Article: Conceptual Paper on the Rhetorical Analysis of Tun Mahathir’s Speeches



A Conceptual Paper on the Rhetorical Analysis of Tun Mahathir’s Speeches

Shahrill Ramli, Abdul Muati Ahmad, and Hamisah Hasan

Fakulti Bahasa Moden dan Komunikasi, Universiti Putra Malaysia

Source: Human Communication Journal.


This conceptual paper attempts to address Tun Mahathir’s Malay dilemma speeches from the perspective of rhetorical analysis. Unlike other rhetorical studies on Tun Mahathir which mainly dwelled on his 23 years of reign as the time frames, this research significantly attempts to fathom his rhetorical strategies. As speech is a persuasive medium that verbalizes one’s thoughts, it would be interesting to unearth how he implemented his rhetorical strategies within this period as Tun Mahathir successfully led the then-opposition coalition to an unexpected victory of the 2018 general election.

Keywords:  rhetoric; Mahathir; speech; Neo-Aristotelian


As of 2018, Tun Dr. Mahathir is the world’s oldest Prime Minister (Stubbings, 2018) when he was reappointed as the prime minister of Malaysia for the second time after abdicating the premiership in 2003. The David versus Goliath victory of the then-opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) led by Tun Mahathir (Abdullah, 2019) against the reigning political coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) was historical as for the first time since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, the government was to be headed by the opposition political coalition.

Prior to the 2018 general election, Tun Dr. Mahathir established a new political party called Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) in 2016 with the hope that it would able to replace the legendary United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in championing the rights of the Malays and their issues (Jan, 2018). Although his political course deviated from being a staunch UMNO member to the leader of a then-opposition coalition PH, Tun Dr. Mahathir’s instrumental views on the Malays remained consistent (Hutchinson, 2018; Musa, 1999; Suryadinata, 1985) throughout his life. Ironically, Mahathir’s popularity with the Malays waned at the edge of the first premiership in 2003 (Khattab, 2015; Shukry, 2013) although many scholarly writings hailed him as an ‘ultra-Malay’ throughout the 23 years of his premiership (Ahmad, 2010; Mauzy and Milne, 1983).

He was considered as “un-Malay” (Buang, 2017; Aun, 2000) and a misfit (Khalid, 2007) unworthy to be taken seriously by the conservative Malay Muslim voters. This was also worsened by Tun Dr. Mahathir’s constant critiques towards his successors’ leaderships (Ufen, 2009).

Nevertheless, the 15 years of Tun Dr. Mahathir’s political hiatus is a curious period as it started with him being an unpopular figure among the Malays but at the edge of the political hiatus in 2018, his collaboration in PH managed to swing more than 10% of the Malay support for BN from the previous election (Abdullah, 2019) and that marked as the never-seen-before avalanche of ‘Malay Tsunami’ votes (Rahman, 2018; Nadzri, 2018). Mahathir first coined the terminology “The Malay dilemma” in his infamous 1978 book when he addressed the socio-cultural and economic characteristics of the Malays which are holding back them from enjoying the prosperity of the nation (Pakri, 2004). He continued to talk about that and its relation with the Malays survival even during his political hiatus where he did not hold any significant post in the government and despite the undulating support from the Malays.

It was validated in a content analysis research conducted by Mazli who examined Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s views on the Malays during his post-retirement period from 2003 until 2012 (Mazli, 2014). Hence, it is evident that Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s interest in regard of the Malay issues remained unscathed even during his political hiatus. However, how did Tun Dr. Mahathir manage to persuade the Malays throughout the 15 years of political hiatus despite initially experiencing the setback support from them at the beginning of his political hiatus? How did he manage to persuade the Malays by the end of his political hiatus in 2018?

Rhetoric studies comprises of persuasive techniques used by public orators such as politicians to get engaged with their audiences. With speech as a medium needed to coax the minds of the audience (Gadalla, 2011), politicians incorporate rhetoric in speeches for greater impact towards their respective audiences.

Tun Dr. Mahathir has delivered thousands of speeches throughout his life (Wain, 2009) and thus used rhetoric in the speeches. As a renowned public orator, scholars are intrigued by Tun Dr. Mahathir’s forceful and didactic style of speech (Funston, 1998) and therefore there are many researches with various methodologies that were conducted to analyse his speeches such as critical discourse analysis (Shukry, 2013; David and Dumanig, 2011; Haque and Khan, 2004; Ghazali, 2004), critical metaphor analysis (Imani and Habil, 2014), content analysis (Mazli, 2014) and Perelman’s theory of argumentation (Basri, 1996).

As the first rhetorical criticism methodology, Neo-Aristotelian remains a strong tool of analysis to study speeches as it allows critics to assess the speaker’s persuasion devices and serves as the foundation for the other newer contemporary rhetorical criticism methods (Foss, 2019). Nevertheless, it is found that Neo-Aristotelian approach of rhetorical criticism is underexplored as the methodology to analyze Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s speeches and no research has adopted this methodology to analyze speeches delivered during his political hiatus from 2003 until 2018. In this vein, it is clear that this scarcity prompts a rhetorical criticism to be conducted to analyze Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s speeches that were delivered during the 15 years of his political hiatus.

