“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The dark knight of Gotham had said these words in the fictitious comic book world but as they say ‘life imitates art’ —something eerily similar happened in the Southeast Asian country of Malaysia. Mahathir bin Mohamad, a tall leader in the Malaysian political setup who was once revered as the messiah of the commoners ended up being the ‘Harvey Dent’ whose only ambition at the fag end of his career was to burn the country that he helped build to the ground. A Shakespearean tragedy in four parts! Drumrolls!
Mahathir bin Mohamad was born on July 10, 1925, in Kedah, Malaysia. Mahathir always had the knack for politics and as a result, he joined the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) at the age of 21 which had been in power since the Britishers had left the Malaysian shores. Mahathir was off the blocks quickly as he became a member of parliament in 1964 and thus began the long six decade of political career that has seemingly come to a screeching halt this year.
The physician turned politician had a tendency to punch above his weight and that was evidently on display when in 1969 he lost his seat and was expelled from the party after writing a scathing and attacking letter to the then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.
But the Young Turk stuck around and his rebellious nature caught the eye of UNMO leaders who called him back. He got re-elected in 1974 and later became the party vice-president.
Within six years he assumed the chair of Prime Minister which he did not let go off until 2003. Under his tutelage Malaysia transformed into one of the Asian economic tigers of the 1990s – prestige projects such as the Petronas Twin Towers demonstrated the extent of his ambitions.
Mahathir was a straight-up authoritarian figure but as is the case with populist leaders, they more often than not win the perception battle with their voters but the detractors are round-up and shown their place.
Opposition politicians were jailed without trial under a much-criticized Internal Security Act. Most infamously, his deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was sacked, accused of corruption and sodomy and later jailed on the latter charge, when he called for economic and political reforms in 1998.
Anwar, who was thrown out like a fly by Mahathir, had formed a party by the name People’s Justice Party in the backdrop of the scandal that sent him to jail. The same party that will eventually help Mahathir in the later stages of his political career to stage a comeback but we will come to it later.
Anwar, who was once poised to be a successor of Mahathir, had to pay dearly for the ambitions of a leader who only wanted the power to himself.
Despite the glaring red flags in his behavior, Mahathir Mohamad kept on marching with his dictatorial bandwagon to rule the heterogeneous multi-racial population of Malaysia that mainly consists of Malays (Muslims), Malaysians of Chinese origin, Indian Malaysians and other indigenous groups.
When he retired in 2003, he did not retire completely as he kept his presence known in the circuit by regularly questioning those in power. He kept on knocking around and when a major corruption scandal broke out in the Najib government—Mahathir who had quit UNMO by then saw this as an opportunity to stage another comeback.
In January 2018, the nonagenarian announced his intention to contest the election against UNMO who in its history had not been voted out of power. But against all odds, Mahathir and Anwar together scripted a comeback that only a few could have predicted. He, together with Mr. Anwar and several other parties, formed the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which ruled the country for two years before it collapsed.
Before the collapse, what happened in his two-year stint was a complete horror show. India and Malaysia’s bilateral relations turned sour in a quick time when Mahathir chose to undo everything that the two countries had achieved together.
He went on an anti-India rant at the United Nations General Assembly and things only went downhill from there. Mahathir repeatedly meddled in India’s internal affairs from Kashmir to CAA. His sudden Islamist overtures upset the internal politics in the country too as he gave shield to the fugitive terrorist Zakir Naik.
India severely punished Malaysia for Mahathir’s sins as the former imported just 10,806 tons of palm oil in March which is the lowest monthly total since 2000.
Buoyed by increasing pressure from all sides, the king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, who has the ultimate say on who should form a government, chose Mr. Muhyiddin after Mahathir threw the country’s politics in turmoil by resigning in late February. His resignation was a result of massive political upheaval which caused a major uproar amongst the Malaysian public.
In the end, it was only Mahathir to blame for the hara-kiri decisions he undertook. Like going down the fundamentalist path and choosing to anger his allies like India. To compound the problems he fought in the party and made a mess of things which since his resignation, the newly elected PM Muhyiddin has been looking to clean.
The rise and fall from grace of Mahathir bin Mohamad is a script tailor-made for a movie. Who would have thought that once a bright political star in the Malaysian sky would encounter such a horrid end? The stupor of power led to the ultimate downfall of Mahathir and it has pushed Malaysia in the corner as a result, With the coronavirus pandemic around, it will take some years for Malaysia to recuperate from the blow inflicted by the 94-year-old former Prime Minister.