There’s no such thing as a quiet year for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a mainstay of Malaysian politics for the past half-century. But having dished it out to peers and successors for most of his career, this year saw him on the receiving end of attacks after he joined the opposition, making him a prime target for the Najib Razak administration.
Charges levelled against him range from the alleged RM31.5 billion lost in the 1990s by the central bank in foreign exchange, to the abuse of the Internal Security Act in the 1987 Operation Lalang dragnet, and the 1985 Memali incident where 14 people died after police laid siege to an Islamic sect.
The wily 92-year-old has had a retort for each of these, and it remains to be seen in a general election next year whether his message, or that of the Umno-led Barisan Nasional – which he helped turn into an undefeated juggernaut during his 22 years in power – holds sway.
The former premier, who stepped down in 2003, has been a spiky character ever since, and was largely credited with the downfall of his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2009. But his attacks on Prime Minister Najib have been met with obdurate resistance.
This forced Dr Mahathir to leave Umno and form his own Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia last year, a platform from which he was appointed chairman of the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance in July.
Having been ignored for a quarter-century, the government accelerated the establishment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the forex losses in August. The scandal happened not just while Dr Mahathir was in power, but also when the jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim was finance minister, offering up a chance for the government to kill two birds with one stone.
The commission’s report recommended that both be further investigated. But critics call the probe a fix, based on chief commissioner Sidek Hassan’s insistence in the hearings that the amount lost was higher than reported, and that Anwar had hidden information.
Dr Mahathir has faced other barbs in recent months, from being accused of calling the Bugis – Mr Najib is of Bugis ancestry – “pirates”, to having an Indian father, attacks geared to undermine his credentials as a champion of the Malay majority. But he continues to capture the imagination of the public, and is a top target for selfies even when strolling in shopping malls.