When Mahathir Mohamad was first elected prime minister of Malaysia in 1981, Ronald Reagan had just entered the White House, Margaret Thatcher occupied 10 Downing Street and Diana Spencer was about to become the Princess of Wales. Mahathir has not only outlived them all but, in a shock result on 9 May that no one saw coming, he was voted back into office. At 93 he is the world’s oldest state leader – and at the pinnacle of his career.
“I’m amazed,” admits Mahathir. “I shouldn’t be here.” The old-slash-new prime minister meets monocle at Putrajaya, the federal territory outside Kuala Lumpur that he built in the 1990s. This is the seat of government, with his office – at the end of a long avenue, on top of the main hill and crowned by a green dome – in the symbolic centre. Inside, at the same desk that he last used 15 years ago, stacks of documents surround him, in contrast to the empty bookshelves that indicate his recent return.
In person Mahathir looks closer to 70 but he acknowledges the reality of being in his tenth decade. “I would like to rest,” he says. “I would like to enjoy the last years of my life. But I feel a duty.” These should have been years spent in quiet retirement with his wife Siti Hasmah – who, like Mahathir, trained as a physician – and their seven children. He talks about reading more books and going on a cruise to Alaska or maybe Scandinavia. But there’s no time: not only is he leading a new coalition but he’s been tasked with resuscitating his country before he retires for a final time.
During his first stint as prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir was credited with modernising Malaysia beyond recognition. In addition to Putrajaya, he pioneered major infrastructure projects including Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the Petronas Twin Towers. When the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 unravelled the Malaysian ringgit, he defied the imf’s advice by increasing government spending – making his country the fastest to recover in the region.
The first non-blue blood to rule as prime minister, Mahathir initially stood as a symbol of meritocracy. But the Chinese and Indian communities – the country’s two major ethnic groups besides Malays – accused him of using race-based policies to shrink their educational, and in turn economic, opportunities in order to artificially inflate a Malay professional class. He switched English for Malay as the medium of instruction, while the interests of the three ethnic groups were largely divided into three political parties.
Concerns over civil rights grew too: in 1987 he invoked the Internal Security Act, shutting down newspapers and arresting dozens of students, intellectuals and politicians. Then in 1998, Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir’s deputy prime minister and heir-in-waiting, was jailed and convicted for sodomy when his ambition threatened to topple his benefactor. This event triggered an international outcry and within Malaysia it created a national fracture that has only recently begun to heal. Mahathir hung onto power for another five years, when he was succeeded first by Abdullah Badawi and then controversially by Najib Razak, the son and nephew of two former prime ministers. It was under hardliner Najib that Malaysia reached a tipping point, earning a reputation for its tolerance of corruption and greed.
This political turmoil was the background to the run-up to the 9 May election, which was plagued by widespread reports of gerrymandering. But that only made Mahathir’s surprise win even more monumental: it was a peaceful transfer of power and – thanks to Pakatan Harapan, Mahathir’s new coalition – it marked the first change in ruling coalition since independence from the UK in 1957.
The election “was the ‘Malaysian monsoon’”, says Fahmi Fadzil, a first-time member of parliament for the People’s Justice party, part of Mahathir’s coalition. “I’ve told the Americans, ‘Throw away your cia handbook on regime change, and come and learn from us.’”
Yet despite the jubilation over Najib’s downfall, the path forward is fraught and many old problems linger. Today investigators in at least 10 international jurisdictions are searching for €3.8bn that Najib, now under arrest, and his associates are believed to have misappropriated from the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1mdb), which was set up to build wealth for the country – not to enrich its leaders. Mahathir concedes that the loss from 1mdb is more serious than he thought and that the institutions critical to its recovery, especially the civil service, have been weakened by corruption.
What’s more, a distrust of politicians remains, though Mahathir points out that this isn’t unique to Malaysia. “People have become disappointed with the political process,” he says. “They have become disappointed with the politicians and are looking for something new.”
For now that something new is a shift away from graft and the return of a stable economy. In addition to cracking down on corruption, Mahathir has begun looking outward. He hopes to build a better relationship with China, even though a number of construction agreements that Beijing signed with Najib’s government have been abandoned. When he met president Xi Jinping in August, Mahathir explained that Malaysia must cut its debts by withdrawing from their joint enterprises and find a way to do so at the lowest cost possible. So far they have agreed to freeze projects such as the €17.2bn East Coast Rail Link.
