Pic by Tommy Chu

Within the 18 hours of work every day during this campaigning period, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad will sneak in time to read Ken Follett’s Winter of the World. “It’s a thick, thick book,” Mahathir extends his thumb and index finger apart. While many a people quarter his age open Instagram and look at cat photos or Boomerang images when taking a break from work, Mahathir thumbs through a 940-page novel that blends fictional characters into real-world, early 20th century world politics.

Mahathir’s interest in history may pale in comparison to legacy of creating history. His 22-year reign as Malaysia’s Prime Minister is the longest in Asia. If Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) wins the 14th General Election (GE14), he would become the only two-time Malaysian Prime Minister – and the world’s oldest at appointment, at 93 years of age.

Like a plot from a novel, Mahathir’s ascent is a tale of ‘rags to riches,’ an outsider who broke the trend of blue bloods and bourgeoisie laying claim to the premiership. His time at the helm of the nation was dominated by the spirit of Malaysia Boleh, driven by his vision that we attain developed statues by 2020.

Rather than being imbued with a newfound work ethic, a large segment of Malaysians’ deference towards Mahathir, who is also called Tun M, turned to an obsession for the superlatives – which Mahathir has been accused of having as well.

When their feats could not set the world record, Malaysians have the Malaysia Book of Records to fall back on. Instead of having an appetite for the globe, Malaysians took the advantage of the Malaysia Book of Records’ relaxed stance towards creating records. There would be people trying to get their names into the record book every day, where many feats have been ridiculed as silly or indicative of Malaysia’s insecurity. Case in point: the largest bowl of Sarawak Laksa, the largest gathering of old people at a circus, crafting the tallest pencil, and hosting the most number of people preparing teh tarik simultaneously.

Settling with becoming the big fish in a small pond is the antithesis of the “think-big” mentality Mahathir espoused.

“If there is anything I regret (during my time as the Prime Minister), it was that I was not strong enough to force a change in the thinking of the people. I had relied more on talking, speech-writing, persuasion, and even prayers. But those did not achieve the objectives I set myself for,” Mahathir says in an interview with August Man Malaysia.

Defending the Privatisation Policy

Soon after Mahathir took office in 1981, he instructed the Economics Planning Unit (EPU) to devise the Privatisation Policy. Taking inspiration from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Mahathir sought to transfer state-owned businesses and assets to individuals. Theoretically, this would bring a two-fold benefit. The government would reduce its fiscal burden, and leaving the businesses to the private sector would yield higher productivity as they chased for profitability.

However, political analysts and adversaries accused the privatisation exercises as vehicles to enrich government cronies, and the string of failures lent credence to their criticisms, particularly since the deals favoured the private sector more than the government. Then, many of those Mahathir had trusted with owning the strategic government assets racked up debts that smothered their cash flows, hence they ended up having to be bailed out with public funds. Mahathir had to take cover from the insults hurled at him after buying the enterprises at a steep premium, lest that these companies’ collapses would create a systemic effect to the country. But doing so would let the failed business owners leave unscathed, at the expense of the rakyat.

“If these people (who were entrusted with owning government-owned businesses and assets) borrowed RM1 million, they would channel only RM500,000 towards the business, and spend another RM500,000 on something else. Effectively, they doubled their interest rate. On RM500,000 capital, you have to earn enough to pay interest on RM1 million,” he illustrates the summary of the failures of the Renongs and the Malaysian Airline Systems of the world.

“I gave opportunities to people who had the capacity, who had shown some success. But I also gave some to people who lacked the track record, and they lost money.”

“For me, out of 10 (privatisation attempts), if I can have two or three success stories, I think I’ve done well. You don’t expect to have 10-for-10 success rate,” he says.

And Mahathir also used the Privatisation Policy as a quasi-sequel to the New Economic Policy (NEP), an affirmative action programme that ran after the May 13, 1969 racial riots until 1990. Many of the individuals who were awarded the state-owned businesses and concessions were of Malay descent, which mostly ran in the coterie of former Minister of Finance Tun Daim Zainuddin.

Mahathir justifies the awards. It is not based on racial preference, but a matter of balancing the concentration of wealth among Malaysians, he says. Throughout the country’s history, the Malays have been behind the Chinese in terms of incomes.

