‘I am quite old. No, I am very old’

At 92, Malaysia’s new PM chal­lenges think­ing on how old is too old when it comes to pol­i­tics, write Tim Sul­li­van and Eileen Ng

Weekend Herald - - World -

The long­time strong­man was born when silent films still packed movie the­atres and Adolf Hitler was still a fringe politi­cian. It was 1926, and his home­land was known as Bri­tish Malaya.

Now Ma­hathir Mo­hamad is 92 years old. He is also Malaysia’s new­est Prime Min­is­ter. It’s been 37 years since he first had the job, and 15 since he re­tired from it.

All of that raises an ob­vi­ous ques­tion: How old is too old to run a coun­try?

Ma­hathir, for one, in­sists he has time left. “I am, of course, quite old. No, I am very old,” he said in an April in­ter­view with the As­so­ci­ated Press. “But I can still func­tion.”

He’s right about that. Ma­hathir has had two coro­nary by­pass surg­eries, but still has a rea­son­ably full head of hair. He has a force­ful pres­ence, a love of po­lit­i­cal brawl­ing, and a fond­ness for jokes. He could eas­ily pass for some­one 20 years younger. But he doesn’t hide his age.

“Young lead­ers do not have suf­fi­cient back­ground,” he said in the in­ter­view. “And not many peo­ple with ex­pe­ri­ence have sur­vived. I have sur­vived.”

Age has long been an is­sue for politi­cians. Ron­ald Rea­gan faced plenty of ques­tions about his men­tal abil­i­ties when he ran for US pres­i­dent in 1980, and he was just 69 years old. Robert Mu­gabe was ridiculed as Zim­babwe’s “di­nosaur”, a man con­sumed by greed and power who re­fused to give way to a younger gen­er­a­tion, un­til be­ing pushed out at age 93. Dur­ing the Cold War the US war­ily watched a So­viet lead­er­ship dom­i­nated by men in their 70s and 80s, some of whom seemed to be barely cling­ing to life.

But age isn’t al­ways bad. “From the point of view of the out­side world, there is some­thing good to be said about a Krem­lin geron­toc­racy,” the New York Times said in a 1976 ed­i­to­rial. “The rul­ing So­viet 70-year-olds are hardly likely to push an ad­ven­tur­ous course that would pose se­ri­ous risks of ther­monu­clear war.”

The ques­tions about Rea­gan, though, resur­faced five years af­ter his pres­i­dency ended, when he was di­ag­nosed with Alzheimer’s dis­ease. Doc­tors and his­to­ri­ans still de­bate whether the dis­ease af­fected him while he was in the White House.

The med­i­cal world — and the per­cep­tion of age­ing — has changed dra­mat­i­cally since Rea­gan was run­ning for of­fice, when Amer­i­can men had a life ex­pectancy of 70. To­day, an Amer­i­can man can ex­pect to live more than 76 years, and ad­ver­tise­ments show re­tirees on surf­boards.

Ma­hathir is also no Rea­gan, who was known for his oc­ca­sional for­get­ful­ness and sup­posed love of naps. If Rea­gan’s han­dlers care­fully shaped his public image to make him ap­pear younger, with lots of pho­tos of him chop­ping wood and rid­ing horses, Ma­hathir needs no such help. He looks young — or at least far younger than he is — and he acts young. The men­tal and phys­i­cal frail­ties that bat­ter many peo­ple in their 70s seem to have left

Ma­hathir alone.

In part that could be per­sonal dis­ci­pline. Ma­hathir was a doc­tor be­fore be­com­ing a politi­cian, and he reg­u­larly re­cites his rules for keep­ing young: don’t eat too much, ex­er­cise and read.

There was also a strain of nos­tal­gia that ran through Malaysia’s elec­tion cam­paign. Ma­hathir was an au­thor­i­tar­ian ruler, muz­zling the me­dia and mak­ing the ju­di­ciary a tool of the gov­ern­ment, but he also trans­formed Malaysia into a mod­ern na­tion with a com­par­a­tively strong econ­omy.

“We are con­cerned about his health and not his ca­pa­bil­ity,” said M.K. Lum, a bank em­ployee and Ma­hathir sup­porter.

“If he has re­ceived the peo­ple’s man­date and he is will­ing, why not?”

Brid­get Welsh, a South­east Asia scholar at John Cabot Univer­sity in Rome, said Ma­hathir’s age worked to his ad­van­tage, with vot­ers see­ing him as an ex­pe­ri­enced leader who could move Malaysia be­yond the gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion of re­cent years and over­see a peace­ful tran­si­tion of power.

Malaysia is still haunted by mem­o­ries of 1969 race ri­ots, be­tween ma­jor­ity Malays and mi­nor­ity Chi­nese, that fol­lowed elec­tions and left more than 200 peo­ple dead.

“A 92-year-old man com­ing out to save Malaysia has a lot of trac­tion with peo­ple an­gry with cor­rup­tion,” said Welsh, who was in Kuala Lumpur to ob­serve the vote. “He was a safe land­ing. He has a track record and ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Ma­hathir em­pha­sised his age in cam­paign videos that tugged at vot­ers’ heart­strings.

“I am al­ready old,” he said to a young girl in one video, tears brim­ming in his eyes.

“I haven’t much time left. I have to do some work to re­build our coun­try; per­haps be­cause of mis­takes I, my­self, made in the

past.” AP

Photo / AP

Ma­hathir Mo­hamad was a lively cam­paigner on the elec­tion trail.

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