Striding into the room flanked by security guards, Mahathir Mohamad, the world’s oldest serving head of government, moves like a man decades younger.
At 94, the Malaysian prime minister — who was known as a firebrand strongman during his first tenure in the job from 1981 to 2003 — remains a wily politician. Among Mr Mahathir’s trademark tactics is to keep his rivals guessing, in particular, Anwar Ibrahim, his former deputy and now his coalition ally.
After the pair confounded expectations to win elections last year, Mr Mahathir had promised to hand power to Mr Anwar after “one or two years”. But he is now rolling back that deadline. Some analysts fear the contest could become a rematch of the 1990s, when Mr Anwar was jailed for alleged sodomy after threatening his elder’s rule.
“There was no actual date or time mentioned,” Mr Mahathir told the Financial Times in an interview in Bangkok, where he was attending a regional trade conference. “What I mentioned at the time when they appointed me . . . was that . . . I would not be permanently there, that means that I wouldn’t finish a whole term.”
A repeat of their epic conflict would be disastrous for Malaysia as it tries to recover from a $4.5bn scandal at state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, the biggest scam in the country’s history.
Their political alliance today is all the more remarkable given their difficult history. Mr Anwar was Mr Mahathir’s deputy prime minister and heir apparent in 1998 when he was arrested and beaten by the country’s police chief. He was convicted of sodomy and corruption and placed in solitary confinement. The sodomy charge was eventually overturned but the controversy sidelined Mr Anwar from politics for about a decade.
Analysts warn that the prospect of Mr Mahathir staying in power longer than expected is heightening political risk. “This creates significant political uncertainty over the next two years — both in terms of when Mahathir will hand over power and to whom, as well as risks of Mahathir having to step down before succession has been lined up, which could create a messy political situation,” said Peter Mumford of Eurasia Group.
Mr Mahathir made one of the greatest political comebacks last year after he defected from the United Malays National Organisation, the former ruling party that had led Malaysia for 61 years, and recast himself as a reformer.
Together with Mr Anwar, he toppled Najib Razak, the then prime minister and UMNO stalwart, who was embroiled in the 1MDB scandal. The new coalition, called Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, promised to end corruption and restore the high economic growth that turned Malaysia into an “Asian tiger” during Mr Mahathir’s first term as prime minister.
Mr Mahathir told the FT he would stay on as prime minister until he had resolved the problems facing the country. Those included recovering the billions lost through 1MDB, finding and trying Jho Low (the fugitive financier allegedly behind the scheme) and cleansing the public service of corruption. He is also seeking compensation of $7.5bn from Goldman Sachs, which helped 1MDB raise funds that Malaysia and the US Department of Justice have alleged were later stolen.
Mr Mahathir said the agreement was still to hand over to Mr Anwar, dismissing speculation he preferred other candidates, such as his son and Mohamed Azmin Ali. Mr Azmin, the minister of economic affairs, was recently targeted in yet another sodomy scandal. He has denied any involvement.
“I have made many mistakes in appointing my successors so I don’t want to make another mistake this time,” Mr Mahathir said.
He expressed disappointment with Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, his immediate successor, who took over in 2003, as well as Mr Najib, both of whom rose under Mr Mahathir’s guidance. “One is very nervous about just letting go of the country to successors.”
For his part, Mr Anwar has also played down any hint of a leadership struggle. “I don’t think this is an issue as far as I’m concerned,” he told journalists last week.
Succession is not the only area in which Mr Mahathir has changed direction since taking power. When he won office last year, he struck an aggressive note with Beijing, in contrast with Mr Najib’s government which had courted expensive Chinese infrastructure projects. In particular, Mr Mahathir warned against “a new version of colonialism” and called for renegotiations of “unequal treaties”, such as Malaysia’s China-backed railway project, the East Coast Rail Link.
But his stance towards China, Malaysia’s top trading partner and vital source of foreign direct investment, softened after Beijing agreed this year to cut the cost of the rail project by almost half, from an estimated RM81bn ($19.6bn). Malaysia’s finance ministry said that was the true cost of the project.
The starkest sign of improved Sino-Malaysian ties was perhaps the unwillingness of Mr Mahathir, who styles himself as a defender of Muslims, to condemn Beijing’s incarceration of an estimated 1m Uighurs in Xinjiang.
He said the plight of the Rohingya, the Muslim minority group driven out of Myanmar after a military crackdown, was “a much bigger problem than the Uighurs”.
“At least they are still in the country where they have been born and they have grown up,” he said of the Uighurs.
Mr Mahathir is characteristically less coy when it comes to criticising the west. When the conversation turns to the rise of populism and western decadence, a hint of the old strongman returns. “I foresaw that [the rise of populism] coming because moral values are deteriorating in the west,” he said. “I can’t imagine men marrying men, women marrying women . . . because nothing is absolute, freedom is not absolute.”