It seems Mahathir Mohamad has never adjusted to losing the spotlight.
When Mahathir Mohamad stepped down as Malaysia’s prime minister on October 31, 2003, it represented much more than a changing of the guard.
That day marked the departure of someone who had led Malaysia for 22 years, more than half of its modern history at the time, whose identity was stamped on the country from its institutions to its architecture, its media to its throttled political debate.
When he dutifully handed over a file to his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi — it was, with a symbolism that would become clear in later years, empty — and walked down the front steps of the ministerial building to say goodbye, a flawed but vital part of Malaysia went with him.
Unsettling and Depressing to lose power
But what about November 1? What happens the day after relinquishing two decades of absolute power? And the next day, and the next, and the next? “It was very unsettling, I would say,” he says, with a sad smile. “Because you move away from a position of power to being just an ordinary person. I thought I would spend more time, relax, write my memoirs, things like that.” He pauses. “It was a little bit depressing.”
More than 11 years after leaving 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 and a classic old rifle and a host of furniture and space, in order to greet him. This office, in the Albukhary Foundation next door to the National Mosque of Malaysia, is one of four he maintains: there is another in the Petronas Towers (whose creation he was responsible for), another in the Perdana Leadership Foundation (whose creation he was responsible for), and one in the federal capital of Putrajaya (whose creation he was responsible for).
It can be difficult to avoid Mahathir-era landmarks in Kuala Lumpur these days.
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 at the people who followed him into office and their failure to seek his counsel. “I thought the party might use me, ask for my views,” he says, with what seems genuine sadness. “But it turned out that the party doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
Dejection and disappointment that his voice was not heard
He oozes dejection and disappointment at this slight. But 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”? Why return to the fray?
“Well, I was practically forced to do it,” 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, in the first of several comments in the interview that appear unlikely: Mahathir’s ability to remember a slight for years and even decades is legendary. But it’s clear Mahathir feels his successor owed him something for bringing him to power despite his previous 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. I felt this was not right. It was not only all the rejection, but what he did was not right for the country. It was an abuse of power that I could not tolerate so I had to come back.”
Before long Mahathir got his way and helped to bring down his hand-picked successor, and was delighted to see another of his apparent proteges take the reins: Najib Razak, who remains Prime Minister. Now, though, Mahathir doesn’t like him much either.
Disappointed with Najib that he was ignored and mega-projects not revived
“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.” He failed to reinstate the various Mahathir-planned megaprojects that Badawi 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.”
One suspects Mahathir would have a hard time finding a prime minister he liked for any length of time unless that prime minister governed by consulting him, or were him. There is something in what Musa Hitam, a former deputy to Mahathir, once said about him: that he suffered from PMS — “post-prime ministerial syndrome”.
No suitable candidate to replace Najib
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.”
On Press Freedom and how he is muffled
These days, feeling the press is no longer marching to his tune, Mahathir communicates to the world through a blog, Chedet.cc — a name taken from a childhood nickname conferred on him by his sisters. It is a consistently strident piece of work, as one would expect, with a tagline: “Blogging to unblock”. In it, until recently beneath the incongruous herald of a pizza delivery ad, he rails against the issues of the day, from Kuala Lumpur traffic to intervention in Syria, from the nature of modern Islam to racial polarisation and the endless question of the Malaysian national car. They take an ordered, numbered form, not always reaching an obvious conclusion but never short of a boisterous opinion. Thus does Mahathir put his country and faith to rights, shouting not from a rooftop but from a desktop, to the masses of the net.
This leads us to his views on the freedom of the press, something he long acted against when in power, but which he has sometimes called for.
“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.”
Mahathir thinks freedom of the press has improved, to Malaysia’s detriment.
“Now 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 he himself said, in 2006, and apparently straight-faced: “Where is the press freedom?” Surely now he believes he’s being silenced himself, he must feel differently?
“The reason I started the blog was 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 they are true. People can check.”
Thoughts on Islam
We turn to his views on Islam, about which he has been every bit as critical as any other religion, even compared to his frequently outrageous comments on Judaism. It appears a constant source of irritation to him that a religion of more than a billion people can somehow manage to be oppressed, and he has said and written 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. It is a way of life,” he says. “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. Islam,” he says, “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.”
