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Mahathir Mohamad, The Dictator Who Won't Go Away

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Steve Nimmons with Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, Former Prime Minster of Malaysia
Steve Nimmons with Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, Former Prime Minster of Malaysia
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Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled Malaysia as a dictatorial strongman beginning in 1981, claimed when he stepped aside in 2003 that he was removing himself from political life. After over two decades in power that featured ruthless stymieing of his opposition, antagonizing his people and the international community with racist policies and comments, and massive building projects that helped create equally massive debt, the controversial prime minister stepped down and said: "I've had my day. It's other people's turn now. I had 22 years. I can't complain."

Complain, however, is what "Dr. M" (as Mahathir is known in Malaysia) has done since leaving office. For the second time since stepping down, the ex-prime minister has put himself at the head of a campaign to unseat a successor. In 2008, it was Abdullah Badawi who got on Mahathir's bad side by refusing exorbitantly expensive building projects conceived during Mahathir's tenure. This time, Najib Razak (whose rise to the premiership Mahathir engineered in 2009) has been put on the defensive by a Dr. M campaign.

Over the past several months, Mahathir has brought himself out of retirement to lead the opposition's campaign against Najib, turning the controversy over Malaysia's embattled 1MDB development fund into a personal political battle between the two men. The former prime minister, who was infamous in his own time for his refusal to brook dissent and his hostile attitude toward outside partners, is now waxing poetic about the importance of democracy and free expression (neither of which were of much import during his own time in power) and gone so far as to call for foreign interference in Malaysia.

Such a direct appeal for outsiders to meddle in Malaysian internal affairs would have been unthinkable during Mahathir's own time in power, especially taking into account his accusations of "Jewish financiers" bringing about the Asian financial crisis. One needs only look at the memorable spat between Mahathir and billionaire financier George Soros, in which the then-Prime Minister called for an end to currency trading and labeled Soros a "moron." Soros, in response, called the firebrand Malaysian leader a "menace to his own country." The tensions between the two men had deeper roots, particularly in the clash between George Soros's financial support of free societies and Mahathir's competing vision of "Asian values." During his tenure, Malaysia's government used the levers of state power to enforce obedience and engineer a race-based political and economic system, actively discriminating in favor of the ethnic Malay majority.

The call for foreign interference is, as The Australian points out, a supremely ironic stance for a leader who dismissed all outside criticism of his own abuses and wrongdoings. When Mahathir's deputy and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim was forced out of power and convicted of sodomy and corruption in 2000, the premier took to the airwaves to insist on Anwar's guilt and (falsely) denying he had been abused in prison. Then-vice president Al Gore rightly pointed out that the trial was a mockery of international standards of justice, but Mahathir deigned only to thumb his nose at the United States and rejected outside involvement in Malaysian affairs--precisely the kind of involvement he is trying to invoke now.

Irony on this scale has become a trademark of Mahathir's re-entry into the Malaysian political scene. Speaking just last month, he embraced the accusations of autocracy he himself faced while in office. "They can do what I did, I was also a dictator before, but that is all right. People did not demonstrate like this against me before," Dr. M quipped, claiming his behavior was acceptable at the time. What he failed to mention is what happened to the few people who did stand up to him.

While the criticisms of Mahathir's tenure are well documented, the question remains as to why a 90-year-old man who left power over a decade ago is getting involved in Malaysia's current political disputes. One widely reported theory, advanced by Najib's government among others, is that the former leader is trying to pave the way for his son Mukhriz to become Prime Minister. Mukhriz used an interview with the South China Morning Post to deny he had any ambitions to become to Malaysia's leader, although Najib soon pointed out that he had stood for the vice presidency of Umno in 2013. Election to that post would have been a stepping-stone to leadership of both the party and the nation. For all of his attacks on the government, Najib's allies have pointed out that Mahathir has not named another candidate to be prime minister if Najib were to step down, adding fuel to the allegations that he wants his own son for the job.

While Mahathir is doing his utmost to unseat Najib, the campaign is highly unlikely to succeed. The sitting prime minister still enjoys the overwhelming support of the Umno leadership, a break from the era where Umno served as Mahathir's "personal fiefdom." For the aging leader who once ruled Malaysia with an iron fist, this struggle may finally expose the limits of his power.

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Born in New Delhi but raised in the U.S, I currently work as an1 investment risk consultant in Singapore advising international firms on investment opportunities in India. I have recently taken up freelance writing as a hobby, with a particular (more...)

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