For 22 years Mahathir bin Mohamad dominated Malaysia's ruling party, the United Malays National Organization, and set a course for the country that helped upgrade its infrastructure and diversify its economy.
Mahathir was praised for the modernization of Malaysia but criticized for eroding the independence of many institutions, the courts and the media among them.
When Mahathir retired in 2003 he vowed not to interfere with the government of his hand-picked successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who had replaced Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister dismissed by Mahathir.
Now Mahathir, 81, is battling back into the political spotlight, calling for Abdullah to either change course or step down.
His critique resonates among Malaysians who are frustrated by the slow pace of promised reforms and worried that Abdullah's program of "Islam Hadhari," or civilizational Islam, is blurring the lines between government and religion.
Mahathir says he is being shut out of the press and stymied by the Malaysian Police from holding meetings with supporters.
As we all know Mahathir's personality and his never say die attitude come what may, here in classic Mahathir's 'in your face' salvos are his viewpoints spoken on the 7th of November with an International Herald Tribune journalist!
Source : http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/11/06/news/mahatirQA.php
He spoke with Thomas Fuller of the International Herald Tribune about the reasons for his return to politics at his 86th floor office in the Petronas Towers. Excerpts:
QUESTION: Eight years ago we met in your old office. It was two days after Anwar had been arrested and a month after he'd been fired. I asked you what you would look for in a successor to Anwar. This is what you said: "An honest man who is capable. Not a genius. I am not expecting a fair copy of myself." In the end we know the outcome: You chose Abdullah. What went wrong?
ANSWER: Before I proceed with this there is of course this label against me that I [ran] a very authoritarian government -- I censored the papers, I undermined the independence of the judiciary. No matter how I explain that this was not so, the press, especially the foreign press, keeps on repeating this... What I did was under the laws of the country. The laws may be draconian like the ISA [Internal Security Act, which calls for detention without trial] but the same laws were used by my predecessors, from the first prime minister to the third prime minister...What is happening now is different. There is no law which provides for the police to call up people and basically threaten them to call off the meetings that they proposed to hold and to invite me.
QUESTION: You feel muzzled?
ANSWER: Muzzled. I can't talk to anybody. If I talk to the mainstream press it is either not published or it is spun in a way that makes me look bad. In the meantime anybody's statement against me gets full publicity. But I cannot reply to them. And if I meet the press, what they report is usually not what I said.
QUESTION: In the Anwar days if I read the newspapers - during 1998 in the days after he was fired - Anwar's statements were not carried. His actions were also spun.
ANSWER: That may be true but papers tend to self-censor. They censor themselves. They think that this might not please the leadership. So they don't publish. But here we have people actually ringing up the papers telling them you print this, you don't print this. That has never been done during my time.
QUESTION: You never did that?
ANSWER: I never did that. At the same time of course Anwar was free to go around the country. He had gatherings of 10,000 and 15,000 people. He was never stopped.
QUESTION: Let's get to the substance of your return to politics. What do you think Abdullah's biggest blunders have been?
ANSWER: I promised not to interfere with the government. For two years I did not interfere with his government. But what I noticed is that from the very beginning his family members became involved in government process. They actually attended government meetings although they had no status whatsoever. There is clear evidence that the son in law [Khairy Jamaluddin] has very big say even in the appointment of ministers, even in the choice of candidates for the election. I have been told by the very people who have experienced this that he rings up chief ministers to give certain projects to certain people, including to his mother. This is something that I believe is absolutely true because the person who lost the project was very unhappy and he told me...
QUESTION: What state was this in and what project was it?
ANSWER: Prawn culture in the state of Perlis and a contract I believe in the state of Negri Sembilan.
QUESTION: But in the larger scheme of things -- you were in power for 2 decades and you set a course for the country -- these types of projects allocated to friends they happen in every country and they might not put Malaysia off of the tracks. Is there a bigger picture?
ANSWER: No. During my time, my children were not given any role at all. You don't hear of my children directing people or influencing people or selling influence or getting paid. They were not supposed to have business with the government unless of course they tender out in the usual way. If their tender is good, I suppose they win but very very little. I kept my children even from becoming candidates. They could become candidates for the elections they could not become candidates for the party also.
QUESTION: One of your children was in UMNO Youth and another one had a large shipping business...
ANSWER: Yeah, but the shipping business was his own. He bought the shipping business in Hong Kong. He bought shares in the local shipping business. He was doing quite well excepting that during the financial crisis he couldn't meet the demands for him to pay. So he had to sell off... Within the country the only people who could buy was Petronas and Petronas bought it cheap. It relieved him somewhat I suppose but he was still having financial trouble.
QUESTION: What's your view on Islam Hadari?
ANSWER: In the first place there is no call to introduce any other kind of Islam, whether it is modern Islam or Islam Hadari. I have always maintained that Islam is a religion for all ages... I believe that the teachings of the religion as found in the Koran [are] very mild, very reasonable and should make for a good Muslim community. There is no need to go to any other branch, just stick to the fundamental teachings of Islam.
QUESTION: What about Abdullah's economic management?
ANSWER: Basically he does not understand how to move the economy. In order to prove that I was wrong in spending government money on what he calls mega projects he cuts back on that. If government does not spend money it doesn't generate wealth in the community...
QUESTION: Some have criticized Abdullah for being, for lack of a better word, sleepy... Do you feel that he lacks the energy that you had?
