As great political comebacks go, we’ve had a few.
Winston Churchill, Silvio Berlusconi, John Howard and Winston Peters come easily to mind, but perhaps the most remarkable resurrection of modern times has been the return to power in Malaysia of Dr Mahathir Mohammed.
When he was re-elected as Prime Minister a year ago, Mahathir was nearly 93 years old. He is currently the oldest serving head of a government.
Mahathir enters the Guinness World Records, taking over from King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz.
The Saudi Arabian ruler was the oldest prime minister at the time when he died in 2005 aged 84.
The best political revivals become books or, if the impact has been of Churchillian proportions, feature films, and a degree of subjectivity on the part of the author or filmmaker is accepted.
Rarely is it that writers or filmmakers are on the inside when history happens, but in this respect Mahathir’s story is unusual – his granddaughter was able to record it in real time.
Ineza Roussille’s 90-minute documentary on her grandfather’s unlikely victory debuted at a film festival in San Francisco two weeks ago and is screening at this month’s DocEdge festivals in Auckland and Wellington. It won’t be shown in Malaysia until September when the country has its National Day.
M for Malaysia is not a sympathetic treatment seen through the nepotistic lens of a family member.
Roussille, who is in Auckland for DocEdge, said she had to think long and hard before she started filming Mahathir’s campaign.
“It was a difficult decision, we have different world views and in the previous election (2013) we were on different sides.
“But when I started to see these huge rallies (in support of political change) I decided I had to be there to document it.”
One of those involved in the rallies and who would later help produce and direct the film was Dian Lee. Lee, who is also in Auckland for the screening and calls herself “an accidental producer”, says she was inspired by Mahathir’s energetic resolve.
“I saw a photo of him climbing up a ladder onto a truck to address the crowds and I thought, at 92 he doesn’t have to do this, why is he doing this?”
The documentary leads to the conclusion that Mahathir is motivated by correcting his own mistakes. Mistakes he made during his 22 years in power.
Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir made life tough for his opponents.
An opposition politician interviewed in the documentary recalls: “He created an environment which allowed someone to control all the levers of power. He weakened the Judiciary, Police and the Anti-Corruption Commission.
“Tun (Mahathir) now realises his mistakes.”
Mahathir quit his own party, UMNO, in 2016 due to its support of then-Prime Minister Najib Razak, a man he helped put into power.
The Wall Street Journal had exposed Najib in what is known as the 1MDB scandal. Najib had allegedly siphoned off US$700 million of government money into his own private bank account.
Later on the campaign trail, Mahathir would use this to great effect, telling election rallies: “Hey Najib, where did you get the $700 million from? You say an Arab donated it … which crazy Arab would do that?”
In early 2018, Mahathir’s new party joined with three other opposition parties to form the Pakatan Harapan coalition which then nominated him as its Prime Ministerial candidate. It proved to be an improbable masterstroke.
In the documentary, Mahathir describes it as strange in the extreme.
“This is a queer thing. That they would accept me is as queer as my accepting them. To fight the party that I used to lead – I mean, that is unthinkable.”
The cameras follow Mahathir in a crazily compressed 11-day campaign.
His opponent, Najib, is shown promising pay rises for virtually everyone and desperately hammering the theme that Mahathir is too old to govern. “This country cannot be led by a 93-year-old man.”
Mahathir, in a much lower key way, perhaps because of his age, focuses on Najib’s corrupt behaviour and reviving the economy, which had gone backwards since he left power.
Ostensibly, the documentary is about how a nonagenarian former ruler makes it back into the top job, but it’s also about the phenomenon of people power.
Najib’s decision to make polling day a Wednesday, so urban workers couldn’t easily return to their rural villages to vote, backfires badly.
Malaysia, which has suffered deep racial divisions among its Malay, Indian and Chinese populations, unites in a movement called #Pulangmengundi.
Social media provided a platform for thousands wanting to donate transport and money to help voters get back to rural polling booths.
The 80 percent turnout was enough to defeat the gerrymandering attempts of Najib’s government.
“I didn’t think it could be done but Malaysians proved me wrong,” Roussille told Newsroom.
“It ended up being a pretty incredible human story, a proud moment for Malaysia and for my grandad. He is a freak of nature to be 93 and doing 12 hours a day – it was exhausting keeping up with him every day.”
The euphoria captured by the documentary cameras on election night as Pakatan Harapan parties swept to a surprise victory has faded quickly for many Malaysians.
The country is staggering under the burden of its foreign debt of nearly a trillion dollars. Mahathir, so far, has not been able to engineer the sort of economic prosperity he did in the 1980s.
“It has been a really tough year with the discovery of more scandals and deficits,” says Roussille.
Former Prime Minister Najb is currently facing 42 charges related to abuse of power and money laundering. After the election, police raided six properties connected to him and found stashes of jewellery and cash worth US$215 million.
Producer Dian Lee says the race situation has improved under the new government.
“There has been a pushback on race-based policy, it is not as evident now.”
Rousille is not so sure, citing radicalisation of sections of the Muslim community.
“That faction is quite scary. There have been some baby steps forward but we still have a long way to go.”
M for Malaysia screens at the Roxy Cinema in Wellington on June 14 and 16.