“How do you chase a person running? You have to run faster. So you have to give a boost to the people doing the chasing, and these are the Malays. It’s not a matter of racial discrimination. If there is disparity between the rich and the poor, let alone in a single-ethnic country, that would cause conflicts – as you know there were revolutions in Russia, France, and even Britain.”

“The many weak points in the Malaysian government”

Mahathir also admits that his time ruling the country saw the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), his former political party, being infested with greed and corruption. I used to ask myself when I was the Prime Minister, ‘How long can I last?’ ‘How long can UMNO last?’ And I saw a trend which was very unhealthy; instead of focusing on what they can do for the country, everyone who joined UMNO during my time thought of what they could get for themselves,” Mahathir recalls.

Perhaps the Go-Go years had brought immense wealth to Malaysia, prompting a spate of developments to mushroom in this young nation, which allowed some of the politicians to commit graft and indulge in leakages. Some of the projects green-lighted by Mahathir back then turned out to be white elephants, and some of his policies were derided as a waste of public funds and a breeding ground for cronyism.

“We have now recognised the many weak points in the Malaysian government. Among which is that the power of the Prime Minister can be abused. So that means we have to curb the power of the Prime Minister; he should have only two terms, not more,” Mahathir says.

Mahathir stresses that he had never flouted the Constitution. That’s probably because he amended it when he saw fit. In 1988, he consolidated the three separate branches of the government under one roof that he can oversee. Since then, the judiciary is no longer an independent body, but one that is controlled by the Parliament – which, throughout Malaysia’s history so far, was held in majority by Barisan Nasional (BN; National Front), a political coalition that Mahathir once headed.

Mahathir also now opposes the Prime Minister simultaneously holding the Finance Ministry portfolio, which was a precedent set by himself. He recently clarified that the only reason he did so was because someone needed to step in while finding a suitable candidate[1], and he wrote in his memoirs that adding on the portfolio as Minister of Finance was “burdensome”[2].

Mahathir left UMNO in 2016 to form Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM; United Malaysian Indigenous Party). He began to question Caretaker Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Razak, and his administration in the latter half of 2014, chiefly over the scandals emanating from sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

Even though Mahathir exemplified the saying “there are no permanent enemies in politics”, he says it was difficult at first having to work with the people that he used to trade barbs with (and even arrest).

“They (the opposition) used to call me ‘Dictator’, ‘Firaun’ (the Pharoah[3]), and all that. And I used to demonise them also. But when I launched the Citizens’ Declaration, they supported it. We have one common ground, and that is the removal of Najib as the Prime Minister. Thus we cannot dwell on our past differences.”

Democratic Action Party’s (DAP) Economic Advisor and politician Tony Pua, who had been heavily critical of Mahathir’s policies[4], welcomes the latter into the Pakatan Harapan fold, “because he knows things are no longer right in this country – whether it was attributable to his policies or otherwise.”

“He wants to right things, and he obviously wants to correct his legacy.  Hence we are working with Tun M precisely because he has agreed to support our principles and policy reforms,” Pua speaks to August Man Malaysia on Mahathir.

The destruction of a decades-long relationship

One newspaper editor recounts during an interview he did with Mahathir, the editor asked whether Mahathir agreed that Caretaker Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Razak’s leadership style mimics the former premier’s.

Mahathir, who was feeling relaxed earlier, turned red and stared at the editor, “I am nothing like Najib.”

Mahathir loathes of being compared to Najib. He calls Malaysia “one of the most corrupt countries in the world” under the latter’s watch. And he gets hurt when people call him a dictator. If Najib was indeed Mahathir’s “political son”, then Mahathir is trying to prove that the apple falls miles away from the tree. Throughout the interview, every time he lists the things that he believes Najib is doing wrong, Mahathir offers footnotes of what he did differently “during my time” as Prime Minister.

When Mahathir speaks to August Man Malaysia, he perennially brings up the caretaker government’s ballooning debt load, the billions in loans from China’s state-owned enterprises, and Najib’s alleged abuse of power – like a patient in pain repeating his symptoms, wishing for the doctor to get rid of them immediately.

The irony is not lost on long-time political observers and analysts. After all, Najib inherited a government system that has been shaped by Mahathir. Both also have jailed their critics, sacked those seen as political threats, and looked for loopholes in the law (or created new ones) to cling onto power. And some have said that Mahathir’s attempt to overthrow Najib is a karmic tale, with Mahathir taking over the role of the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, who spent the last years of his life exhorting for Mahathir’s removal from office.

