LANGKAWI, Malaysia (Reuters) - At the peak of his 22-year rule, Mahathir Mohamad transformed a sleepy fishing village on the west coast of Malaysia into a tourist hot spot by declaring it a tax-free haven and opening up its beaches for business.
Langkawi, an archipelago of tiny islands, is now a premier tourist destination that attracts more than three million people each year visiting hotels like Four Seasons, The St. Regis and The Westin that are lined up along its sun-kissed beaches.
At 92, Mahathir is back on the island seeking support from its residents to return him to power as he runs in Malaysia’s general election on May 9. A win for his Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition would make him the world’s oldest prime minister.
A loss, however, would likely end his political journey.
Flanked by his supporters, his 91-year-old wife, Siti Hasmah, and his daughter Marina, Mahathir marched to the nomination centre in Langkawi on Saturday, where he was approved as a contestant for the election.
Chants of “long live Tun” and “long live Pakatan” filled the premises. Tun is Mahathir’s official title, and it is how many of his supporters address him.
“His age is not a barrier. He’s merely the catalyst; there will be many others working below him who will help him,” said 21-year-old student Qatrul Najwa, adding that a veteran leader was needed at a time when the islanders were struggling.
“We just need his ideas and experience,” she said.
Like other parts of the country, she said, many in Langkawi are feeling the impact of rising costs, and an unpopular consumption tax imposed by the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Mahathir, who is Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, broke allegiance with his former protégé Najib over a graft scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
He quit the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO)-led coalition, which he helped build, and joined hands with long-time rival and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in an effort to oust Najib.
At a news conference on Friday, Mahathir said he had a right to run in the election regardless of his age, citing his lifelong quest to develop Langkawi.
“Whether I’m young or old, it doesn’t matter,” he told reporters. “I’ve never promised anything for Langkawi, but I’ve done a lot for Langkawi.”
Election campaigning kicked off on Saturday.
Many parts of the island bear marks of Mahathir’s legacy, from a museum featuring his accomplishments to the annual Tour de Langkawi bicycle race, which draws thousands of people.
Mahathir grew up in Kedah, the state that governs Langkawi, and launched his much-talked about political journey there, which peaked when he became Malaysia’s fourth prime minister in 1981. Shortly after, he kicked off a mission of modernisation, which was capped off with the 88-storey Petronas twin towers in Kuala Lumpur.
In Langkawi, his signature monument is a huge reddish-brown eagle perched over a waterfront plaza. Right-wing Islamic groups have been calling for the structure to be demolished, saying it is against Islamic teachings.
Although Mahathir remains popular, his age will be a concern for many islanders. Some others also see him as a dictator who, during his premiership, abused civil liberties and weakened institutions.
Mahathir used security laws to put his political opponents behind bars. His critics say he restricted free speech and persecuted political opponents - none more so than his former deputy, Anwar.
Despite retiring in 2003, Mahathir continued to wield power in UMNO and orchestrated the ouster of former premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi five years later.
“I think Mahathir should take a rest,” said Ahmad Marzuki Shari’at, the Langkawi youth chief for Najib’s UMNO party. “We are looking to the future, we don’t want to go backwards. We need a younger, energetic candidate to take us forward to greater heights.”
Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Gerry Doyle