Mahathir Mohamad, mercurial master

Even by his standards, it was a remarkable performance by Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, last weekend when he reduced his party's annual conference to pandemonium by tearfully resigning all his party offices. Hunched and sobbing, he was surrounded by astonished officials of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) as he said: "No, I have decided. I have decided."
After he had been led into a private room, his aides returned to tell the assembly he had changed his mind and agreed to withdraw his resignation. But there was no reappearance by Mahathir and the following day the 76-year-old, who has ruled his country for 21 years, left for a holiday in Italy.
Later it was announced that he would step down, but not until next year. Meantime, he would gradually hand power to his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Whether genuine or, as his opponents suggest, just a piece of political grandstanding calculated to rally party support, his emotional display was characteristic of his public career.
Mahathir's mercurial nature has kept him in headlines around the world. His earliest political forays after he joined Umno at its foundation in 1946, when he was 21, were writing provocative articles on the emancipation of women. But he did not go into politics until 1964.
He qualified in medicine, served as a government medical officer, then set up private practice in his home town of Alor Seta, the capital of the state of Kehad, in 1957.
His wife, Hasmah, is also a doctor, and they have seven children - Marina, Mirzan, Melinda, Mokhzani, Mukhriz, Maizura and Mazhar.
He was elected as an MP in 1964 but lost the seat five years later before embarking on the political course that was to define his career. In an open letter he attacked the then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, for neglecting indigenous Malays.
He was expelled from the party and wrote a book, The Malay Dilemma, arguing that indigenous Malays had been marginalised by the colonial experience and must contest Western domination.
It was a theme from which he has not wavered, and it was suggested that his emotional outburst last weekend was the expression of his disappointment that he had not changed the behaviour of the Malay majority, whom he has often castigated as lazy.
At the start of the party assembly he hinted that the action that has helped to propel many Malays into successful business careers and created a large middle-class might have to stop.
"I consider these special rights for Malays to be a crutch. If we always use a crutch we will be lame forever," he said.
His Government has already abolished quotas that reserved a majority of places for Malay Muslims at public universities.
At the start of his career, it was his passionate championing of the indigenous Malays that had underpinned his success. His ideas struck such a chord that he was invited back into Umno and re-elected unopposed into Parliament in 1974.
Outside Parliament he had served on various education bodies, and he was immediately appointed Minister for Education. Two years later he became Deputy Prime Minister, and in July 1981 he became Prime Minister, an office he has held ever since.
In almost unchallenged control, he practised what he preached. Government patronage and discrimination policies in education and unemployment put key sectors of the economy in the hands of native Malays and reduced the commercial pre-eminence of the ethnic Chinese.
Under colonialism, Malaysia had been an exporter of rubber and tin, but Mahathir turned the nation into an Asian tiger. Electrical goods now account for 60 per cent of the earnings of the country, which also produces steel and cars.
Malaysia is one of the richest nations in Asia. According to official figures only 7 per cent of the population of 23 million is at poverty level, compared with around 50 per cent 30 years ago.
Internationally, Mahathir has been a noisy critic of the West and its attitudes, assuming the mantle of spokesman of the New Asia in resisting Western economic and cultural dominance.
His antipathy to the old Commonwealth powers is legendary. Throughout the 1980s he maintained a "Buy British last" policy, and in 1994 he banned his Government from entering any contracts with Britain in protest at press reports which alleged corruption in Malaysian-Anglo trade.
He had an acrimonious spat with Australia's Prime Minister Bob Hawke in the 1980s, when Hawke said Malaysia's execution of two Australian drug traffickers was barbaric.
When Hawke's successor, Paul Keating, described Mahathir's failure to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit in 1993 as recalcitrant, relations with Australia became even more venomous.
But despite the fractious nature of his relationships with the West, Malaysia's economic fortune remains dependent on Western markets and investment. This has been a continual irritant.
Mahathir has railed against the evils of currency speculators and is among those who attack the IMF as part of a Western conspiracy.
Famously, after the 1997 Asian crisis, he tried to resist the tide by tying his currency, the ringgit, to the US dollar and imposing controls on capital flows.
This was described by one economic commentator as bushwhacking his own road to economic recovery, and Malaysian exporters who had benefited from a weak currency groaned at the strain. The Government had to restructure the debts of 28 companies, but GDP growth remains high.
While Mahathir has been vocal in his international criticisms, he has been similarly peremptory in his dealing with internal opposition.
In 1987 he used the Internal Security Act for the mass detention of his critics and "interfering" judges were sacked.
More sensational was his showdown with his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar was arrested after a mass anti-Mahathir protest in Kuala Lumpur and charged with counts of corruption and sodomy. Anwar was jailed in 1999 and remains behind bars.
Elections that year, held in face of Opposition complaints that insufficient time had been allowed for campaigning, gave Mahathir's party more than two-thirds of the seats, confirming him in power until 2005, although if he does go next year elections are likely.
Politically he remains the master, but religious extremism may have replaced race as a potential challenge.
Mahathir is a committed Muslim, but he is equally a committed modernist, and has expressed fears that young Malay Muslims could fall victim to Islamic hardliners more interested in the life hereafter than economic development.
Despite his suspicion of the West, he backed Washington's war on terrorism, although he did call for an end to the bombing of Afghanistan.
For Malays, Mahathir is the Government. Although he underwent a major heart operation in 1989, he has always looked younger than his years and has maintained a gruelling schedule.
His son Mokhzani was quoted as saying that his father was ready to quit because he felt the time was right, with the country, the party and the economy on a sound footing.
But the New Sunday Times newspaper was probably closer to the national mood in saying that the country would find the prospect of life without his leadership unimaginable.
Mahathir himself told reporters last year: "I don't care whether I am popular or not, whether I go down in history as a bad guy or a good guy."
Malays, whether admirers or those who fear and despise him, are likely to keep him in mind as maha firaun - the great pharaoh.