But unlike the Tunku, Mahathir is throwing himself back into the world of politics.

For long-time political observers, GE14 is seen to be a battle between the teacher and the student. The unstoppable force and the immovable object. The longest-reigning Prime Minister and the Teflon Prime Minister.

“History will show that Mahathir had only gratitude for Najib’s father Tun Abdul Razak Hussein in getting him back to UMNO[5] after the 1969 riots, and making him a minister to boot,” The Malaysian Insight Editor Jahabar Sadiq narrates to August Man Malaysia how the Mahathir-Najib relationship started.

Describing Najib as Mahathir’s “political son”, Jahabar says Mahathir nourished Najib’s political career with the needed tutelage and patronage. Najib was part of the Team Wawasan, along with Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Tan Sri Muhammad Haji Muhd Taib, who were recruited by then-Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to assume UMNO’s Vice Presidency.

Najib’s rise was cemented with his two stints as Defence Minister, and Education Minister, which allowed him to network among civil servants and build up his strength within UMNO and BN, says Jahabar.

“Some would say Mahathir wanted his political son Najib to succeed him. But he decided that Najib wasn’t quite ready, and put Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi instead.”

In an interview with Bloomberg last week, Najib said his relationship with Mahathir was broken because of the latter is “obsessed about control, about calling the shots.” Abdullah’s reign as Prime Minister, too, was cut short because Mahathir was unhappy with the premier’s various decisions[6].

“There is this gentleman’s rule, so to speak; you don’t get David Cameron or (other) previous Prime Ministers in the United Kingdom telling Theresa May what to do. One day when I am no longer in office, I would not want to impose on my successor,” Najib said in the Bloomberg interview.

Correcting his legacy

Had Mahathir stayed quiet, dissenters would continue to criticise Mahathir’s old policies long after he is gone, and associate his name with Najib’s – who has been named one of the world leaders less popular than U.S. President Donald Trump, and Asia Pacific’s worst Finance Minister.

And Mahathir knows that if he wants something done right, he has to do it himself.

Concerns about Mahathir going back to his old ways, should Pakatan Harapan win GE14, is unwarranted. Pua says: “In Pakatan Harapan, there are no taikos (bosses).  We are equal partners and whatever that has been agreed on in our manifestos cannot be reneged unilaterally, even when Tun M becomes the Prime Minister.”

“In fact, Tun M’s very position as the Prime Minister is subject to the support of all component parties, ensuring that there will be a natural check and balance to realise all our promises,” Pua adds.

But if Pakatan Harapan does not succeed, Mahathir can rest knowing that he at least has tried, and he can finally sit through reading Winter of the World in peace… or can he?


[1] Mahathir however did not hand over the Finance Ministry portfolio after he replaced Tun Daim Zainuddin in 2001. He held on to the position until his retirement in 2003. His successor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, continued with this trend.

[2] Mahathir Mohamad, A Doctor in the House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (Selangor: MPH Group Publishing Sdn. Bhd., 2011), 536

[3] Muslims generally regard the Pharaoh as a cruel and egotistical ruler, due to one of the Egyptian kings’ defiance against Moses. The Pharaoh in question is believed to be Ramesses II. Mahathir’s detractors are fond of calling the former premier “MahaFiraun”, a portmanteau of his name and Firaun.

[4] Tony Pua wrote a whole book that serves as a criticism of Malaysia’s economic policies, titled The Tiger that Lost its Roar: A Tale of Malaysia’s Political Economy. There were even three whole chapters written on Mahathir’s Privatisation Policy, with each focusing on one industry (highways, power plants, and water supply services). Pua tells August Man Malaysia: “I stand by all my criticisms of many of Tun M’s policies of the past.”

[5] It was during his expulsion from UMNO in 1969 that Mahathir composed the polemical The Malay Dilemma. Apart from accusing the Malays to be genetically inferior due to a long tradition of inbreeding, this book contains sweeping statements on other races and racial slurs as well. The book was prohibited from sale for 11 years, with the ban lifted, naturally, soon after Mahathir became the Prime Minister in 1981.

[6] During August Man Malaysia’s interview, Mahathir lists Najib’s predecessors twice – with both times omitting Abdullah’s name. He also commends “the four Prime Ministers” that came before Najib, conveniently forgetting that the latter is the sixth Malaysian Prime Minister.

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