The defiant outsider

Mahathir Mohamed’s stunning return to the prime ministership of Malaysia at the age of 92 isn’t the only intriguing feature of his career. One mystery attracted attention 19 years ago when the autocratic strongman turned on his chosen successor Anwar Ibrahim, who is now in jail awaiting the royal pardon Mahathir has promised. Another surrounds his own birthday.

But the sombre political sword hanging over the born-again regime is Sino-Malaysian relations. As prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir notoriously championed far closer ties with China than even neighbouring Chinese-majority Singapore. Now, he threatens to “review” Chinese investments.

The popular view is that Najib Razak, the prime minister he has so dramatically ousted, used Chinese funds to cover up a massive fraud at the Malaysia Development Berhad investment fund he set up, ostensibly to develop Kuala Lumpur into a global financial hub. Instead, the fund’s debt ballooned amidst allegations of huge fraud and misconduct. According to the US Department of Justice, $3.5 billion were misappropriated. “The Malaysian people were defrauded on an enormous scale,” says the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Najib, who was accused of pocketing $700 million dollars, strongly denied any wrongdoing, despite being all but named in the US suit. The money trail even touched the Hollywood star, Leonardo DiCaprio, who says he was unaware of the nature of the funding and returned all questionable gifts. However, despite street protests and international investigations, the Malaysian authorities cleared Najib. The uproar seemed to die down.

Corruption wasn’t just a problem during Najib’s time. It was also part of a matrix of mysteries when Mahathir was prime minister.

Although Mahathir’s birth certificate shows he was born on 20 December, the actual date was 10 July according to his biographer, the Australian editor and author, Barry Wain, whose Malaysian Maverick was a best-seller. Wain, who died in 2013, says 20 December was just an “arbitrary” date. No one doubted Wain who had interviewed Mahathir three times for the book when he was writer-in-residence at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

The mystery surrounding Mahathir’s ethnicity mattered far more in a society that makes a fetish of race, and treats bumiputra — son of the soil — as a privileged identity. The gossip not just in Kuala Lumpur but also in ulu (provincial) bazaars in the late 1990s was that no true-born Malay would make a public issue of an intensely private matter like sodomy, the crime of which Anwar was convicted. The hint that Mahathir was not Malay recalled the persistent rumour that the students’ register of the old National University of Malaya in Singapore, where he studied medicine when Singapore was part of British Malaya, listed him as Indian. The page was said to have been torn out when he became prime minister.

The truth is that Mahathir’s grandfather, Iskandar, was a Malayali from Kerala who taught English in the Kedah palace and married a girl from Johor. Their son, Mohamad bin Iskander, became a school headmaster in Alor Setar. His wife (Mahathir’s mother) came of a long line of Kedah royal courtiers. That didn’t stop the whispers. It was remarked that Iskandar, South Asia’s variant of Alexander, was not a Malay name. Moreover, unlike Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, whose father was Sultan of Kedah, Mahathir was not of aristocratic birth. His immigrant family didn’t even have religious connections. He was an outsider. An outsider he remains though his Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) has overturned 61 years of Barisan Nasional rule.

Mahathir’s future relations with Anwar whom he described as morally unfit to lead the country until his defection to the opposition is another question mark. Since he commands only 13 parliamentary seats against 47 held by Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat), Mahathir can’t afford to be choosy.

He knows the people are waiting. Malaysia’s public debt (54 per cent of GDP) is one of Southeast Asia’s highest. The research firm Capital Economics believes his victory “puts into question the future of a number of planned Chinese-backed investment projects”. It predicts a sharp slowdown in investment growth.

Mahathir isn’t fazed. “I don’t care much whether people remember me or not,” he once told an interviewer. “If people remember, well and good. If they don’t remember, it’s all right, I’m dead anyway.”

Not just an outsider but defiant to the last, he thumbed his nose at all those Malay purists who question his lineage by naming his party Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or Malaysian United Indigenous Party.

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