As Malaysia’s longest-serving PM, Dr Mahathir had a striking regional and international presence.
The return of Dr Mahathir Mohamad as Malaysia’s Prime Minister on Thursday after a 15-year hiatus and at the age of 92, makes him the world’s oldest elected leader. It’s yet to be seen if in his new avatar as PM, the once formidable strongman can give his people more democratic freedoms, and eschew authoritarian tendencies, while expanding economic modernisation that he had brought about in his earlier stint as PM (1981-2003). The remarkable thing is that this time, heading an unwieldy and disparate Opposition coalition called Pakatan Harapan at a ripe old age, Dr Mahathir walloped the ruling party United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has governed the country since Independence in 1957, and of which he himself was once a commanding figure.
As Malaysia’s longest-serving PM, Dr Mahathir had a striking regional and international presence. He built the Petronas Tower, at that time the world’s tallest structure. He ruled with an iron hand. He struck hard at political foes and, like other UMNO leaders before and after him, perfected the communal politics of privileging native Malays over the country’s ethnic Indian and Chinese groups.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, whom Dr Mahathir has just defeated, was once his protégé, and was caught in a massive financial scandal. Perhaps this made Dr Mahathir’s task easier. But Mr Razak’s ignominious defeat also speaks of the people’s urge for a new paradigm in politics. Delivering this will be the new challenge. It’s also just possible that the political earthquake that has rocked Malaysia could have a demonstration effect elsewhere in Southeast Asia.