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Malaysian leader Mahathir, 93, says he's feeling his age

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Dr Mahathir, 93, on his return to politics

KUALA LUMPUR Leaning back in his chair and admitting he is feeling every one of his 93 years, the world's oldest leader Mahathir Mohamad says his second stint as Malaysian premier is taking its toll as he grapples with everything from fending off China to paying down a mammoth national debt.

"I should be dead now, actually," joked the nonagenarian leader with AFP yesterday.

The veteran statesman is as sharp and straight-talking as ever, and not one to shy away from offering frank views on controversial issues, including gay rights and anti-Semitism.

But it's not been an easy ride for Dr Mahathir - who has suffered increasing health problems - since his ramshackle alliance won a shock victory at May elections and toppled the corruption-plagued regime of Najib Razak.

Since then, a host of former leaders have been arrested for corruption, many linked to the political saga around sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, in which billions of dollars were allegedly looted in a fraud from Singapore to Switzerland.

Aside from the crackdown on corruption, Dr Mahathir is seeking to pay off a US$250 billion (S$344 billion) national debt, and has cancelled a string of costly China-backed mega-projects, risking the ire of the world's number-two economy.

On top of that, his own coalition is an uneasy alliance.

It was cobbled together as a means of ousting Najib and is packed with politicians who once vehemently opposed him, including former nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, now his presumptive successor.

"It is exhausting," conceded Dr Mahathir.

His victory took almost everyone - including his own alliance - by surprise, and amounted to a political earthquake that ousted the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition after six decades in power.

After years of graft scandals and divisive racial politics in the multi-ethnic country, voters had enough of BN, with the 1MDB scandal the tipping point.

Now, Najib and his luxury-loving wife Rosmah Mansor have been arrested - Najib has now been hit with 38 corruption charges - and both are likely to face long jail terms.

Cash, jewellery and designer handbags worth over US$270 million was seized from properties linked to the pair.

Other figures aligned with the previous government, from the central bank chief to the attorney-general, have left their positions, and Dr Mahathir and his team are scrambling to fill big holes in the administration.

"I had to get rid of people who in the past, under the previous government, had... politically been involved with government," said Dr Mahathir .

Adding to his difficulties, Dr Mahathir has risked souring relations with Beijing by cancelling Chinese-financed railway and gas pipelines projects, which were viewed as dubious deals struck by Najib as he sought money to pay off debts.

Speculation about whether Dr Mahathir will stick to a promise to hand power to Mr Anwar within two years of taking office is also a major distraction.

The pair's stormy relationship has loomed over Malaysian politics ever since Dr Mahathir sacked Mr Anwar, then a powerful deputy premier, in the 1990s, and Mr Anwar was thrown into jail on sodomy and corruption charges.

Following May's election victory, Mr Anwar was released and pardoned and earlier this month was re-elected to parliament.

Dr Mahathir brushed off the suggestion that Mr Anwar's return could cause tensions: "I have worked with him before... I have no problem, I can work with everybody." - AFP

US indicts Jho Low, former banker in 1MDB probe

NEW YORK US officials unveiled criminal indictments yesterday against a former official with scandal-plagued Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, and an ex-Goldman Sachs banker involved in an elaborate alleged bribery scheme.

The US Justice Department arrested ex-Goldman Sachs banker Ng Chong Hwa in Malaysia yesterady, while the former 1MDB official, Low Taek Jho, better known as Jho Low, remains at large, officials said in a press release.

Another ex-Goldman official, Tim Leissner, pleaded guilty and agreed to pay US$43.7 million (S$60 million) in ill-gotten gains.

The 1MDB scandal has roiled politics in Malaysia, leading to criminal charges against former prime minister Najib Razak.

Meanwhile, reports said that Low contacted the top adviser to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad last week to seek immunity, a broadcaster reported on Wednesday.

"He did not call me, but he called an officer of mine last week," Mr Daim Zainuddin, who chairs Dr Mahathir's Council of Eminent Persons, was quoted by Astro Awani as saying.

Mr Daim said Low has been requesting many things, including a meeting with him and Dr Mahathir.


Mr Daim said he demanded Low return to Malaysia and provide names involved in the corruption scandal.

"He kept quiet. I said, 'You cannot deliver, so why should I talk to you?'" he said.

Mr Daim had previously said Low attempted to contact him several times on Sept 6.

The US Justice Department said a total of US$4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB through a complex web of transactions and fraudulent shell companies, and Low orchestrated the theft.

In a related development, US court has allowed the sale of a private jet allegedly bought by Jho Low with money from 1MDB, court filings showed.

The Bombardier Global 5000 jet is among US$1.7 billion in assets allegedly purchased by Jho Low and his associates, the US Justice Department has said.

Earlier this week, Malaysia put up for auction the Equanimity, a US$250 million luxury yacht, also allegedly bought by Low. - THE STAR, AFP, REUTERS