Over the years Mahathir has had a testy relationship with the Chinese – both those in China and within Malaysia. Nonetheless he believes he has the capacity to create an equitable rapport with an expanding China. His ability to amicably cancel key projects with the Chinese, some of which were part of their Belt and Road Initiative, was interpreted as a success.
For decades Malaysia has been haemorrhaging some of its best talent in an ongoing brain drain. In Mahathir’s first term his race-based policies caused many to leave the country. But in a twist, his re-entry into national life – and the next generation of leaders backing him – is prompting those who moved abroad to consider returning.
There are still concerns, however, over human rights. Since Mahathir’s return to power, Malaysia has faced international condemnation when two women were publicly caned after being found guilty of attempting to have sex. Human-rights groups, meanwhile, have decried the fact that a 41-year-old man was recently married to an 11-year-old girl. Among the LGBT community there is also a growing fear of targeted raids and reprisals (homosexuality remains illegal in Malaysia).
“What worries me with this government is the lack of leadership of conscience,” says Niki Cheong, a journalist and former columnist for The Star, the largest English-language daily in Malaysia. “We’ve seen that with the way they’re dealing with the child marriage issue and I think we’ve seen that with the way they’re dealing with the LGBT issue.” Cheong is hopeful that the new class of first-time parliamentarians will reject extreme elements and push for reform.
Yet is Mahathir, known for curbing civil liberties, the right person to lead this new front? He admits mistakes from his first time in power. “I had a very strong majority in parliament,” he says. “So criticisms were perhaps ignored by me because I was very strong. But now I’m more sensitive towards what people say and I try to accommodate their views and feelings.”
He says that marriage is between “a man and a woman” and finds it difficult to adjust to societal progress. But he leaves the door open when asked how his beliefs impact on his political position. “I have to accept certain things that I couldn’t accept before,” he concedes. “I have to go by the moral values of the times.”
There are tangible signs that he has modified his views. In September he posted a video online, putting on record that the caning of the two women did not reflect the tolerance central to Islamic teachings. In another step forward he said his opinion was shared by the cabinet and the government. This doesn’t signal a change in public policy but it is a marked departure for a man who once exploited anti-gay laws in order to crush his rising opponent.
Mahathir has “softened with experience and with age”, says Professor Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, dean of medicine at the University of Malaya and a vocal critic of human-rights abuses in the country. “A lot of people are putting a lot of hope in Mahathir but everyone is aware he is 93, so there is a need to quickly build up the succession planning.”
Anwar was released from prison in May after he and Mahathir established a pragmatic peace in the run-up to the election. It is an unlikely truce for the former mentor-mentee, who are once again working on the same side. Today Wan Azizah, Anwar’s wife, serves as deputy prime minister and will continue to do so, at least until Anwar re-enter politics by standing in a parliamentary by-election.
At some point in the next couple of years, Mahathir says he will hand the torch over to Anwar. “We have a promise. We had an agreement while we were forming the coalition that he should succeed me, that I would be here for a short time,” he says. “When I step down, he takes over. We agreed that the past is the past, we have to look to the future.”
They are supported by key parliamentarians, including Hannah Yeoh, who serves as deputy minister for women, community and family development in Mahathir’s government. She cuts an unusual figure for frontline Malaysian politics: apart from being young, female and Christian, she is Chinese and married to a man of Indian ethnicity who works part-time as a church pastor.
Yeoh symbolises the spirit of Mahathir’s coalition. Gone from government are the race-based politics of the past, when parties and interests were segregated. Yeoh welcomes the close scrutiny that she and her colleagues are facing and she believes that because Mahathir won’t be seeking re-election, he will act in the full interest of the country.
“I believe he will be able to do what is right, what is difficult and what is not popular. The challenge will be for the next prime minister to live with the consequences,” she says. “And to get the team ready for re-election. That, to us, is the greatest test.”
Back behind his desk in Putrajaya, Mahathir says that one of his most important tasks in the next two years is to lay the foundation for a new generation of leaders to continue moving Malaysia forward. “I think they deserve to have a well-governed country that’s developing well and where the country practises democracy, rule of law and freedom.”
In this second act Mahathir has another chance to serve his people, another chance to self-craft his legacy. But, perhaps most importantly, Malaysians have the chance to close the door on the past, buoyed by the hope of a fairer and more equal society.