Mahathir Mohamad, who pulled a historic election victory in Malaysia, will become the world’s oldest elected leader when he will be sworn in as the Prime Minister. Mahathir, 92, toppled the government of his former protege Najib Razak, who was allegedly involved in a multi-billion corruption scandal. “Yes, yes, I am still alive,” a sprightly looking Mahathir said at a 3 am press conference in which he claimed victory over the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has ruled the Southeast Asian nation since its independence six decades ago, Reuters reported.
In a political career spanning for more than 70 years, Mahathir held the post of Malaysia’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003, making him the longest-serving holder of that office. During his tenure as the prime minister, Malaysia’s economic growth significantly accelerated. Called as the “Father of Modern Malaysia,” he is also credited with rapid modernisation of the country.
Born in Alor Setar, Mahathir Mohamad was the youngest of the nine siblings. He excelled in academics before becoming a medical doctor, but later diverted to politics. He started his political career with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysia’s largest political party to seek independence from Britain, before entering Parliament in 1964. He served one term in Parliament before being expelled from the UMNO following a falling out with former prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Mahathir, however, rejoined the party after Tunku Rahman resigned and rose through the ranks since then. In 1981, he was sworn in as the prime minister of Malaysia after the resignation of his predecessor, Hussein Onn.
During his earlier stint as the prime minister, Mahathir was criticised for deploying the controversial Internal Security Act to detain activists, non-mainstream religious figures, and political opponents. He also had a fallout with his deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and sacked him in 1998. During the 1998 Asian financial crisis, he took a huge gamble in tackling twin economic and political crises by sacking Anwar and then going against the advice of the International Monetary Fund to impose capital and currency controls that saved the economy. Anwar took on Mahathir, turning overnight into an opposition politician, bringing tens of thousands of people onto the streets, shouting “Reformasi”. Anwar was later charged with sodomy and corruption, but Mahathir denied orchestrating the charges. His record of curbing civil liberties and limiting the freedom of judiciary strained the ties of Malaysia with the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia.
In his book, The Malay Dilemma, Mahathir set out his vision for the Malay community. He also criticised Abdul Rahman’s government, after which it was banned in the country. The ban was lifted only after Mahathir took over the helm of affairs in 1981.
Even after his retirement, he continued to wield power in UMNO. He backed Najib, the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, as the premier in 2009. But in 2015 he urged Najib to step down over the corruption scandal at state fund 1MDB. He quit UMNO after the party continued to extend support to Najib Razak.
During his campaigns, Mahathir vowed to investigate the scandal and to bring the funds back to Malaysia if elected. Asked on Thursday if Najib would be prosecuted, Mahathir said: “If anybody breaks the law, and that includes a journalist, they will be brought before the court.”
(With inputs from agencies)