On 9 May, labyrinthine queues formed at voting centres all around Malaysia. In a wait that lasted some three hours, I struck up a conversation with a first-time voter, who admitted to being “politically apathetic” until this year. She told me she had to make sure Bapa (“Father”) — that is, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad — returned to power. The ruling coalition, she said, “have not only left this country to rot but at every opportunity have found a way to piss me off”.
Irony and paradox have shaped the course of Malaysia’s political history. The chequered landscape of Malaysian politics is replete with alliances forged then gone bad, but few could have anticipated that twenty years after Mahathir sacked his then deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, catalysing the reformasi (“reformation”) movement, a renewed alliance between the pair would overthrow the seemingly invincible Barisan Nasional (National Front) government from a seat of power it had increasingly come to claim as a throne.
The fractious, if eventually peaceful, transition of power was celebrated around the world as an example of the triumph of democracy in depressed times, but the challenges confronting the renewed nation remain daunting. Rising debt levels and untenable contracts with powerful neighbours for large-scale projects pose the primary challenge. As I walked into one of several offices of the returning prime minister, my attention was immediately drawn to the mounds of files and papers that spilled across several tables. The resolve of the Malaysian electorate to see the return of the ninety-two-year-old became obvious — faith in a steady and experienced hand and a master of statecraft.
Not all the world was enthused about the re-election of Mahathir. The Guardian declared in one of its headlines, “Mahathir Mohamad is back. Malaysians’ smiles may be brief”. Perhaps. But for now, the figure sitting before me, who appears as though he has stepped out of history itself, remains resolute, determined and committed “to rebuilding the nation”. Contrary to what some of the world may be saying, Malaysia’s optimism need only be its own.
For decades your political style was described as combative, tenacious and disciplined. Now even former detractors find you affable, avuncular, even funny. What kind of adaptations to your personality have you needed to make this time round?
In politics it is necessary to demonise the person you want to get rid of. When I was in power my opponents labelled me a dictator. But I was not a dictator. I had been challenged many times in my political life, and in the end I resigned of my own accord; dictators do not resign. The opposition demonised me then; but I don’t think they really believed in what they were saying, since they accepted me when I began criticising [former prime minister] Najib [Razak], to the point of appointing me as one of their leaders.
They have now found that when I lead it is not as a dictator. I listen to everyone. I work on principle, not on a party basis. I am loyal to a party for as long as it is doing the right thing. If it fails to do the right thing, I see no difficulty in moving over to people who are doing what I consider to be the right thing. I have not changed, but the perception of me has changed very much.
Did you expect that working with your former adversaries would prove so easy?
It was never easy. The first time I worked with them was when I started a People’s Declaration [calling for the removal of Najib]. I didn’t ask them, but they supported it. I talked to them and they had the same objective I had — to get rid of Najib. We came from different backgrounds, but we were willing to forget the past. They did not insist I apologise; I did not insist on them saying they were wrong. We were focussed on achieving the same objective and that enabled me to work with them and them to work with me.
How did you perceive a change among the public in terms of what they wanted in governance?
The public often feel unhappy with people in power, because those in power are the ones doing things, and when you are the one doing things you are exposing yourself to criticism. There will be supporters, and there will be people who are against you.
When I stepped down [in 2003], the public thought a better person would take over, but then they found things were not as good as they expected so they got rid of Abdullah [Badawi, my successor]. But then they got Najib.
When the public compared the period when I was prime minister I think it became obvious that Najib was not doing what the people wanted him to do, and they began to reflect on my past performance and wanted me to come back. That is why I regained support.
Malaysia peaceful transition of government after 9 May was hailed throughout the world as an exception in an age of populism. It would seem that democracy is still vibrant — it just is not producing the desired results; namely, consensual politics. What do you think is the crisis confronting democracy today?
Democracy is not perfect. It is very difficult to make democracy work. You need a certain mindset before democracy can succeed. When a country suddenly becomes democratic, it cannot really handle the kind of freedom that comes with democracy. And because of that it tends to slip back into its old ways.
Malaysia succeeded because, though we tried to bring down the government by other means, we didn’t become violent, we didn’t take to the streets, we didn’t sabotage things, we didn’t assassinate people. We were forced to wait until there was an election.
In this election, we expected to lose because the government was so powerful and were doing all kinds of improper things — bribery, threats. I thought that if they lost they would not accept the result, but they lost by such a big margin they were caught off guard and did not know what to do. Great numbers had supported the opposition, and there were also people who advised the government to accept the result.
So the transition was smooth from the outside, but it was not very smooth from the inside. We had lots of difficulties, including attempts from within to reject our success, but in the end better sense prevailed.
