Malaysia Election: End of Mahathir era? He's just beginning again

Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 92, is set to become the world's oldest prime minister.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 92, is set to become the world's oldest prime minister. PHOTO: REUTERS

After he chose to retire in October 2003, many thought it spelt the end of the Mahathir Mohamad era.

But soon enough, rumblings about the lacklustre performance of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi brought Tun Dr Mahathir out. He quit Umno and single-handedly campaigned against Tun Abdullah in many states, booking public halls to rage against his chosen successor.

 

Mr Abdullah stepped down after just 5 1/2 years in 2009 after being pressured by Dr Mahathir and following a disastrous general election in 2008.

The Old Man, as Dr Mahathir is often referred to by senior Umno leaders, helped install Datuk Seri Najib Razak as Malaysia's sixth prime minister in 2009. Dr Mahathir rejoined Umno, handing his application form to Mr Najib.

And then the scandal involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) hit the country in 2015. Some US$700 million (S$940 million) was found in Mr Najib's personal account. There were whispers of billions more misappropriated. Out came Dr Mahathir again, axe swinging.

The world watched transfixed as the then 89-year-old quit Umno a second time to go it alone, becoming Mr Najib's most strident critic.

He formed a political party and aligned it with other opposition parties. He even ate humble pie by seeking rapprochement in September 2016 with protege-turned-enemy Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy prime minister he sacked in 1998.

And last night, despite efforts by government agencies to straitjacket his opposition coalition, Dr Mahathir, now 92, led it to victory.

 
 
 

How did he do it? For one thing, he still commands deep respect among the majority Malays, especially the older generation.

He was their leader for 22 years, a stern father who was at the same time generous to them with his controversial bumiputera policy.

Dr Mahathir transformed Malaysia from an exporter of rubber and tin, to an exporter of petroleum and palm oil. He brought in billions of dollars in investments from global manufacturing firms that created millions of jobs. Shiny new ports, airports, highways and the LRT came up during his time in office.

In contrast, Mr Najib's record had little to show: Poor handling of cost-of-living issues, the 1MDB scandal and the agencies formed to help poor Malays. He failed to charge anyone involved in huge scandals at the Federal Land Development Authority, or Felda, aimed at helping farmers, and at the Mara agency that helps Malays in education and small businesses.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2018, with the headline 'End of Mahathir era? He's just beginning again'. Print Edition | Subscribe