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Mahathir Mohamad

Mahathir Mohamad, financial crisis survivor, pulls off another surprise

A 92-year-old autocrat who asked for forgiveness receives it

Mahathir Mohamad (Photo by Masayuki Terazawa)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Mahathir Mohamad has shocked his countrymen and the world at large, again. The 92-year-old has led Pakatan Harapan, or the Alliance of Hope, a coalition of opposition parties, to an upset electoral victory, delivering a blow to the ruling party led by Prime Minister Najib Razak.

But this is not the first time Mahathir has defied conventional wisdom. Perhaps some news junkies remember the 1997 Asian currency crisis, which brought Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea to their knees. Having depleted their foreign currency reserves, these countries went to the International Monetary Fund for bailouts.

The IMF came through, but its loans were tied to onerous conditions that further crippled the nations' economies.

Mahathir, who served as Malaysia's prime minister from 1981 to 2003, refused to go to the IMF and instead imposed strict capital controls and a dollar peg of 3.8 ringgit.

The fiery politician has been known as a rebel since the late 1960s, when he wrote to Tunku Abdul Rahman, demanding that the country's first prime minister resign to take responsibility for race riots that became known as the May 13, 1969, incident.

Within the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, the political group Mahathir led for 22 years through 2003, he survived internal revolts that nearly caused him the party presidency.

But the battles only made the now nonagenarian, who is expected to become the world's oldest prime minister, stronger. At one point, after a challenger who lost a party election to Mahathir by a slim margin, Mahathir had to re-register the UMNO to maintain his grip on power.

That was 1987. Mahathir would go on to guide a Malaysian economy that in the early and mid-1990s would achieve robust growth. The Southeast Asian nation was one step behind the Asian Tiger economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

This was also the period in which Mahathir, a physician by training, earned the wrath of opposition leaders with an autocratic style that disregarded human rights and freedom of speech.

Mahathir would go on to jail many of these leaders without trial. This time around, some of them are his political teammates.

In the recent election campaign, Mahathir led four parties with different political ideologies. He began by asking for forgiveness. This struck a chord with much of Malaysia's multicultural population, especially the majority ethnic Malays, many of whom are ruling party supporters.

He also cried in public while watching his own campaign video, entitled "I Am Leaving Soon." In a happier moment, he was seen taking his wife out for a midnight showing of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," a gesture that appealed to younger generations.

Mahathir also professes a liking for horseback riding and driving. He sometimes posts videos on social media of himself driving on an expressway, heading to a meeting.

Mahathir was stripped of two royal titles in the run-up to the election, apparently for mocking a certain ethnicity. Further, a young prince from a respected sultanate in the southern state of Johor called him a "forked-tongue man."

After withdrawing support for Najib, Mahathir stood down as an adviser to national carmaker Proton, which he set up in 1983, and the state-run Petroliam Nasional Bhd, or Petronas, forgoing the financial clout and status attached to these titles.

Even mention of the Petronas Twin Towers, arguably Malaysia's most recognizable landmark and a project championed by Mahathir, has been removed from state promotional material. 

"[Mahathir] foresaw the destruction of all that he had worked for his entire life," wrote Khoo Boo Teik in an op-ed on the news portal Malaysiakini, exploring reasons why the politician came out of retirement. Khoo authored Mahathir's unauthorized biography, "Paradoxes of Mahathirism."

But perhaps another explanation can be found in Mahathir's self-written memoir, "A Doctor In The House."

"My medical training, for example, came in useful when tackling the problems of administration," Mahathir wrote. "Running a country is not just about debating in parliament or making laws, but also about curing social, economic and political diseases. At least in principle, the treatments resemble medical procedures."

Most people will remember Mahathir's coming out of retirement to challenge Najib as a sacrifice, said Bridget Welsh, a political scientist at John Cabot University, in Italy, speaking before results came in. "Win or lose, he's a winner."

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