Findings in the literature suggest that there are four outstanding local-based Neo-Aristotelian rhetorical criticism studies (Shah et al., 2014; Khor, 2012; Ahmad, 2010; Ahmad, 2007) on speeches catered towards Malaysian audiences. Shah et al. focused on elocutio when metaphors used by Aminuddin Baki in his Torch Movement Speech 2 were examined whereas Khor used only two canons of rhetoric namely inventio and dispositio in the research as the artifacts were written speeches delivered by non-native English speakers and therefore, canons of style and delivery were omitted from analysis. The application these two canons of rhetoric could also be seen in 2011 as Ahmad analysed 26 speeches of Malaysian first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

However in the doctoral thesis on Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s 21 UMNO Speeches from 1982-2003 that he conducted in 2007, Ahmad applied inventio, dispositio and elocutio to support the analysis on the connection between Tun Dr. Mahathir’s logical proofs to his thoughts. It is found that all four studies did not apply the whole five canons of rhetoric. In this vein, the scope of this research also will not implement all the five canons of rhetoric for the aims are to see the applications of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s evidence and reasoning, rhetorical structures and rhetorical techniques in his speeches. Therefore, this research will only focus on the Aristotelian inventio, dispositio and elocutio.

The justifications for such selection are due to canon of memory as somewhat less important in today’s world since it is common for public orators to rely on flashcards, notes, and teleprompters while delivering speeches (Reynolds, 1968). On the other hand, canon of delivery is relatively new in terms of being the focus of rhetorical researches in comparison to the other three canons. Due to various interpretations of how the canon of delivery should be used for analysis, the researcher has opted to exclude it in this research.

The timeline frame of this research is from 2003 to 2018 which is the 15 years of Tun Dr. Mahathir’s political hiatus although by 2016, Tun Dr. Mahathir has already established the new political party called Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (BERSATU). The term political hiatus for this research is defined as the interval transition between Tun Dr. Mahathir’s first premiership in 2003 into the second premiership in 2018. There will be sixteen speeches, known as the artefacts, to be selected from each year during the political hiatus.



What is rhetoric? According to Aristotle, rhetoric is a faculty of discovering means of persuasion (McCroskey, 2015) while contemporary scholars such as Herrick defined it as deliberation in submissive choice-making by audience without external force (Herrick, 1992) and Foss viewed it as the action humans perform when they use symbols for the purpose of communication with one another (Foss, 2019). In short, rhetoric is used by the speaker to change his audiences’ minds into his own directions. The Rhetorical Classical Theory comprises of the Five Canons of Rhetoric. It was inspired by the three rhetorical devices coined by Aristotle namely the ethos which are the characteristics of the speaker, pathos the emotional appeals and logos which are the rational appeals.

The Roman scholars Cicero and Quintillianus then perfected the theory by assembling five tenets a speaker should adhere to in order to maximize the persuasiveness of his speech. The five tenets are inventio (canon of invention), dispositio (canon of organization), elocutio (canon of style), memoria (canon of memory) and pronuntiatio (canon of delivery). It was until 1925 that this theory was revived by Wilchelns under the name Neo-Aristotelian as the first formal rhetorical criticism (Foss, 2019).

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Active & Passive Audience Differences & Example: Active Audience Theory

Active & Passive Audience Differences & Example: Active Audience Theory. What is Active and Passive Audience? What is the Active Audience Theory?  The difference between an active and passive audience? Example of Active and Passive Audiences.

Table of Contents:

  1. Active & Passive Audience.
  2. What is the difference between an active and passive audience?
  3. Example of Active and Passive Audiences.
  4. What is the Active Audience Theory?
  1. Active & Passive Audience:

Active audiences: Active audiences are those people who receive information actively as well as make sense of the messages from the perspective of their social and personal contexts. These audiences perform it unintentionally.

Passive Audience: Passive Audiences are those people who watch and observe the program simply without making sense. Passive audiences are recognized as inactive receivers.

For example, Low motivation to process information

Low ability to process information

Focuses on simple cues (e.g., appearances instead of content)

2. What is the difference between an active and passive audience?

Active Audiences Passive Audiences
Interpret and respond to the media texts Merely observe the media text
Actively involved with decoding message Just accept the message without challenging
Forming opinions Accepting opinions
Paying full attention Paying little attention
For example, playing a game. For example, watching a game.
Not directly affected by the message Directly affected by the message
Difficult to manipulate them Easy to manipulate them.
Critical thinker Cognitive miser
Have good schemata Lazy to think

3. Example of Active and Passive Audiences:

Active audiences: Complicated and Critical thinker who has good schemata

Passive audiences: Merely observer and cognitive miser who are lazy to think.


5. What is the Active Audience Theory? According to Wikipedia

Active audience theory argues that media audiences do not just receive information passively but are actively involved, often unconsciously, in making sense of the message within their personal and social contexts.

Decoding a media message may, therefore, be influenced by such things as family background, beliefs, values, culture, interests, education and experiences. Other theories and models are compatible with active audience theory, including the Encoding/Decoding model and the Uses and gratifications theory, which states that audiences are actively involved in determining what media they engage with and how in order to gratify specific needs or desires.

The Mass media article refers to a Culturalist theory, however, there is little evidence of its use in relation to (mass) media. Active audience theory is seen as a direct contrast to the Effects traditions, however, Jenny Kitzinger argues against discounting the effect or influence media can have on an audience, acknowledging that an active audience does not mean that media effect or influence is not possible. Supporting this view, other theories combine the concepts of active audience theory and the effects model, such as the two-step flow theory where Katz and Lazarsfeld argue that persuasive media texts are filtered through opinion leaders who are in a position to ‘influence’ the targeted audience through social networks and peer groups.


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  2. Infographic Powerpoint Templates 100+ Free Download Link
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