Vastavam web: Malaysia’s former authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad wasn’t invited to the forum that planned to debate whether at well past 90 years he was too old to be prime minister again. He turned up anyway.”As far as health is concerned, I am not senile yet,” he announced to the stunned participants, maybe of whom stood and snapped photos with their smartphones.
For good measure, Mahathir sat in the front row and tweeted: “I’m here guys. Say it to my face.” The recent move was trademark Mahathir. During more than two decades of strong-arm rule, he rarely shied from aggressively confronting opponents, real and perceived. And at 92 his appetite for political brawling remains apparently unsated.Mahathir, a maverick in the early days of his political career who survived expulsion from the dominant United Malays National Organization party, was the first commoner to become prime minister of Malaysia.
Though credited with transforming the Southeast Asian backwater into a modern economy, his dominance, like that of his contemporary, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, was stifling.Under his rule, the judiciary was a tool of the government, the media was muzzled and a system of economic privileges for the Malay majority remained entrenched. His retirement in 2003 was welcomed by many Malaysians who wanted the country’s progress to be measured more by more than just GDP figures.Even after stepping down, he remained influential, smoothing Najib’s ascent to the top in 2009 after criticizing his first successor Abdullah Ahamad Badawi for poor economic management and also supported Najib in 2013 elections.
Then he became Najib’s most ferocious critic as the prime minister, initially regarded as a cautious reformer, turned to Mahathir’s authoritarian playbook to survive a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at the 1MDB state fund that damaged the country’s reputation abroad.The US and several other countries are investigating allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering at 1MDB, which was set up and previously led by Najib to promote economic development but accumulated billions in debt. But Mahathir could wound Najib, 64, by denying him a decisive victory. An ethnic Malay nationalist, Mahathir by being part of the opposition has lessened the potency of the Malaysian ruling class’s perennial race card: playing on fears an opposition win would allow the Chinese minority to dominate Malays.
Despite two coronary bypass surgeries, Mahathir keeps up a hectic campaign schedule. Sometimes he speaks several times a day at rallies that often last till the night and has also updated his tactics for the social media age.He takes questions on weekly Facebook webcasts to reach younger voters. He has written poignant poems and produced short videos, telling Malaysians he only has a short time left and urging them to vote and save Malaysia from a venal elite.He looks remarkably robust but opponents are quick to seize on any sign of physical weakness and often try to portray him as tired and incapable of leading.In February when he was hospitalized for a chest infection, he tweeted a photo of himself undergoing treatment.