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What Malaysia Can Teach America’s Aging Leadership

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What lessons can the actual 2020 Democratic challengers learn from the world’s oldest elected leader?

Lesson One: Follow an incumbent whose failures would make anyone look good

Najib Razak, Mahathir’s immediate predecessor, first got in trouble in a rather macabre way: A Mongolian model, translator, and mistress of Najib’s top aide was allegedly blackmailing her lover for a share of the kickbacks he’d received from the purchase of two French submarines; she was murdered, and her body was disposed of using high explosives. A few years later, another scandal became public. This one featured 12,000 pieces of jewelry, 500 handbags, Britney Spears popping out of a birthday cake, a Hollywood blockbuster about corrupt Wall Street con-artistry—it even involved Goldman Sachs.

The nation’s sovereign-wealth fund 1MDB (1 Malaysia Development Berhad), the country’s rainy-day account, was essentially robbed to pay for yachts, luxury jets, impressionist paintings, and an Oscar statue won by Marlon Brando. In the end, it cost taxpayers $4.5 billion. That was what brought Dr. M. out of retirement and made him a hero to voters, many of whom hadn’t even been born the last time he held office: taking on a billionaire leader who was monumentally corrupt, contemptuous of clean governance, and surrounded by family and cronies better suited for the court of Louis XVI.

Lesson Two: Take care of mind and body

“His mind is still as sharp as ever,” Ghazzali Khalid, a Kuala Lumpur businessman and former diplomat who has known Mahathir for decades, told me. “He’s constantly trying to learn new things.” (Others have noted his interest in finance, theology, even shipbuilding.) “He tries to exercise the brain, just like the body, to prevent atrophy.”

A medical doctor by training, Mahathir has always taken a disciplined approach to physical fitness. Throughout his life, associates and friends told me, he has shunned alcohol and tobacco. In a nation that celebrates foodie culture with sinfully delicious coconut-milk rendang and nasi lemak, his dining habits are studiously ascetic. A few weeks ago, he posted a video of himself on a more than 6-mile bicycle ride.

“He’s a bit of a superman,” Sophie Lemiere, a political scientist at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University who followed him throughout his most recent campaign, told me. “Despite some health problems, he keeps himself in remarkably good condition.” After two coronary-bypass surgeries, Mahathir still starts his workday early in the morning, and doesn’t finish until late at night. His top aide is said to have difficulty keeping pace with him, and he’s a younger lad: just 81.

On this score, American contenders seem to need little instruction. Joe Biden has challenged Donald Trump to a push-up contest, and it’s hard to imagine him losing. In a viral video from March, Elizabeth Warren outsprinted a reporter much her junior while dashing for a train at New York Penn Station—then gave an interview about economic policy without so much as a pause to catch her breath. And Bernie Sanders has essentially invented an Olympic sport: aerobic arm-waving.

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