Asia Minute: Malaysia’s Stunning Political Twist

Jan 12, 2018

Mahathir Mohamad in 2007
Credit Wikimedia Commons

2018 is an election year, and not just in Hawai‘i. There are mid-term congressional elections as well as races for governor in 36 states and three territories. There will also be an election in Malaysia—where just this week a familiar candidate joined a key race. HPR’s Bill Dorman has more in today’s Asia Minute.

Mahathir Mohamad spent more than 22 years as Prime Minister of Malaysia. Longer than anyone else who’s held that position.

This week, at the age of 92, he became a candidate to return to his old job.

He’s challenging current Prime Minister Najib Razak—who has been dogged by corruption allegations focused on a state-run investment fund.

Mahathir led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, a period of modernization and strong economic growth for the country – along with what critics call a less than robust record on civil liberties.

More than 20 years ago at the height of the Asian economic crisis, Mahathir famously rejected the advice (and money) of the International Monetary Fund. Instead, Mahathir slapped currency controls on the Malaysian ringgit. That restricted the ability of international currency traders to determine its value. Drawing criticism from the United States and others—including his deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

But Malaysia was later able to avoid the austerity measures of countries that took the IMF bailouts – such as Thailand and Indonesia.

Mahathir’s former ally Anwar Ibrahim organized anti-government protests, and was jailed on what his supporters say were fabricated charges of sodomy.

In a stunning political twist, Mahathir is now running with Anwar’s wife as part of an opposition coalition.