Mahathir: Why it's time to go
(CNN) -- For months, perhaps years, it was Malaysia's best-kept secret.
When Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced in June this year that he planned to resign it was as if a whole nation, including his most vocal critics, had gone into shock.
In a remarkable speech on live television Mahathir, or "Dr M" as he is widely known, broke down in tears as he announced that after more than two decades in office he was standing down, both as leader of his party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), and as prime minister.
Opponents suggested the whole episode was staged -- part of a spectacular test of his party's loyalty to their leader.
Whether than was the case or not, it was a dramatic moment for Malaysian politics.
In fact, says Mahathir, it came four years later than he originally intended, but it still took everyone, including his own family, by complete surprise.
In an exclusive interview recorded in October 2002 with CNN TalkAsia anchor Lorraine Hahn, Asia's longest serving political leader revealed that he had originally intended to stand down in 1998, but political and economic events conspired to prevent him from realizing that plan.
As the Asian economic meltdown hit Malaysia, the country was also rocked by the controversial dismissal and subsequent arrest of Mahathir's deputy and heir-apparent, Anwar Ibrahim.
"I had meant to step down in 1998," Mahathir told CNN. "But because of the crisis and also the problem with my deputy I had to postpone the resignation which I planned for after the Commonwealth Games."
It was, he said, a testing time -- and not one for a long-standing leader to abandon his party.
Nonetheless, when the time eventually came to announce his departure, the impact of the moment took even Mahathir by surprise.
"I thought I could avoid being emotional," he says. "But under the circumstances I suppose I feel I lost control of myself."
"I wasn't dreading the moment, I was looking forward to being able to announce my resignation and to step down immediately."
The pressure to stay on, Mahathir recalls, was immense. As a result, not one of his party colleagues on the podium with him had any idea what he was about to announce.
"I didn't tell anybody at all, because several times before I had discussed my possible resignation with some of my colleagues and they all said 'no, no, no you cannot.'"
"So I decided the only way to do it was to make a public announcement without telling anyone, including my wife."
The announcement came as a bombshell to party colleagues, most of whom had known no other leader during their entire political career.
"Some people say they would miss me, but I think they can do without me," Mahathir told CNN.
After hours of frantic meetings Mahathir was eventually persuaded to stay on and oversee a gradual transfer of power to his deputy, Abdullah Badawi.
"My family accepted it," Mahathir said. "But the party felt that it was too sudden and they needed time to adjust -- they appealed to me and I had to give in."
After the turmoil of the Anwar episode, he felt UMNO was "back on its old footing" and capable of facing up to life without him.
Now that the decision has been made, the man who for many has come to symbolize modern Malaysia says he is positive his departure from political leadership will be total.
So does he see any foreseeable scenario in which he might be persuaded to stay on?
Answer: "No" -- straightforward, blunt and typical of the man.
There was, he said, no particular reason for the timing of his announcement; no particular straw that broke the camel's back -- rather it was simply the right thing to do at the right time.
"Malaysia has got all the things in place to continue growth," he says.
"The policies are there, the mechanisms are there. So I think even if I am not around, Malaysia can do with other people who are also conversant with our policies."
In neighboring Singapore, when elder statesman Lee Kwan Yew stood down as prime minister he took up a backstage role, overseeing the next generation of leaders from his role as the city-state's "senior minister'.
Mahathir says he has no plans to follow suit.
"No, that's not for me," he says. "I don't think I should be around interfering with things."
"I'll miss the job of course," he adds. "But I think I will stay with the party. I will still work for the party and I want to ensure that the party continues to win."
So what does a man who has led his country for more than two decades leave as his greatest legacy?
For Mahathir, despite the massive physical and infrastructure developments Malaysia has enjoyed over the past 20 years, he says he is most proud of the cultural legacy he leaves.
"The fact that I was able to maintain the racial harmony between the different peoples of Malaysia," he told CNN.
"That was more important -- the fact that during the economic turmoil there was no racial clashes as happened in other countries."
Mahathir says he has full confidence in his deputy, Abdullah Badawi, the man being groomed to take over the helm and building on the Mahathir legacy.
"We believe in the same thing," he said. "We believe in the same methods."
"Of course the styles will be different. But that is alright -- I think it would be good for people to have a change."