The man who for 22 years shaped the modern Malaysian state tells Chris Wright about his disillusionment with his successors, why he feels he has to intervene, and the perils of a free press.
But what about November 1? What would happen the day after he relinquished two decades of absolute power? And the next day, and the next?
“It was very unsettling, I would say,” says Mahathir, with a sad smile. “Because you move away from a position of power to being just an ordinary person. I thought I would … relax, write my memoirs, things like that.”
He pauses. “It was a little bit depressing.”
More than a decade after having relinquished power, Mahathir is a strong-looking 89-year-old, dressed in a wide-collared khaki shirt. He is sitting at a desk in a vast top-floor office that takes a good 20 paces to cross, past a model Formula One car, a classic old rifle and a host of furniture.
This office, at the Albukhary Foundation, next door to the angular jags of the National Mosque of Malaysia, is one of four he maintains: he has another in the Petronas Towers (whose creation he was responsible for), and a third in the offices of the Perdana Leadership Foundation (whose creation he was responsible for), which are in the federal capital of Putrajaya (whose creation he was responsible for). It is difficult to avoid Mahathir-era landmarks in Kuala Lumpur.
If there has been a single theme to life after power for Mahathir, it would have to be disillusionment. There is almost no subject that does not swiftly turn to his resentment of the people who followed him into office and their failure to seek his counsel.
“I thought the party [United Malays National Organisation] might use me, ask for my views,” he says, with what seems like genuine sadness. “But it turned out that the party doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
He seems to have forgotten his commitment, when still in office, to stay out of politics in retirement. What of his pre-departure pledge that “when I leave, I leave completely”?
“Well, I was practically forced to [return],” he says. “Because I didn’t expect such bad treatment by the new prime minister, who basically I elevated to that position.
“I don’t hold any grudge against people,” he says, the first of several comments in the interview that appear unlikely in the extreme: Mahathir’s ability to remember a slight for years and even decades is legendary. But it’s clear that Mahathir feels he was owed something by Abdullah for having brought his successor to power, despite earlier opposition. “I thought he would be, not grateful to me, but at least not vicious to me. And he was.
“Within two weeks he changed everything. Rejected all the things I had started, which he promised to deliver.”
In 2006, at the 57th UMNO general assembly, Abdullah declared an end to Mahathir’s economic legacy and the grandiose projects his predecessor had initiated.
“It was not only all the rejection, but what he did was not right for the country,” says Mahathir. “It was an abuse of power that I could not tolerate so I had to come back.”
In 2009, Mahathir helped to bring down his successor, and was delighted to see another of his apparent protégés take the reins. Najib Razak remains prime minister. Now, though, Mahathir doesn’t like him much either.
“Well, I had great hopes for him,” he says. “I felt my relationship with him would be very close and at least I would have the opportunity to give some views to him. Unfortunately, for the first six months, he totally ignored me.”
Najib failed to reinstate the Mahathir-planned megaprojects that Abdullah had mothballed, notably a bridge to Singapore.
“I began to have doubts about his performance. I tried to tolerate, I tried to support him during the election, I campaigned for him. But eventually I had to tell him I am not supporting him any more.”
Mahathir, it seems, would struggle to like any prime minister for any length of time unless that man governed by consulting him, or was him. Musa Hitam, a one-time deputy to Mahathir, once said that his former boss suffers from PMS – “post-prime ministerial syndrome”. Does he see any candidate he admires?
“The people in the party do not want to have any capable people join them, because it may result in their not getting the kind of positions they want. So the party is shrinking in intellect, so much so that we don’t have any candidates.”
Asked what his role in Malaysian politics and life should be now, Mahathir spares a wry smile. “Well, I should really retire and not interfere.” He’s surely joking: Mahathir’s is a dry wit and not everything he says should be taken at face value.
“I believe that every leader has a right to implement his own policy. But when I see things that are done that are not right, I feel that I have to have my say.”
These days, he does that chiefly through a blog, Chedet.cc – a name taken from a childhood nickname conferred on him by his sisters. It is a consistently strident body of work, as one might expect given the tag line: “Blogging to unblock”.