Though clearly a devoted and learned Muslim himself, he is firmly against the imposition of many Sharia laws in Malaysia, particularly those he thinks have been invented along the way. “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.”
Still not unpopular
How does the 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,” he says, “but I think, by and large, I am still not unpopular.”
It is time, inevitably, to turn to Anwar Ibrahim, his one-time deputy and anointed successor who was jailed under Mahathir’s watch, and has just been jailed again for sodomy.
On Anwar Ibrahim
In Mahathir’s 800-page memoir, one sentence stands out more than all the others. This is it: “Anwar should have been the Prime Minister of Malaysia today. But if he is not, it is because of his own actions.” The thing is, the preceding section makes it appear that by “his own actions” he doesn’t mean Anwar’s attempts to push Mahathir out as prime minister (a widely repeated view in the West is that the sodomy charges, damaging in conservative Muslim Malaysia, were concocted for this reason). Instead, it appears Mahathir is referring chiefly to Anwar’s alleged homosexuality alone.
How can it be right that a man’s sexuality — even his alleged sexuality — stops him from being considered as a leader? At this question, he sits back and frowns, and sighs with what seems less anger than 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.”
There is a brief pause at this baffling segue.
“And for a person who is going to lead the country,” he continues, “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.”
He talks about “a story in America, where a president sleeps with one of his secretaries”, presumably a reference to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. “That is acceptable in America. 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.”
Anwar, he acknowledges, was the heir apparent: Mahathir’s deputy and the anointed one to follow him as PM. “That he 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. 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 is 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.”
So to be absolutely clear, if it had not been for your belief in his alleged homosexuality, you would have supported him and he would have succeeded you?
“Oh yes,” says Mahathir.
Wishes that he still has a little power than being left-out
Does he miss power? “Well, I still feel that if I have a little power at least to influence the government, I would be happier than being totally out, and not having any influence on the government,” he says, a little balefully. “Whatever advice I give or opinions I express are totally rejected.”
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.” By conventional media? “Not because the government asked them to, but because the Malaysian media is afraid of annoying the government.”
It is almost impossible not to smile at these complaints about the unyielding strength of the state. Mahathir was in charge of that state for 22 years. Malcolm Fraser was Australia’s prime minister the year Mahathir came to power, John Howard when he left, with the entire epochs of Hawke and Keating in between. Mahathir was the state. He built it. Does he feel the strength of state institutions and the compliant media are things he himself created?
“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.”
On current relationship with other world leaders
Is he still in touch with any of the other world leaders from his time at the top? “Most of them are very old now, and some have died: Mandela, I used to know 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.” And the people he clashed with? Paul Keating? Did he ever speak with him again after their falling-out? “I spoke with him again after he called me recalcitrant. I spoke to him in New Zealand.” He’s smiling again. “When he said that, I wasn’t annoyed, but people took exception to what he said. Many things were said about me. I don’t care.”
His hobbies and his family
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 although most sport has faded with the years, he continues to ride horses, sometimes going to Argentina to do so.
And family is a big thing. Mahathir’s wife, Siti Hasmah, was his first and only girlfriend and they have been married for almost 60 years. They have seven children, three of them adopted.
Only one has really made his way in politics: Mukhriz, who is now the chief minister of the State of Kedah. Asked about Mukhriz, the first thing Mahathir does is distance himself from his son’s political life. “During my time, they were not allowed to contest,” he 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.”
Is it harder for his son, having that name? “People still recognise the name, of course. But it’s their evaluation. It’s not because I purposely hold up a card saying ‘I love you’. It’s not my way.”
One of his adopted children is local Malay, but two are from Pakistan, from an orphanage there. “I went to Pakistan, saw the situation there, and thought: if they are orphans, I would 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.”
Still trying to appreciate that he is not Prime Minister
The disarming thing about this interview has been the uncharacteristic frequency with which he has smiled: a bittersweet smile, 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.”
Asked if there are any ambitions left, he turns to the nation. “I would like to see the country progress, that’s the only thing.”
And then he looks down at the desk. “I am 89,” he says. “I don’t have much more time to live. I just want to enjoy my retirement.”