Kuala Lumpur: Mahathir Mohamad grew up in the rural heartland of Malaysia, then a British colony, witnessing severe food shortages during the 1930s Great Depression.
Mahathir was a medical doctor before becoming Malaysia’s fourth prime minister in 1981 and kicking off a mission of modernisation.
Bridges and six-lane highways criss-crossed Malaysia in his development blitz, capped off with a lavish new administrative capital, and the world’s tallest structure when it was built, the 88-storey Petronas twin towers in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
The activity helped win Mahathir the title ‘Father of Modern Malaysia,’ but he was known for his strong-arm rule, although he fell short of some Southeast Asian peers in ruthlessness.
Mahathir used security laws to put his political opponents behind bars. His critics say he restricted free speech and persecuted political opponents — none more so than his former deputy, Anwar Ebrahim.
Mahathir was masterly in playing to the feelings of the mainly Muslim ethnic Malay majority. His 1970 book, ‘The Malay Dilemma’, argued that ethnic Malays, whom he called the nation’s rightful owners, were being eclipsed economically by ethnic Chinese.
Faced with a leadership challenge after just five years in office, Mahathir detained more than 100 opposition politicians, academics and social activists without trial, under internal security laws.
During the 1998 Asian financial crisis, he took a huge gamble in tackling twin economic and political crises by sacking Anwar and then going against the advice of the International Monetary Fund to impose capital and currency controls that saved the economy.
Anwar took on Mahathir, turning overnight into an opposition politician, bringing tens of thousands of people onto the streets, shouting “Reformasi”.
Anwar was later charged with sodomy and corruption, but Mahathir denied orchestrating the charges. After his release, he was jailed again during Najeeb Razzak’s rule on the same charges.
Mahathir continued to wield power in UMNO even after he handed over in 2003. He backed Najeeb, the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, as the premier in 2009.
But in 2015 he urged Najeeb to step down over the corruption scandal at state fund 1MDB.
In 2018, Mahathir joined a fractured opposition alliance led by his old foes and was elected to become the prime minister candidate, marking the first time the ruling party has been toppled in six decades.