In the blog, until recently beneath the incongruous herald of a pizza delivery ad, he rails against the issues of the day, from traffic in Kuala Lumpur to intervention in Syria, from the nature of modern Islam to racial polarisation and the endless question of the Malaysian national car. His posts take an ordered, numbered form, not always reaching an obvious conclusion but never short of boisterous opinion. Thus does Mahathir put his country and faith to rights, shouting not from a rooftop but from a desktop, to the digital masses.
This leads us to his views on the freedom of the press, which he long acted against when in power but has sometimes called for since having left office.
“There is no such thing as absolute freedom of the press, not even in the most advanced countries in the world,” he says. “There are things you just don’t say, because it will destabilise the environment. Malaysia is particularly sensitive: we have three races here and 29 different tribes. We are divided not just by race but by religion, language, culture and economic performance. If you allow people to say what they like, there will be violence, confrontations and all that. We need stability.”
He thinks that freedom of the press has improved, he says, to Malaysia’s detriment: “They say we have to be liberal. Look at the situation now. Races are at each other’s throats. What benefit does it do to us? Nothing.”
But Mahathir himself said, in 2006, and apparently straight-faced: “Where is the press freedom?” Surely now that it is him who is being silenced, he must feel differently?
“The reason I started the blog was [because] I was actually prevented from meeting people, during my successor’s term,” he says. “I was not allowed to meet people, I was not allowed to talk to people, I couldn’t meet ministers, I couldn’t meet members of my party, and everything about me was blocked. Nothing about me can be in the press, except something that is derogatory. Because of that, I had to make use of the media.
“But I have been responsible in the media. I don’t say things that are not true. I know [the things Mahathir says] are true. People can check.”
We turn to his views on Islam, about which he has been every bit as critical as he has of other religions. It appears a constant source of irritation to him that a religion of over a billion people can somehow manage to be oppressed, and he has claimed that Muslims have only themselves to blame for this. But he has also said some interesting things about the need for a moderate interpretation of Islam.
“The teachings of the Prophet are that the religion is good for you,” he says. “It is a way of life, not just a faith. And if you follow the teachings, everything will be fine. What is happening today is not something that is taught by religion. Religion says you can’t kill each other. What are they doing? What are they doing?
“It is the interpretation of the religion that is wrong, not the religion. The religion is right,” says Mahathir. “Islam is a moderate religion. All Muslims should be moderate. There is no such thing as an extreme religion, just an extremist kind of interpretation. And if you are extreme, it is against Islam.”
Clearly a devoted and learned Muslim himself, Mahathir is nevertheless firmly against the imposition of many sharia laws in Malaysia.
“People want to introduce stoning to death? That is not in the Koran. The Koran says that God does not like people who create instability and turmoil in society. You cannot impose Muslim law on non-Muslims in Malaysia. This is what my religion teaches me.”
How does the Malaysian public view him now?
“I move around, on the ground,” he says. “I’m not like other big shots, who never go out. I go to the shops, I go to the markets. People come up, to say hello, to say thank you.
“There are no Gallup polls here but I think, by and large, I am still not unpopular.”
IN MAHATHIR’S 800-PAGE memoirs, one sentence stands out more than any other: “Anwar should have been the prime minister of Malaysia today. But if he is not, it is because of his own actions.”
Anwar Ibrahim, his one-time deputy and anointed successor, was jailed under Mahathir’s watch. A widely repeated view in the West is that the sodomy charges that were brought against Anwar, damaging in conservative Muslim Malaysia, were concocted to thwart his attempts to push Mahathir out of government. But the section before the above sentence makes it seem that Mahathir attributes Anwar’s downfall to his homosexuality alone.
How can it be right that a man’s sexuality – especially his alleged sexuality (Anwar is married to the supportive Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and the couple have six children) stops him from being considered as a leader?
Mahathir sits back, frowns then sighs, with what seems like resignation or even boredom.
“Different people have different cultures,” he says. “In the West, what he does is normal, everybody does it, so what? In our society, that is not acceptable. It exposes him to blackmail, you see.
“And for a person who is going to lead the country to have that kind of behaviour is not acceptable. And we see that the people who are under him fear him. So in the West this is not a crime. Our perception of what is criminal and what is not differ, but it is our perception in this country that matters to us.