What were these difficulties within? Was there lots of trading within your coalition?
It had to do with racial and religious politics. There was a fear that our coalition was not going to respect the position of Islam as much as the previous government had, so there was an idea that if the Muslims all came together — the new opposition were largely Muslim, with UMNO [United Malays Nationalist Organisation, the former nationalist ruling party,] and PAS [Malaysian Islamic Party] — they could drag other Muslims [from our coalition], have the majority and form a Malay-Muslim government, but they were advised against that.
There was an attempt to persuade people in your coalition? Malay-Muslim representatives?
Yes, the Malay-Muslims. If they could be persuaded to cross over to the side of UMNO and PAS, these people would have the majority to form the government. This was what caused the delay in announcing our election victory. We knew we had won by 8.30 p.m., but we didn’t get the official announcement until about 2 a.m., because during that short period of time there was a lot of manoeuvring, which was not visible to the people. We knew, and later we learnt even more about it.
You would not be willing to name these people?
No, I will not name them.
You stated repeatedly before the election that if former prime minister Najib Razak were returned to power “this country would go to the dogs”. Since then we have witnessed a system gone almost completely to rot. How does a country even begin to rehabilitate a governance culture that has gone that way in the past sixty years?
No, not for sixty years but for the time Najib was there. Yes, there was corruption during my time, and during the time of previous prime ministers, but the degree was not so damaging to the country.
Under Najib there was total destruction of the government. First, there were huge borrowings, which we now find great difficulty paying back. Second, the entire government machinery was subverted — senior officers were won over by money to become loyal to the [former] prime minister, even to the point of campaigning for the ruling party during the last election.
We have inherited a country carrying a huge debt, and government machinery that is not working. We promised we would not seek revenge, but we find there is no way out — we have to get rid of the people who remain loyal to the previous government. They could sabotage whatever it is we want to do in order to rehabilitate the country.
But if we get rid of these senior people, who will replace them? If junior people are not affected and are skilled enough we can just promote them, but we find that not only number one but numbers two, three and four — all of them, down the line — are corrupt. We can’t simply promote the person at the fifth level to the first level, so we are faced with a real problem there.
We need people to implement new policies, new approaches and new beliefs, but we find that the people who are in place cannot be trusted to carry out our ideas.
What is the resolution, then?
It will take time. We will have to seek people from the outside, who are not committed to politics.
There are some people from the previous administration who were punished — demoted or put in cold storage. We can bring some of them back, but we need to find people from outside of the government. They may not be willing to work for the government, however, because it doesn’t pay the kind of salaries the private sector pays. We can compensate them if they do well with bonuses, but it is nothing in comparison. As prime minister, I am paid RM 22,000 — a [monthly] salary that a third-rung person gets in the private sector.
We need people who not only have the knowledge but are also willing to make sacrifices, to give up their lifestyles — because there are many restrictions when you serve in the government.
Malaysia’s political landscape is highly complex — different races, different religions, contending ideologies. The country appears to reflect trends through the world, which appears to be tugged in three different directions: a progressive, liberal one; a nationalist, right-wing one; and one of religious revivalism. They all expressed themselves forcefully in our last election. How, post-election, do you attempt to reconcile these contending approaches?
It is very tricky, but in the Pakatan Harapan [Coalition of Hope], whatever the ideology the parties believe in, they need to realise that we have to agree with one another; we have to correct the wrongs of the past, and the only way to do that is by us agreeing. If we start bickering, nothing will get done. It was difficult enough getting four parties into one cabinet. We have parties that are stronger than the rest but we have to treat everyone as if they were equal. But in the end, they understood; there are things we can do and there are things we cannot. Many of them are socialistic — they believe in giving money to the people, but we don’t have the money and we have to accept that.
Race and religion — we have managed and danced with them through most of our independent political life. They are now at the forefront of cultural and identity politics the world over. How do we keep a check on our sanity as far as race and religion are concerned?
When you are faced with religious argument and you say, “Well, this was 1,400 years ago and not relevant now”, that is not acceptable.
In Islam, you will find the Quran teaches Muslims to be friendly and reasonable and to uphold justice. So what we tell them [the religious parties] is that we are upholding religion more than they are. They are following interpretations that are contrary to the teachings of Islam. They cannot argue against that. For example, they want to implement Hudud laws and we tell them the Hudud laws they want to implement are not the Hudud of Islam but their Hudud laws.
Islam is tolerant, just and very concerned about the wellbeing of people. They, however, see Islam as a very harsh religion — wanting to punish anyone who deviates even slightly.
