Malaysia without Mahathir Mohamad as its leader is difficult to imagine, yet from Friday evening, that is what the world will have to get used to. When he resigns after 22 years as prime minister and hands over to his deputy, Abdullah Badawi, an era will truly have ended. The occasion will be momentous, not least because half of Malaysia's 23 million people have known no other leader. Supporters will shed tears, as members of his United Malays National Organisation (Umno) political party did when he announced his intention last year, and critics will have higher hopes for political and social reform. In the short term, such prospects are unlikely - Dr Mahathir's shadow cuts long and deep through the country he transformed from a quiet backwater into one of Southeast Asia's leading industrialised economies. Admirers are not short of words and their praise fills the columns of government-run media. An institute dedicated to his thinking has opened at a university in his home state, Kedah, a library in his name is being planned and compulsory higher education courses teaching his policies are already under way. Even opponents, scanning the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur's skyline, admit Malaysia has come a long way since Dr Mahathir replaced the ailing Hussein Onn as prime minister in 1981. Still, most stumble over words to characterise the legacy of the man perceived in many different ways. The former editor-in-chief of the Umno-connected New Straits Times newspaper, Kadir Jasin, paused when confronted with the question on Sunday, then concluded: 'There's too much to say - I really don't know where to start.' Dr Mahathir, 77, who has seven children and 13 grandchildren, had done much for Malaysia, taking it from the lower reaches of development and taken it to more advanced levels. 'There are a lot of things for which Mahathir Mohamad is not really understood - he himself made a point that nobody really understands him,' Mr Jasin, who now heads a stable of lifestyle magazines, concluded. 'Mahathir can be absolutely nasty and absolutely nice. He can be absolutely forthright and he can be absolutely shy about certain things. He has in the 22 years defied all the conventional rules and thinking.' Perhaps that is because the outgoing prime minister has an unconventential background for Malaysian politics. Although born in Kedah's capital, Alor Setar, the home town of the nation's founding father and first prime minister, Abdul Rahman, he opted to become a medical doctor rather than the more guaranteed profession to political greatness, a lawyer. He went to university in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and returned in 1953 to join the British colonial government as a medical officer. He resigned in 1957 - the year Malaya won independence - to set up his own medical practice in Alor Setar. Throughout that time, he was active in politics, having been a founding member of Umno, the dominant party in the ruling National Front coalition, in 1946. In 1964, the year after Malaysia was created as a federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo, now known as Sabah, Dr Mahathir ran for and won a seat in the federal parliament. During that time, he began to publicly espouse his view that the Malay race should be given priority over Malaysia's Chinese and Indian minorities. Chinese-majority Singapore left the federation in 1965 amid disputes and Dr Mahathir lost his parliamentary seat in elections in 1969. His now forceful advocacy of Malay nationalism, which had brought him into conflict with Rahman, also caused his expulsion from Umno. In the political wilderness, he set out his ideas the following year in the controversial book, The Malay Dilemma. He wrote that Malays had been marginalised under British colonialism and criticised them for accepting a second-class status to the Chinese. Rahman retired the year the book was published and was succeeded by Abdul Razak. But Dr Mahathir's views won increasing support from young Umno leaders and he was invited back into the party in 1973 and won re-election to parliament unopposed in 1974. He was appointed education minister and two years later, when Razak died in office and Onn replaced him, also deputy prime minister. Dr Mahathir relinquished the education portfolio following a cabinet reshuffle in January 1978 and took over as trade and industry minister. All the while, he was also moving through the ranks of Umno, a sure route to the country's leadership. He became one of the party's three vice-presidents in 1975 and took over as deputy president three years later. He won the presidency and the prime minister's job on Onn's resignation in 1981. Only twice has his leadership been challenged: at the party's elections in 1987, when Razaleigh Hamzah made a push for power and split Umno, and in 1998, when his deputy and finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim, began speaking out and pushing his own agenda of economic reforms. Mr Razaleigh founded an opposition party that foundered and Anwar was accused of sodomy and corruption and ended up in jail. Under Dr Mahathir's leadership, Umno has won landslide victories in elections, although two of the country's 13 states are now controlled by the opposition Parti se-Islam SeMalaysia, or PAS. Umno is expected to score another overwhelming victory in elections expected to be called in the first few months of next year. With the Malay feudal system of allowing leaders to rule until they either retire or die as a backdrop, Dr Mahathir was allowed free rein to put his policies into practice. He set about changing Malaysia, turning it from an export-driven economy centred on oil, tin and rubber, to a manufacturer. Central to that were his ideas laid out in The Malay Dilemma. Soon, Malays were receiving economic and education advantages over entrepreneurial Chinese and Indians. That was despite Malays comprising 58 per cent of the population, to the 24 per cent of Chinese and 8 per cent Indian. Yet although the incentives have helped create Malay billionaires, Dr Mahathir still believes he has failed in his mission. Earlier this year, he said: 'I feel disappointed because I have achieved too little in the principal task of making my race a successful one - a race that is respected.' Hand-in-hand with the policy has gone attacks on neo-colonialism and people and groups seen as threats. These have included the governments of Australia, Britain and the United States, political opponents, homosexuals and Jews, who he sees as trying to destroy Islam, the national religion. Veteran journalist Ian Stewart, who was Malaysia correspondent for the South China Morning Post during the 1990s, last week put comments down to Dr Mahathir being a racist - despite him also espousing Islam as a religion of tolerance. 