KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — When Malaysia's political elite gathered in mid-June for their biggest party of the year, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 77, implored them not to make a fuss over him. Once he retires this fall, the leader said, "I'm a nobody."
Not to Malaysians. Crowds thronged to hear his farewell speech, spilling out of the ruling party's high-rise headquarters and blocking downtown streets. Monsoon rains soaked teary-eyed supporters as they watched him on giant television screens.
Most Malaysians have trouble imagining life after Mr. Mahathir, who announced plans last summer to step down in October after a 22-year reign that has made him Asia's longest-serving elected leader, and saw him rise to international prominence while leading them to prosperity and becoming a leading, and scathing, critic of U.S.-led globalization.
"When you think of Malaysia, you think of Dr. M.," said Zuraini Harun, 32, a cafe manager whose generation remembers no other leader. "Mahathir is Malaysia."
But confidence born of economic achievements under Mr. Mahathir is tempered by uncertainty about what will follow, particularly with the rise of al Qaeda-linked militants in Southeast Asia and a drift toward fundamentalism among Malaysia's predominant Muslim Malays.
For almost half the period since independence from British rule in 1957, Mr. Mahathir has dominated politics in this ethnically diverse nation of 24 million people at the southern tip of continental Asia.
He spearheaded Malaysia's transformation from a tin- and rubber-producing backwater into one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest countries. It now exports shiploads of Dell computers and other manufactured goods, and boasts a Malaysian-built Proton car in every driveway, a high-rise capital and a color TV in every village home.
Mr. Mahathir has kept the peace among Malaysia's delicately balanced racial mix while building a modern, secular society with strong Islamic influence. Teen-age girls wearing designer jeans and Muslim head scarves window shop in suburban malls as ethnic Chinese play mah-jong over beer and pork crackling in nearby cafes.
But Mr. Mahathir's development record has come with an autocratic style that critics say mocks Malaysia's claims to be a democracy.
He has blatantly favored the Malay majority over the country's large Chinese and Indian communities. Political opponents have been locked up without trial. Critics say press and judicial independence has been eroded and a culture of cronyism and government unaccountability has thrived.
"Despite economic growth and stability, Mr. Mahathir's regime has been very authoritarian," said P. Ramasamy, a political scientist at the National University of Malaysia.
A physician from the small northern state of Kedah, Mr. Mahathir made his name in politics by defining what he called "the Malay dilemma." He portrayed Malays as downtrodden among the economically vibrant Chinese minority, but too apathetic and fatalistic to do much about it. It was a stereotype he was determined to break.
With a firmly held view that social freedoms are luxuries that follow, not precede, economic development, Mr. Mahathir has pursued a grand vision to make Malaysia a fully developed country by 2020.
He vigorously wooed foreign investment during the Asian boom years of the 1980s and early 1990s, adopted hands-on economic management and spent billions on mega-projects that sometimes indulged a taste for the grandiose. A small country, Malaysia nevertheless boasts ownership of the world's tallest buildings, a state-of-the-art Formula One racing circuit, and an opulent administrative capital complete with presidential palace.
Mr. Mahathir also carved out a role as spokesman for the developing world and moderate Islam, railing against the perceived evils of globalization and decrying the war on terrorism as an excuse to attack Muslims. Yet he has cracked down on suspected Islamic militants — including one who hosted two of the September 11 hijackers during 2000 — and won Malaysia status as a U.S. ally against terrorism.
Early in his reign, Mr. Mahathir demonstrated a political toughness by crushing a challenge within his own United Malays National Organization in 1987. His purge included more than 100 arrests and rushed-through changes to the constitution to strip some powers from the judiciary.
His fiercely independent, patriarchal side flared again during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.
When currencies and stock prices started tumbling and foreign investors pulled out, Mr. Mahathir railed at "rogue speculators" he accused of trying to destroy Asian economies and charged the West wanted to recolonize the East through economic control.
As contemporaries such as Gen. Suharto fell in neighboring Indonesia, Mr. Mahathir rejected free-market conventional wisdom and imposed capital controls that protected Malaysia from the worst of the crisis. By 2001, Malaysia had recovered faster than many other countries in the region.
Mr. Mahathir also said he suspected the financial crisis might stem from a Jewish "agenda," saying Jews "are not happy to see the Muslims progress."
Amid the financial turmoil, Mr. Mahathir put down a nascent challenge by his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, who in short order was fired, arrested, tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison for abuse of power and sodomy. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protests by Anwar supporters.
The case fractured Malaysia's political community and energized the opposition, led by a conservative Islamic party. The government suffered its worst result in years at elections in 1999, though it won comfortably.
Diplomatic strains over the deputy's treatment thawed only recently, after the focus of international relations shifted from social issues to security after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Malaysia has detained without trial more than 70 suspected members of Jemaah Islamiyah, an Islamic extremist group blamed for a string of deadly bomb attacks in the region and accused of plotting to blow up U.S. and other Western targets.
The crackdown helped win Mr. Mahathir an invitation to the White House in May 2002 and praise from President Bush. But he soon returned to criticizing the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, again fraying Washington's equanimity.
Worries about Islamic extremism have helped Mr. Mahathir repair damage from the Anwar affair. He has painted the country's largest opposition group, a fundamentalist Muslim party that made electoral gains in the post-Anwar turmoil, as a threat to Malaysia's stability.
But the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party remains the strongest challenger to Mr. Mahathir's bloc, which has led the government since independence and is drawing criticism for cronyism and corruption.
Pressing an Islamic-oriented agenda that includes death by stoning for adultery and the amputation of thieves' hands, leaders of the Muslim party increasingly talk of politics in religious terms.
"Malaysian Muslims want real Islam to be practiced," said Hatta Ramli, a member of the party's central committee. "Islam may be in place in some institutions, but things contrary to Islam are also being practiced — suppression of human rights, poor governance, corruption."
The prospect of religion playing a big role in the political battle for Malay votes worries the Chinese and Indian minorities, who make up around a third of the population. The country suffered bloody race riots in 1969.
Race and religion remain among the most sensitive issues in Malaysia, thanks in part to years of affirmative-action policies designed to increase ethnic Malays' share of economic wealth.
The policies guarantee Malays places at universities, shareholdings in corporations and other benefits. For years one of the strongest defenders of the policies, even Mr. Mahathir has joined critics in worrying they encourage complacency among some Malays. Chinese and Indians, meanwhile, grumble about being made into second-class citizens.
Mr. Mahathir said recently his greatest failing was not making Malays more highly regarded. Critics say part of the blame lies with his tendency to cajole rather than convince, and to a paternalistic culture he has allowed to develop around him.
"No matter how good a leader you are, the fact that you stay too long becomes an issue in itself," said Shahrir Samad, a member of the supreme council of Mr. Mahathir's ruling party. "When [Mr. Mahathir] goes, I think it is a positive thing."
His handpicked successor, deputy Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is drab by comparison. A former Islamic student and career politician, Mr. Abdullah faces a formidable task in putting his own mark on a system commanded for so long by one man.
Mr. Mahathir insists he doesn't want a special role in government such as the "senior minister" title accorded to his contemporary and old rival, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew.
But few people expect a lifetime of opinionated governing to shift into a simple, quiet retirement writing memoirs.
"It is not Mahathir's style to remain silent," said John R. Malott, a former U.S. ambassador.
The above article appeared in The Washington Times of September 12, 2003