On November 19, Malaysia's veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad suffered his first election defeat in 53 years. He failed to retain his parliamentary seat in the Langkawi Island constituency. The seat was won by Mohd Suhaimi Abdullah, a candidate from the Perikatan alliance, which is led by another former Malaysian prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin.
The 97-year-old man, who has been a central political figure in Malaysia for the last seven decades, who shaped modern-day Malaysia and served as its prime minister for more than two decades, has finally lost in an election. Only five years back, Mahathir created a world record when he returned from political oblivion to become a prime minister once again at the grand old age of 92.
So is this the end of the political career of Mahathir Mohammad? Maybe.
Mahathir himself told Reuters in an interview this month he would retire from politics if he lost. "I don't see myself being active in politics until I'm 100-years-old," he said. "The most important thing is to transfer my experience to the younger leaders of the party."
"Mahathir's time has passed," Bridget Welsh of the University of Nottingham Malaysia told the AFP news agency ahead of the election.
All these might seem like a sad ending of a veteran political leader. But looking at it from a different perspective, this is also a sign of hope, a sign of a functional democracy that the people of Malaysia are ready to accept change, that they want a newer voice, newer ideas.
Perhaps it is a sign that Mahathir's legacy of a modern Malaysia persists, which is why Malaysians chose a new face instead of him. In fact, it appears that in the recent elections Anwar Ibrahim's Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition secured 82 seats in the 222-member parliament, while former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin's Malay-based Perikatan Nasional (PN) trails behind with 73 seats.
Anwar Ibrahim was Mahathir's political child as well as his frenemy. In 2018, the two formed a coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), which eventually failed, after which the 97-year-old Mahathir built his own Pejuang Malay party.
But beside a long and eventful political career, Mahathir will probably be remembered for how he has turned Malaysia from a rural society to a modern, high-tech power, in the process raising the living standards of Malaysians manifold in one lifetime.
He also turned Malaysia into a flag-bearer of a modern Islamic country, a country that embraced modern capitalism and globalisation, built a multicultural society and yet held on to traditional Islamic values. In fact, before the likes of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey entered the scene, for years Mahathir was the go-to example for leaders in Muslim-majority as an ideal they aspired to.
From a rural doctor to a prime minister
Mahathir Mohamad was born and educated in Alur Setar, capital of the Northwestern state of Kedah.
He studied medicine and as a qualified doctor, he practised in rural areas of Malaysia, which eventually left a strong impression on him and developed in him a deep sympathy for the marginalised Malay population. Malaysia is primarily made up of around 50% Malays and 22% Chinese people, beside a number of ethnicities.
At the age of 21, Mahathir joined the newly founded United Malays National Organisation (Umno), in 1946. In 1969 he lost his parliamentary seat and was expelled from the party after he wrote an open letter attacking the then Prime Minister for neglecting the Malay community.
In 1970, Mahathir's book 'The Malay Dilemma' came out, where he wrote about the Malay race, how the Malays had been marginalised during the colonial era and also urged them to reject their second-class status as citizens.
Following the success of the book he was invited back into the party, re-elected to parliament in 1974, and appointed as the minister of education.
In 1981, Mahathir was first elected as the prime minister and from to 2003, he served as the country's prime minister for 22 years. From the 1980s, he has been hailed for leading Malaysia's rapid economic development and transformation.
He transformed Malaysia from an exporter of rubber and tin into a manufacturer of electronic equipment, steel and cars.
His prestige projects to boost national pride included one of the world's tallest buildings – the Petronas Towers.
Incomes have tripled and poverty levels have fallen during his tenure; two thirds of the population of the country now live in cities; and the share of national wealth held by Malays has risen from 9% to more than 20%.
His long leadership provided political stability, and he gained the title of "Father of Modern Malaysia" as he oversaw the construction of key projects such as the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and North South highway, and opened the country to foreign investment.
In 2003, Mahathir shocked everyone by resigning, but came back to politics in 2018, as the multibillion-dollar scandal 1MDB unfolded. He joined hands with his 'frenemy' former deputy turned rival Anwar Ibrahim, to defeat the then ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition – a grouping they had both once been part of – to become prime minister against in 2018.
But the Mahathir-Anwar alliance or the governing Pakatan Harapan coalition was unable to withstand the weight of internal rivalries, and in February 2020 Mahathir found himself a new political party Pejuang Malay party.
Dents on political record
Mahathir's political career, nevertheless, is not all shiny and spotless, rather his poor human rights record will always be a dent on his record.
While during the past two decades many Malaysians have enjoyed rising standards of living, they have often been unable to exercise basic political rights.
During 9/11, Mahathir was criticised for his stand against Muslims and he was accused of using the US-led "war on terrorism" as an excuse to neutralise Islamist political opponents at home. During his time, scores of suspected Islamists were arrested without trial under the much-criticised Internal Security Act. The act allowed the government to detain individuals indefinitely.
Mahathir's treatment of Ibrahim – who was detained and tortured on arguably trumped-up charges – also remains a major blot in his legacy, unconscionable in the eyes of many Malaysians and Western observers.
Mahathir has also often been a virulent critic of the West, with some of the criticism sometimes going beyond the norms of decency, at least in the eyes of his Western detractors.
There were many such instances of excesses in Mahathir's political career, both in words and deeds. Nonetheless, if this indeed is the final innings in a career that defied critics at home and abroad, political and economic predictions of pundits and academics, alongside the clock of biological age, then there is still much to admire and celebrate about the man who gave birth to modern Malaysia.