'He's a strange and bitter man who doesn't like anyone who's white,' Stewart, the author of the recently published The Mahathir Legacy: A Nation Divided, A Region At Risk, said. 'A Malay journalist friend overheard him tell an audience at a meeting, 'Never trust a white man'.' Malaysia, over the years, had become a reflection of Dr Mahathir. 'There are good and bad things about that - he's pragmatic in some respects, but then he lets his emotions carry him away,' Stewart said from his home in the Australian city of Sydney. 'He's modern in a lot of respects, but he's also old-fashioned. He's a moderate Muslim, but he doesn't know how to deal with the Islamic trends in the world today.' Such juxtaposing views were seen by some analysts as having damaged Malaysia. Respected Malaysian economist Jomo Sundaram believed Dr Mahathir was neither a legendary leader of exceptional vision, as the country's government-controlled media portrayed him, nor a crazy anti-western megalomaniac, as critics inside and outside the country liked to see him. The University of Malaya professor believed the premier's policies, particularly on economic matters, were inconsistent. Some of his policy twists and turns had been made in response to crises, sometimes of his own making. 'Mahathir's interventions in the economy were neither consistently successful nor simply whimsical,' Dr Jomo said. 'Rather, Mahathir leaves behind him a chequered record of bold initiatives, false starts, partial successes and narrow escapes.' These had included trying to get Malaysia to emulate his versions of industrialised Japan and South Korea, especially heavy industrialisation, during his first few years in office and different efforts to counter the 1997 East Asian economic crisis, including some disastrous initiatives in the second half of 1997 before successfully instituting exchange controls from September 1998. Dr Mahathir had a penchant for expensive construction projects, among them the new administrative capital, Putrajaya, with the prime minister's palatial residence as the centrepiece, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the Formula 1 Grand Prix race track at Sepang, and the 110-storey Petronas-owned Kuala Lumpur City Centre Twin Towers, the world's tallest building until the opening in Taiwan last week of the 508-metre Taipei 101. Dr Jomo said the prime minister had also been associated with major speculative failures, including Bank Negara's huge multibillion-dollar losses from massive purchases of sterling before its collapse in September 1992, and the 'disastrous' effort to corner the global tin market in the early 1980s. He believed Dr Mahathir's early responses to the 1997 crisis exacerbated difficulties. Early attempts to stop money from leaving Malaysia caused a 'frantic capital stampede out of the country'. His imposition of capital controls in early September 1998, just before the arrest and jailing of Anwar, was as much to prevent another round of capital flight, following the new political and economic uncertainties, as for the sake of eliminating the offshore ringgit market. 'Mahathir's capital controls and recovery package were well designed and enforced, but nonetheless too late to check the massive capital flight in the preceding 14 months, biased towards favoured crony interests and unnecessary, as it turned out, due to developments which could not have been anticipated,' Dr Jomo said. 'Nevertheless, Mahathir's crisis management was correct in one central and critical respect. He opted for a counter-cyclical reflationary thrust in opposition to the International Monetary Fund and the market's pro-cyclical preferences. 'In doing so, he had to reverse his pre-crisis commitment to capital account convertibility, in line with economic orthodoxy, which had been key to the earlier massive foreign capital inflows into the Malaysian stock market.' Malaysia's economic growth has slowed after a strong recovery in 1999-2000, and he believed its future is uncertain because of its previous heavy reliance on foreign investments, which accounted for the virtual absence of Malaysian captains of industry, and export orientation in a virtually stagnant world economy in competition with lower-cost producers like China. 'It is scarcely comforting that the government's post-crisis policy of domestic-led growth relied largely on public construction projects widely seen as more 'jobs for the boys',' he said. Dr Mahathir bore 'responsibility for his flawed policies and for not checking abuses in high places, political and corporate'. He was also behind some important new economic initiatives internationally, where he was likely to be lionised in developing countries, but dismissed in the North, especially by those who fail to recognise the frustrations he represents. Human rights groups are also staunch critics of the prime minister, claiming that in his bid to retain power, he has restricted political freedom, free speech and basic rights. Most criticised is the use of the Internal Security Act, a British colonial-era which gives authorities the right to detain people without charge or trial. Elizabeth Wong, the secretary-general of the national human rights society, Hakam, doubted change would come quickly because Dr Mahathir had stamped his authority on many areas of society, including public institutions, economic policy and the social psyche. 'He's really torn apart many of the public institutions like the judiciary and anti-corruption agency, to the point that there's little public confidence left in them,' Ms Wong said. But the executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre, Abdul Razak Baginda, believed Dr Mahathir would leave office with a sense of achievement. 'Most tangible are the bricks and mortar,' Mr Baginda said. 'But he has also broken the mental barrier among Malaysians as to their level of achievement.' Although Dr Mahathir is expected to resign as prime minister and Umno president on Friday, he will retain his parliamentary seat until the next election. But few observers expect him to entirely leave the public eye. There is speculation he may take up the role of senior minister, or lead the Organisation of Islamic Conference, preaching his views of a moderate, modern Islam. When he leaves his Putrajaya office for the last time, perhaps even he will be confused about his future - just as many people seem unsure of the worth of his legacy.