KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters Life!) - A musical on the life of Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is rocking the stage in the Southeast Asian nation, although the country remains divided over the legacy of its longest serving leader.
The two-hour long performance in the capital city, which features lively song and dance routines, narrates the struggles of a medical doctor who went on to become one of Asia’s longest serving prime ministers.
“This is a contribution from the entertainment industry to deliver his vision to the audience. We want to tell the new generation who is Tun Mahathir,” said actor Esma Daniel, who played the role of Mahathir in his adulthood.
Credited as Malaysia’s “Master Planner,” Mahathir transformed a commodities-based backwater into a modern trading nation, and inspired the building of architectural marvels like the 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers in 1998, then the world’s tallest building.
For many, however, Mahathir was a controversial leader.
Critics blame him for curbing free speech, stifling political opponents and allowing corruption, cronyism and nepotism to flourish under his rule, none of which feature in the musical.
“Well it’s a matter of popularity and unpopularity, he’s a very strong character, a very polarizing person,” said Barry Wain, the author of Malaysian Maverick, a book about Mahathir.
The musical presents the now 85-year old Mahathir as a visionary, exploring his childhood days selling balloons to make extra pocket money, right through to his ascent to the country’s top job in 1981. He retired in 2003.
One of the highlights of the musical is a dance sequence where Mahathir fights and ultimately vanquishes his biggest political foe — former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
Mahathir handpicked Anwar to succeed him but the two later fell out during the 1998 Asian financial crisis. He was charged and convicted for abuse of power and sodomy, sparking mass riots which rocked the capital, giving birth to a reform movement.
In the musical, Mahathir fights Anwar with a “keris,” or Malay dagger, symbolizing the struggle for political support from the country’s majority Malays whose allegiances were split between the two.
Mahathir also pursued a pugnacious style of diplomacy that irritated his biggest trading partner, the United States, and led to a decade-long feud with Australia, although he won many fans among leaders of developing countries.
Even in retirement Mahathir remains an influential political voice and keeps a popular blog (chedet.co.cc/chedetblog/).
“Mahathir was around for a very long time, so he’s still got a very strong following, and he’s still got a lot of detractors, and he’s just such a forceful personality with so many ideas,” said Amirani Yahya, a financial consultant who watched the show.
Additional reporting by Angie Teo and Razak Ahmad; Editing by Jonathon Burch