then everything will be well has no basis, especially if democracy is imposed immediately”


Mahathir Muhammad

Multiracialism

While the government believed in free speech, he said, it also had to ensure that potential racial sentiments in Malaysia's multicultural society were not inflamed.

He described national unity as the country's greatest asset.

“We have seen how many other multi-ethnic societies have failed because each race places its own interest first before the interest of the nation. If we are not careful we too will fail and be destroyed,” he said.

“Anarchy can take place because of an obsession with democratic freedoms. The belief that if democracy is implemented then everything will be well has no basis, especially if democracy is imposed immediately.”

Progress takes time

Malaysia has a Malay Muslim majority of nearly 60% of its 24 million people, along with large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities. The Chinese have been a target of animosity for their wealth and business acumen.

Mahathir noted that Western countries had taken almost 200 years to reach their current level of liberal democracy, and said they were still not free of problems such as political corruption and the manipulation of power.

They had also “linked individual and minority freedoms to democracy, until they forget the rights of the majority,” he added.

Mahathir's chosen successor, Deputy Prime Minister Abd Allah Ahmad Badawi, will face an election within a year.

Abd Allah is to be sworn-in by King Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin.