See More on Facebook

Culture and society, Politics

Runner-Up: Mahathir Mohamad

The nonagenarian’s stunning victory changed the landscape of Malaysian politics and was a triumph for democracy in a region experiencing its decline.


Written by

Updated: December 27, 2018

Asia News Network will reveal its person of the year on December 28. For more on the finalists and runners up, please click this link here. 

It was perhaps the most stunning political upset of 2018. No one thought Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who had served as Prime Minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, could win the office again, especially competing as the chairman of the Patakan Harapan, a coalition of his former political foes.

But, win he did, at the age of 92.

He and his coalition have had a tough task before them. They took over at a time of shattered public confidence in Malaysia’s political system, thanks to a decades-long corruption scandal that went all the way to the top—to Mahathir’s successor himself, Najib Razak—and a staggering level of national debt.

They had big promises to keep. Mahathir and his coalition ran a campaign based on tackling that sky-high debt, eliminating rampant corruption and racism from Malaysian politics, and making tough institutional reforms.

But, this time around, Mahathir seems different. He appears to have left behind many of the autocratic tendencies that marked his previous tenure in the office, and to be embracing democratic institutions with new vigor. It’s clear he’s determined to make the most of this chance to rewrite his legacy.

From the beginning, Mahathir appeared unchained from the burden of national expectations for what his second premiership might look like.

His government has gone after his former party’s alleged corruption with vigor and zeal prosecuting everyone from Najib, to his wife and cronies. No one seems more surprised by this than Najib who was predicted to win the election with ease. Analaysts and critics alike remarked how the Najib machine seemed unstoppable before elections especially with their consolidation of power, altering media laws and gerrymandering to maintain power.

That Mahathir won was a testament to the democracy and democratic institutions of Malaysia. It is doubly important when placed in context of Malaysia’s neighbour where democracy has taken a back seat, especially in places like Thailand and Cambodia.

Mahathir has appointed a surprisingly meritocratic and multi-racial cabinet—he chose a non-Malay to serve as attorney general and tapped Lim Guan Eng, an ethnic Chinese, as finance minister. And, from the beginning, Mahathir seemed unafraid to speak his mind, for better or for worse.

Mahathir told Singapore their water deal with Malaysia was simply “too costly.” He seems to be trying to rewrite the long-standing Asean rule of non-interference by repeatedly calling out Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the role she has played in the Rohingya crisis.

And, most earth-shaking of all, Mahathir has thus far been unafraid to stand up to China’s growing influence domestically and in the wider region. He has made it clear that while his government sees China as a powerful trading partner, China should no longer expect an unmitigated relationship with Malaysia.

Mahathir took a stand against Chinese-backed projects that he said do too little to add value to Malaysia, thus far suspending more than $40 billion in Chinese infrastructure deals, including the $20 billion East Coast Rail Link project deal that had been inked by Najib. He went to bat against powerful developers in a bid to prevent the growth of luxury foreigner-only enclaves unaffordable to many of his countrymen. And he has been sharply critical of Chinese naval incursions into Malaysian waters.

No everyone sees Mahathir’s willingness to upset the status quo as refreshing, his critics have found his candor thus far concerning.

His unpredictability makes it hard to tell what 2019 will have in store for the prime minister—will he even pass the baton to Anwar Ibrahim after his second year as promised? Whatever happens, it will certainly be interesting to watch.



Enjoyed this story? Share it.


Quinn Libson
About the Author: Quinn Libson is an Associate Editor at Asia News Network

Eastern Briefings

All you need to know about Asia


Our Eastern Briefings Newsletter presents curated stories from 22 Asian newspapers from South, Southeast and Northeast Asia.

Sign up and stay updated with the latest news.



By providing us with your email address, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

View Today's Newsletter Here

Culture and society, Politics

Italy to play a key role as Belt and Road opens new doors across globe

Italy will be a major part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. East-West relations have entered a new phase. Global integration, with sustained increases in crossborder exchanges of goods, technology, knowledge and resources, has reshaped international relations, spurring economic development of traditionally marginal regions and encouraging economic convergence among poorer and richer areas. The phenomenon has received great impetus from the possibilities offered by technological progress and the increase in physical and digital connectivity, strongly enhanced by the modernization and innovation efforts of Asian countries. What we have seen and are still seeing, indeed, is not a simple shift of production from the West to the East, but a real change in production models. The production and consumption of goods and services have followed value chains that are no longer confined to a local scale, but are


By China Daily
March 22, 2019

Culture and society, Politics

How competing masculinities inform Pak-India escalation

Devaluing the other in gender hierarchies often takes place through feminisation. Last month, tensions reigned high between neighbouring nuclear powers that share an ugly history of separation and bellicosity. Once more, India and Pakistan seemed to be at the brink of war. Airports were shut down, the Line of Control was violated, and de-escalation — especially in the newfound absence of dedicated third-party intervention — looked out of bounds for the most part. War-mongering through media outlets prevailed while fake and selective news circulated in this situation of crisis. Yet, it is baffling — if also not amusing — that even in such delicate moments, rhetoric of ‘putting them in their place’ was omnipresent on both sides. Similarly, a few months ago, when Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted his disappointment regarding peace talks with India, he chastised that he ha


By Dawn
March 21, 2019

Culture and society, Politics

Rahul tears into PM Modi over job losses, calls PM a ‘joke’

The country’s unemployment rate was reportedly at a 45-year-high of 6.1 per cent in 2017-18. Turning up the heat on Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the reported high rate of unemployment and job losses in the country, Congress party president Rahul Gandhi, on Wednesday, alleged that Modi’s policies “destroyed” thousands of jobs in 2018 alone and that “India’s PM is a joke”. Seeking to turn the focus back on the issue of lack of jobs and employment opportunities for the country’s youths, Gandhi tagged a fresh media report which, quoting the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, stated that for the first time since 1993-94, the actual size of India’s male workforce has shrunk. The  NSSO report is based on the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) which was conducted between July 2017 and June 2018 ~ the Modi government has not officially released the report so far. According


By The Statesman
March 21, 2019

Culture and society, Politics

Police accelerate probe into Burning Sun scandal

The scandal has involved police officers, nightclub owners and K-Pop stars. Police on Tuesday accelerated a probe into nightclub Burning Sun, which has been marred by allegations of sexual assault, the illicit filming of sex videos, drug use and corrupt ties with police, as ministers vowed a thorough investigation and due punishment. The Seoul Central Prosecutors’ Office asked a Seoul court to issue an arrest warrant for Jung Joon-young, a singer-songwriter suspected of secretly filming sex videos and sharing them in mobile messenger group chats, including Seungri of Big Bang and FT Island’s Choi Jong-hoon. It also filed arrest warrants for a Burning Sun employee surnamed Kim and an executive director at the club surnamed Jang. Kim is accused of illicit filming. Jang is accused of inflicting bodily harm for allegedly assaulting Kim Sang-kyo, a customer who opened the floodgates of allegations


By The Korea Herald
March 21, 2019

Culture and society, Politics

Japanese Olympic Committee was step behind when dealing with Takeda charges

The head of Japan’s Olympic Committee said he would step down, as French authorities probe his involvement in payments made before Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Summer Games. Japanese Olympic Committee chief Tsunekazu Takeda’s decision to step down at the end of his current term comes after the JOC was sluggish in its attempts to deal with his alleged misconduct, according to observers. The driving force behind Takeda’s move was a gradual change in the International Olympic Committee’s stance toward his case, due to concerns that the issue could tarnish the image of the Olympic Games. On Tuesday, Takeda, 71, said he plans to resign when his term as JOC president ends in June. The JOC will now have to reorganize itself in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, an unusual move one year prior to an Olympic Games. Takeda also said he


By The Japan News
March 21, 2019

Culture and society, Politics

Thais wont mobilize in protest even if junta wins elections.

Thailand’s ersatz elections will not bother most Thais even if army comes back to rule. Every country has their breaking point, where corruption, abuse and living standards reach a point where people are compelled to take to the streets and demand a change. Thailand’s breaking point appears to be much higher than most. After all, a decade of political infighting, street riots, and military crackdowns has made mass protest much less palatable for the common Thai. Despite this, the military seem to be doing their utmost to push the populace to their limit. Reports from early and overseas voters tell of an election deeply flawed with spoiled ballots, discounted votes and confusing polling procedures. Some votes have been disregarded altogether, including those that voted for the Thai Raksa Chat Party who was disqualified by the Election Commission for running a princess to be p


By Cod Satrusayang
March 20, 2019