Daim Zainuddin: Malaysia’s Revolutionary and Troubleshooter
River Books: 2018
Daim Zainuddin has been — and remains — an influential Malaysian political and business figure. A former prominent politician within the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), close confidant and principal economic adviser to Mahathir Mohamad during his first term as prime minister, and generally recognised as the architect of major reforms that rescued Malaysia’s economy during the major financial crises of the Mahathir era, Daim has long been regarded as a gifted and innovative politician as well as an exemplary Malay success story. His biographer, Michael Backman, has been hailed as a leading interpreter of Asian political, economic and cultural affairs. One would therefore anticipate a detailed, robust and perhaps controversial biography.
Backman provides us with a general outline of Daim’s life and career. Born in 1938 into a large family in Alor Setar, Kedah, at his father’s insistence, and rather unusually for a Malay of that period, Daim received an English education. He initially worked as a teacher, but later studied law in London. Following his return to Malaya in 1959 Daim practised in various legal firms. In 1968, convinced that law would not provide the fulfilment or wealth that he sought, he turned his hand to business. However, his first two commercial ventures — a salt business and plastics production — were failures. His fortunes changed after he branched into real estate development following the acquisition of a valuable piece of land in Maluri, outside Kuala Lumpur. He later diversified his holdings by investing in the stock market. Daim also acted as a business consultant to Mahathir, then the deputy prime minister. He was appointed a senator in 1980 and was elected to parliament in 1982, representing Kuala Muda in his home state of Kedah. Daim assumed the role of treasurer of the ruling UMNO party in 1981. In 1984 he was appointed finance minister, but continued to act as UMNO treasurer. Between 1991 and 1998 Daim was, at his own choice, out of the cabinet. He returned, at Mahathir’s request, to manage the Malaysian economy throughout the Asian financial crisis of 1997–1998. He resigned from this position in 2001 and later left politics to concentrate on his business affairs. More recently he was asked to chair a Council of Eminent Persons in the aftermath of Mahathir’s election victory in May 2018 (a development not covered in the book).