“We cannot have a person like that, with no moral values.”
Mahathir mentions “a story in America, where a president sleeps with one of his secretaries”, presumably a reference to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern the then United States president had an “inappropriate relationship” with.
“That is acceptable in America,” says Mahathir. “The institution of marriage and family is now gone. People accept if you want to sleep with anybody, you can. But here the value systems are different.
“That [Anwar] would have succeeded me is nothing that I have not said. I knew I had to go. I was prepared to go way back in 1998, after the Commonwealth Games [which were held in Kuala Lumpur]. But because of these things happening, I had to stay back. I am not greedy for power. I wanted to stop earlier.”
He ended up staying until 2002. “Then I announced my resignation. Not many dictators,” he adds with characteristic dryness, “announce their resignation. But I did, because I didn’t want to stay on and overstay my welcome. And he would have taken my place, if he [was of] good character.” He says Anwar was trying to push him out towards the end. “But even that, I didn’t care, because I was going out anyway.”
BEFORE LONG, CONVERSATION returns to Mahathir’s loss of influence. Is he frustrated?
“To a certain extent, of course. People come to me, saying, ‘Please do something. I can’t do anything’.” He reconsiders. “Now I have the blog I can say it and sometimes I can make myself heard. But papers refuse to publish what I say. They may report about me sometimes. But at one time there was a complete blackout.
“Not because the government asked them to, but because the Malaysian media is afraid of annoying the government.”
It is difficult to stifle a smile at his complaints about the unyielding strength of the state. Sir Murray MacLehose was the governor of Hong Kong the year Mahathir came to power, Tung Chee-hwa its post-colonial chief executive when he left, with the entire epochs of Sir Edward Youde, Sir David Wilson and Chris Patten in between. Mahathir was the state; he built it. Does he feel responsible for the strength of state institutions and the compliance of the media?
“It is not that I am a victim of something I created,” he says, strident now. “We are supposed to be more liberal, but that is only on the surface. You are more liberal to some people, but not to me. I can’t say what I want to say. There is a voluntary censorship of me on the part of the press.”
Is he still in touch with any of the other world leaders of his era?
“Most of them are very old now, and some have died: [Nelson] Mandela, I used to know [Yasser] Arafat very well, and, of course, the European leaders. Most of them are retired and they are not active. I don’t keep up with them.”
Amid the broiling sense of bitterness and regret, Mahathir has found time for hobbies. Something of a craftsman, he used to do a lot of metalwork, and he continues to ride horses, sometimes doing so in Argentina.
And family is important for Mahathir. His wife of almost 60 years, Dr Siti Hasmah, was his first and only girlfriend. They have seven children, three of them adopted.
Daughter Marina is a writer and Aids activist – the author Tom Plate calls her “a one-lady feminist movement in Malaysia” – but only one of the elder statesman’s children has made any real headway in politics: Mukhriz, who is now the chief minister of the State of Kedah.
“During my time, they [his children] were not allowed to contest,” Mahathir says. “After I stepped down, I didn’t think it was fair to stand in their way, but they have to do things on their own. You don’t see me going around campaigning for my son.
People still recognise the name, of course. But [any success Mukhriz has is] not because I purposely hold up a card saying, ‘I love you’. It’s not my way.”(alluding to current PM Najib’s supporters)
Two of his children were adopted from an orphanage in Pakistan.
“I went to Pakistan, saw the situation there, and thought, ‘If they are orphans, I will do a little bit’,” he says. “I regard them not as adopted children; I regard them as my children. They are given my name. I have a close family.”
The disarming thing about this interview has been the uncharacteristic frequency with which Mahathir has smiled: a bittersweet one, in the main, but a smile nonetheless. Has he finally mellowed with age?
“Well, to a certain extent, I suppose. I am more tolerant now. I try to appreciate that I am no longer the prime minister; that things cannot be the same as when I was prime minister. I’m not particular about my status, my titles, or how people treat me.
“I don’t mind,” he says, unconvincingly but with firm eye contact, “that I’m not prime minister.
“I would like to see the country progress, that’s the only thing.” And then he looks down at his desk. “I am already 89. I don’t have much more time to live. I just want to enjoy my retirement.