At 93, Mahathir is writing an unexpected chapter in his legacy. During his first, 22-year tenure as Prime Minister, from 1981 to 2003, he turned Malaysia into one of Southeast Asia’s economic tigers, but his ornery disregard for the judiciary and the press hinted at autocratic leanings. Last year, he returned from seclusion to run for office on an anti-corruption platform, leading a new political party to a shocking victory over incumbent Najib Razak.
Mahathir is now tackling the endemic corruption plaguing the country’s institutions, and has brought Najib to court on charges connected to the 1MDB scandal, a sprawling malfeasance case that has ensnared Wall Street bankers and government officials (Najib denies the charges). Mahathir and his party are now moving to protect judicial independence and press freedom, recognizing that they help keep a democracy honest.