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Mahathir: A tough act to follow

By CNN's Joe Havely

Many Malaysians have known no other leader than Mahathir.
Many Malaysians have known no other leader than Mahathir.

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CNN's Maria Ressa reports on the career of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as he prepares to step down.
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A look at Mahathir's often combative rhetorical style.
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(CNN) -- Loved and loathed in equal measure, there is little doubt that over his 22 years in office outgoing Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has been the single most potent force in shaping modern Malaysia.

Labeled a reactionary, a racist and even dictatorial by his critics, few would argue that Malaysia's current fortunes owe much to the man known by millions simply as "Dr M".

On the economic front, supporters argue that his visionary policies transformed Malaysia into a resilient economy that proved its mettle by emerging from the 1997 Asian economic crisis relatively unscathed.

Critics however point to such cash-guzzling failures as the Perwaja steel production project and say the fact that Malaysia pulled through the 1997 crisis owed more to luck than its leader's economic wisdom.

In the political arena his views on religion and race have been condemned as divisive and inflamatory by critics. Supporters however have praised him for bringing contentious issues to the fore.

From critics and supporters alike however, there is little argument that after two decades in power Mahathir's impact on Malaysia has been anything less than huge.

Twenty years ago Malaysia was a slow-burner economically -- going steady, but not really going anywhere -- and heavily reliant on exports of tin and rubber.

Today it is a Southeast Asian powerhouse, a key exporter of high-technology manufacturing and an influential voice among the world's developing nations.

Most noticeably, it is dominated by examples of Mahathir's famed "mega-projects", such as the gleaming new administrative capital of Putrajaya (rugged jungle until just a few years ago) and the soaring Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia today is very much Mahathir's Malaysia -- so how will it get on without him?

End of an era

"A lot of people will feel a sense of loss when he goes," says Steven Gan, editor of, an online news service that has often been critical of Mahathir's rule.

For 22 years, says Gan, "Mahathir's Malaysia has been a one-man show; he has been the one with the vision."

Now that era is coming to an end.

But aside from the gleaming towers, what does Mahathir leave his successors and how will they carry on without him?

"His legacy will be a mixed one," Gan says.

"He bought Malaysia unprecedented industrialization and development, but in the process of achieving those goals he destroyed the independence of institutions such as the judiciary, the media and the professional police force."

start quoteA lot of people will feel a sense of loss when he goesend quote
-- Steven Gan, Editor

With a new man taking the helm, changes are set to take place that will take some getting used to.

For Malaysians, the majority of whom have known no other leader, the idea of anyone other than Dr M firmly at the helm has been virtually unthinkable.

Witness, for example, the shock that accompanied his surprise resignation announcement in June 2002.

Now Malaysia is faced with the fact that the man many see as a father figure -- whether or not they actually support him -- will no longer be their leader.

start quoteI think it will be good for people to have a changeend quote
-- Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, CNN interview 2002

Until just a few years ago the man considered heir apparent to Mahathir was former finance minister Anwar Ibrahim -- now languishing in a jail cell outside Kuala Lumpur.

The uproar surrounding Anwar's 1998 sacking and his subsequent trial on charges of sodomy was the greatest challenge to Mahathir's leadership.

For a time it seemed as if the "reformasi" (reform) movement sparked by Anwar's trial might push Mahathir the way of Indonesian strongman Suharto.

Instead he rode out the storm convinced of his own righteousness and the stability of the power structure he had built around him.

'Nice guy'

June 2002: Mahathir shocks his party and his country by announcing his resignation.
June 2002: Mahathir shocks his party and his country by announcing his resignation.

Indeed, such has been Mahathir's dominant stature and single-mindedness that few other potential leaders have emerged with the charisma to fill his shoes.

Enter on the scene Mahathir's deputy Abdullah Ahmad Badawi -- a man who, other than his diplomatic "nice guy" reputation, remains a political unknown for most Malaysians.

"Abdullah has a very different style," says Malaysiakini's Gan. "Unlike Mahathir he has no fixed ideas and likes to listen to all sides."

That will be a stark contrast to Mahathir's way of doing things.

Under the top-down Mahathir style, ideas and the driving force of government emanated from the prime minister's office and were unquestioningly followed.

Associates say that Abdullah, a former diplomat, will seek a different, two-way flow of ideas and debate, signaling something of a seismic shift in the way Malaysia is governed.

Mahathir himself seems confident the country that is very much his creation will be in safe hands.

"I think it will be good for people to have a change," he told CNN in an interview last year.

"We believe in the same thing," he said of his successor. "We believe in the same methods."

But he rejects suggestions that he will follow the path of Singaporean elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew -- the man who as prime minister was credited with transforming the city-state's fortunes and remains today a key player behind the scenes.

"No," Mahathir told CNN. "That's not for me."

"I just don't think I should be around interfering with things."

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