ANSWER: His attention span is very short and everybody tells me... that he goes to sleep, even while cases are being presented to him... He tends to let his advisors tell him what to do.
QUESTION: When you were prime minister your comments, whether people liked them or not, raised the profile of Malaysia within Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and the different organizations of developing countries, within the OIC [Organization of the Islamic Conference]. Do you think that Abdullah has lowered Malaysia's profile?
ANSWER: He seems to have caused Malaysia to abdicate its role as a spokesman especially for the Third World, OIC, NAM [Non-Aligned Movement]. He seems to be much more inclined to go along with those powerful countries like America, Britain, Australia. And of course he's extra friendly toward Singapore to the point where three years after his being in the seat there has been no substantial agreements reached on numerous issues. The bridge is one of them. The water problem has not been resolved...
QUESTION: Let's talk political strategy. You have made your move, re- entered the political area. What's the end game?
ANSWER: To get the government to correct itself. Not to do things which are not acceptable, like getting your family involved, like getting your family's companies involved.
QUESTION: Does this mean that Abdullah has to go?
ANSWER: He need not go if he is willing to do what is right, not by me but what is right for the country. Of course if he is not willing then I think he should not stand in the way of the country's continued development. Suddenly the development of the country came to a halt. All these new buildings that you see were actually approved during my time. If you travel by MAS [Malaysia Airlines] they will show you Malaysia with tall towers and all that. At the end of it, it shows his picture as if he was responsible but he was not. All those things were built before his time.
QUESTION: You mentioned as a possible successor to him [former finance minister] Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah?
ANSWER: Whether it is Tengku Razaleigh or Najib [Tun Razak, the current deputy prime minister] or whoever, they are all entitled... When I was asked this question, Tengku Razaleigh's name cropped up. I said, 'Well of course, he is just as eligible as anybody else.' I could not say, 'he cannot be.' It is up to the party to make a choice.
QUESTION: What about Najib?
ANSWER: Najib is just as good... Either one. There are others who are also in the running.
QUESTION: Such as...
ANSWER: Muhyiddin Yasin [industry minister] has been mentioned and he has ambition...
QUESTION: Will you attend the UMNO general assembly [beginning Nov. 13]?
ANSWER: I have not yet decided because I have to see because certain actions are going to be taken. I may even be expelled from the party.
QUESTION: You are hearing this or you are fearing this?
ANSWER: There is talk about it.
QUESTION: If you were to go you would be there in the capacity as a former president but you wouldn't have the right to speak. What good would it do?
ANSWER: Past presidents have always attended so I have just as much right to attend.
QUESTION: In the larger political sense you are up against Abdullah who got a significant mandate the year after he took over.... People like his personality, his style. What do you think it will take for people to come around to your side? Have you not enunciated the argument yet?
ANSWER: His strategy is to stop me from communicating with anybody, that way his popularity will be sustained or retained.
QUESTION: He is unlikely according to the current rules to be removed from UMNO office in large part because during your rule it was made more difficult to remove the top UMNO officers. Is this karma?
ANSWER: No, not quite. During that time we may have made it difficult to remove the leader but we did not stop people from criticizing the leader. I was very strongly criticized by the previous prime ministers and even by the candidates who went against me, Razaleigh, Musa Hitam, Abdullah himself.
QUESTION: Some would say your dispute with Abdullah is personal. They say you have friends who benefited, contractors or other businessmen. They are no longer getting the contracts.
ANSWER: That is the old accusation against me, that I favored my friends. But I did not favor friends - these are people who are capable of doing things so they had opportunities. I can't possibly give the development of a port to a rickshaw puller. It must be somebody who has the capacity.... I am not interested in personal things... It's not because of pet projects either. What projects I carried out was for the national good.
QUESTION: Mahathir versus Abdullah is something that has caught the attention of the region. Do you ever wonder if it is worth it?
ANSWER: I tried my best to say that it is not a personal thing between the two of us. It's a question of how things are done in this country. I pointed out that things are wrong not because of the person but because they are done wrongly.
QUESTION: But is there the risk that the rift damages Malaysia more than Abdullah could damage Malaysia?
ANSWER: No, I think Abdullah could damage Malaysia more...
QUESTION: Do you still rule out [former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim] as a possible prime minister in the future?
ANSWER: I have my opinion about him, about his suitability, but of course others may have other opinions. As far as I am concerned he has lost his opportunity...
QUESTION: And Malaysia would be worse off if he were prime minister?
QUESTION: Let's talk about the longer term... What is your biggest fear for Malaysia?
ANSWER: I think Malaysia has good opportunities if it is properly managed, if you understand that opportunities come even with problems. Yes, we have China. We have to compete with China but China can become a big market for Malaysia, China can become a very big investor in Malaysia.
QUESTION: The Sultan of Johor asked why you don't settle down like a pensioner? Are you tempted by that? Reading John Grisham novels on the beach, playing with your grandchildren? The medical community talks about three blockages in your heart. You are getting along. Isn't this a time to slow down?
ANSWER: No! I think I have an obligation to the country and to the people. I don't care much about what happens to me. I have worked hard all this while, even after I had my heart attack, I did not slow down. I think life would not be worthwhile if you are thinking about having a good time after you retire.
QUESTION: Do you regret having stepped down?
ANSWER: No, I would have stepped down. There is no way I can know what is going to happen.
QUESTION: You have the tape of the meeting of the so-called peace talks with Abdullah. Are you going to release that?
ANSWER: Maybe one day.
QUESTION: You have a copy of it in your closet?