‘Young’ Malaysia elects the world’s oldest leader

Mahathir’s comeback had been on the cards after his one-time protégé and successor Najib Razak was accused of massive corruption

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media
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Dhairya Maheshwari

A columnist in South China Morning Post quoted Mark Twainas saying, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter”. He was referring to the surprise election of Mahathir Mohamad, the longest elected Prime Minister (22 years) who bounced back last week after 15 years of retirement to become the oldest elected Prime Minister in the world at the age of 92. The newly elected Prime Minister of Malaysia has had two coronary bypass surgeries but appears remarkably fit. He has promised to make way to his successor after two years in office, but reporters noted that Mahathir was addressing a press conference at 3 am and stood straight while fielding reporters’ questions. The secret, his aides confided, is no smoking, no drinking and no over eating along with a bit of exercise and reading.

Yet, the world cannot get over its surprise over a ‘young’ country with a median age of under 28 electing to office a political party headed by the oldest political leader in the world. He was last at the helm as Prime Minister of Malaysia between 1981 and 2003. Mahathir, known as Father of Modern Malaysia, made his age and his successful track record at the helm, as his main selling points to the public in his election videos.

“I am already old,” a teary-eyed Mahathir said to a young girl in a campaign video doing the rounds of Malaysian TV and social media, adding, “I haven’t much time left. I have to do some work to rebuild our country; perhaps because of mistakes I, myself, made in the past.”

While in power, Mahathir’s mistakes included suppressing dissent and ruling with an iron fist as he oversaw a transformation of a nation previously reliant on tin and rubber to one of the world’s fastest moving economies. An average economic growth bordering on nine per cent and heavy expenditure on infrastructure were the main takeaways from Mahathir’s earlier stint.

Anti-incumbency against former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling Barisan Nacional coalition had been building in the lead-up to the election to the 222-member Parliament.

Mahathir’s comeback had been on the cards after his one-time protégé and successor Najib Razak was accused of massive corruption even as the economy slumped and price of crude, one of country’s top exports, dropped. Najib introduced the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2015 which resulted in the cost of living rising sharply. Anti-incumbency against former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling Barisan Nacional coalition had been building in the lead-up to the election to the 222-member Parliament.

Perception wise, Razak, a protégé of Mahathir, was accused of siphoning off millions of dollars of public funds in 2015 to the bank accounts of his cronies and himself in at least six countries, as part of the $4.5 billion 1Malaysia Development Berhad (MDB) scandal. A wholly government-owned company floated in 2009 by the Razak government, the stated aim of 1MDB was to promote economic development by bringing in more foreign investments into Malaysia. However, it soon turned into the world’s biggest corruption scandal, with America’s Department of Justice (DoJ) alleging that money taken out of 1MDB accounts was pumped into funding extravagant lifestyle of Razak and his cronies.


STAGE SET FOR MAHATHIR

Mahathir’s invocations of the golden era of Malaysian prosperity seemed to have struck a chord with the young electorate. One of his first announcements after assuming the Prime Ministership was about withdrawing the unpopular GST, indicating that regaining Malaysia’s economic health is his top priority. Mahathir has cracked the whip on Razak over the 1MDB scam, with the former PM preventing from leaving the country after his election loss. The former attorney general who had given a clean chit to Razak has been sent on leave by the 92-year old leader. A major foreign policy shift is also expected, as Mahathir critically reviews his country’s close ties with China and Kuala Lumpur’s reliance on China-backed infrastructure projects.

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