Refusing to fade away
Though he may not hold the level of power and influence as he did previously, Dr Mahathir Mohamad remains a central figure in Malaysian politics till date
Writing the political obituary of former Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad can be a perilous endeavour. Popularly known as Dr M in Malaysia, the nonagenarian leader has time and again defied the doomsayers, proving that the reports of his political demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Some of his southeast Asian contemporaries like Lee Kuan Yew, Ferdinand Marcos and Suharto have long disappeared from the political landscape and are 'resting in peace' but Dr Mahathir, who recently celebrated his 95th birthday, refuses to fade away and remains the pivot of Malaysian politics.
When Dr Mahathir quit as Prime Minister after ruling Malaysian for 22 years with an iron fist, headlines like 'end of an era' were splashed across the world. However, one Malaysian political analyst taking such forecasts with a sackful of salt had rightly predicted that 'this political cat has nine lives, maybe more'. Journalists wrongly call his 17 years out of power as 'political wilderness' because he never left the political centre stage even though his party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) made many unsuccessful attempts to close his political chapter. In 2006, his successor Abdullah Badawi was instrumental in Dr Mahathir suffering a humiliating defeat during delegate elections for the ruling party. If Abdullah thought that by denying him a delegate post in the party he could get respite from Dr Mahathir's criticism, he was wrong. It gave Dr Mahathir more political ammunition as he launched a campaign against the man, whom he had selected as his successor and accused him of corruption and abandoning his pet projects. Accusing Abdullah of bribing party members to vote against him, Dr Mahathir said: "I am not going to stop exposing this government's misdeeds. You can try to shut me out but I have got a big mouth. I am going to use this big mouth." Abdullah's languid style of working further helped Dr Mahathir as in the 2008 general election the UMNO-led Barison Nasional failed to secure a two-thirds majority for the first time in 34 years. This gave new momentum to Dr Mahathir's call for change in the party leadership and he started a campaign in favour of his protégé Najib Razak. Abdullah was forced to quit midway in his second term and Najib took over unaware of the fact his government, which later faced serious corruption charges, will be instrumental in Dr Mahathir becoming the Prime Minister for the second time after a hiatus of 17 years. Najib's 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund, set up in 2009 to promote development through foreign investment turned out to be Malaysia's biggest corruption scandal. Dr Mahathir grabbed this opportunity with both hands and cobbled a rainbow alliance by triggering defection in the ruling UMNO, joining hands with his political foe Anwar Ibrahim, who he had sacked and jailed on charges of sodomy, and Malaysian Chinese dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP). In 2018 general election, when Dr Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) ousted the UMNO-led Barison Nasional, which has ruled Malaysia since 1957, the good doctor again proved that even at the ripe age of 92 you can write him off at your own peril. Of course, this time Dr Mahathir did not last like his earlier tenure, he had to quit after two years following the rebellion in his party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) and his coalition partner Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) over handing over the Prime Ministership to Anwar. However, Dr Mahathir emerged 'glorious in defeat' with his reputation enhanced because he refused to join hands with what he calls the 'corrupt UMNO'.
Political obit writers having eaten humble pie many times, on this occasion have rightly refrained from writing about Dr Mahathir riding into the sunset as they know that the words like 'hanging his boots' or 'retirement' do not exist in his vocabulary. Most political watchers say the reason for his political longevity is that despite being of the Indian heritage, his grandfather migrated from the Indian state of Kerala, Dr Mahathir always claimed to be a Malay. To erase this Indian tag in the racially divided Malaysia, he became more Malay than Malays. Unlike India where Mrs Sonia Gandhi is still having problems to be accepted as an Indian, Dr Mahathir does not face such an issue.
The other reason is that like his Southeast Asian contemporaries, Dr Mahathir had been ruthless with his political opponents — both within the party and outside. He took no prisoners and went for the jugular.
But one reason his detractors, who call him a dictator and even racist, forget that a very large section of Malaysians sees him as a moderniser who ushered in the rapid economic growth during his 22-year-old rule and transformed Malaysia into one of the Asian economic tigers of the 1990s. Writing in the South China Morning Post, Tashny Sukumaran says Dr Mahathir shifted the country's economy from agriculturally based to a more industrialised one. He created a sense of civic and national pride through projects such as the national car Proton, the Sepang Formula One circuit and, of course, the Petronas Twin Towers.
Dr Mahathir, after being sacked from PPBM, the party he set up, has launched a new outfit called Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Fighters of the Nation Party). Although the party is yet to be registered, Dr Mahathir tested the political water by fielding its candidate in Slim (Perak) byelection, who lost to Barison Nasional man.
At the age of 95, Mahathir has launched his political career anew. As they say, love him or hate him but you can't ignore him, Dr Mahathir will remain the pivot of the Malaysian politics till his last breath.
The writer has worked on senior editorial positions for many renowned international publications. Views expressed are personal