A Muslim is someone who believes in the One God and the Prophet [Muhammad] as His Messenger. That is a Muslim. But all these other things are secondary, and, yes, if you commit sins you will be punished in the afterlife, but that does not make you a non-Muslim.
So, you have to counter this way of thinking. It happens in all religions, not just in Islam. Religion is interpreted in different ways by different people, and the result is that religions break into different sects. Islam is applicable to this day, and we have been able to deal with extremists. PAS never did well in the past — and now it is not about Islam; it is about race.
The real, original teachings in Islam have a big role to play in enabling Muslims to be successful in life and be prepared for the afterlife. There is nothing to prevent Muslims from learning all the new sciences, provided they remember that everything is created by God. Nothing wrong will happen if you follow the right teachings of Islam.
How do you think Malaysia’s experience on 9 May resonates in an increasingly unstable Southeast Asia? Is a common regional agenda in Southeast Asia still viable, or even desirable?
The idea is still very good, but when you want to implement an idea you need people to drive it. When ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] was formed there was no democracy in many countries, and, in Malaysia, we didn’t change the government at all. So when the leaders met, they met with people they knew — Suharto, Lee Kuan Yew, [Thailand’s General] Prem Tinsulanonda.
We developed a good understanding of each other and were able to operate as major leaders in ASEAN. But today, because we want democracy, we want change, we want one-term presidents, every time you meet you see different people and it takes time to develop an understanding of each other.
ASEAN is not as cohesive as before but the idea remains good. We have a market of 600 million people. Even if it is poor the needs of that population are very big. We should talk about how we can maximise the return on that market. We are not looking at that very much, and we need to open up more between us — we have the ASEAN free trade area, but we need to study how we can help each other lower our costs by trading within. We can also benefit from the large market that is ASEAN. It is important for there to be a working closeness, and we need to solve our problems through discussion not confrontation. Confrontation never wins you anything. We need to understand that certain basic principles are required for people to work together.
Your relationship with China extends a long way, back to the time of Deng Xiaoping. The nature of the region’s geopolitics has transformed considerably since then, with the rise of China. How do you perceive China’s increasing influence in the region, and how has it changed since your first period as prime minister?
When China was poor and weak, people feared China; now that China is rich and strong, people still fear China. It is due to the size of the country, and the cohesiveness of its government. They have a single government for a population of 1.4 billion — that, in itself, is an achievement.
We have had a relationship with China for close to 2,000 years: we used to collect forest products to trade with them. They had their ceramics and things like that. They have a huge fifth column in Malaysia — 25 per cent of the Malaysian population is Chinese. Yet they never conquered us when they could have done so.
On the other hand, the Portuguese came in 1509 and two years later they conquered us. So who are we to be afraid of? The Chinese lay claim on the South China Sea by virtue of its name. What is important is not the claim but whether ships can pass through the South China Sea. At the moment they are not stopping ships, but of course if they were to start checking every ship it would be a serious problem. But at the moment, ships can pass through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. It is the openness of the sea that is important to the Chinese. The sea is the main communication line, so China wants to make sure the sea is free for its own trade to carry on. I don’t think they want to stop other ships from passing through, and I think Malaysia can live with that.
What about the purchase of land, as has been our experience?
This is something that is not to be promoted. The Chinese have so much money they could literally buy up the whole of Malaysia. If they did that we would become a province of China. If they bought a part of Malaysia that part would become Chinese. We don’t want that to happen. We think we have the right to preserve our territorial integrity. We want to be an independent nation. We struggled against colonisation, we became independent and we don’t want to be a colony again, whether it is a virtual or real colony. It was Sukarno who coined the term neocolonialism, which refers not to the occupation of the land but the control of it. We want to remain in control of our country.
What does the rise of China further mean in a landscape where the United States appears intent on pulling back from Southeast Asia?
The United States is pulling back, but it is important to identify what kind of pulling back. If the United States wants to station its Seventh Fleet here, that’s not anything we would welcome. But if the United States stopped bringing goods and services through Southeast Asia that would be something to be regretted. Trade wars can have that kind of result.
You have two years to do what you set out to do before passing the reins to Anwar Ibrahim. What markers, for you, would signal a smooth transition?
I know I can’t last forever. In two years I will be ninety-five, and I already hold the record as the oldest elected PM in the world. I have no wish to be a hundred-year-old PM. I want to do the most I can in these two years. It is tough. I have this table — several tables — covered in papers, and I get lots of visitors, but I think considerable progress has been made.
I want the debt problem settled and I want to rebuild the government. When I came in as prime minister in 1981, the whole government machinery was there. I just needed to put people in a few positions and everything worked fine. But now I don’t even know if my decisions and the decisions of the government will be carried out in the ways they should.