JUL 28, 2015
These days, feeling that the press is no longer marching to his tune, Mahathir communicates to the world through a blog, Chedet.com – a name taken, he tells me, from a childhood nickname conferred upon him by his sisters.
It is a consistently strident piece of work, as one would expect, with a tag-line: “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 polarization and the endless question of the Malaysian national car. The English language entries alone in the second half of 2014 have taken on deforestation and the logging trade, the nature of state education, monetary handouts and national economics, ISIS, American foreign policy, British jihadists, the bombing of Gaza, Malaysian tourism, Formula One, the privatization of Malaysian Airlines, censorship of the internet, the Jews and the history of Israel, the oil price, the nature of an Islamic state, and Joe Biden (a piece that concludes: “America is a land stolen from the Red Indians through genocide. Americans should really bow their heads down in shame forever”).
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. The top-flight Malay establishment tolerates him politely, accepting the voice of a man who is part of much of their history even if no longer directly relevant to its present.
It is to the blog I turn next in our interview, because I want to get his thoughts on freedom of the press, something he long acted against when in power, but which he has sometimes called for since as he has felt himself to be censored after leaving 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. If you allow people to say what they like, there will be violence, confrontations, and all that. We need stability.”
Malaysia’s press is not the weakest in the world – it is a little more ribald than neighbouring Singapore, for a start – but it nevertheless became cowed, a process that Mahathir depicts as being intuitive on the media’s part rather than through outright suppression. “The press understands this,” he says of Malaysia’s sensitivity.
“During my time, I didn’t have to tell them: don’t do this, don’t do that. They knew. They shouldn’t go beyond a certain point, and they didn’t.”
“Of course,” he says, dismissively, “the opposition will always be demanding for more freedom. You give them freedom, they want more.” He raises his hands as if to indicate the lunacy of this demand. “That is normal. For a developed country, maybe liberalism in this area is OK. But for a country that is developing, that has a mixture in the population – divided not just by race but by religion, language, culture and economic performance – it is very difficult. You get yourself more trouble if people are allowed to say just what they like.”
He thinks that 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 Mahathir 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.”
We turn to his views on religion. Mahathir has frequently been branded anti-semitic, a description he once wrote on his blog that he was happy to be labelled with, and has said many things that Jews have found deeply offensive. There is nothing to be gained from taking the interview down this path – there’s nothing to expose, it’s all out there in its bare-knuckled indelicacy already – but I am interested in his views on Islam, about which he has been every bit as critical as any other religion.
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 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.
Asked about this, he talks first about Christianity, and the way it has developed and divided over time, through Lutheranism, Calvinism and so forth. “That happens also in the Muslim religion,” he says, and it is the nastier interpretations that now offend him.
“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? You can’t fight against each other.”
He talks about the early injunctions of the Prophet that Muslims must learn, and read, even before there were any Islamic texts to look for. He talks about how early members of the faith built knowledge through Hebrew, Christian and Greek writings, building intelligence, coming up with a cogent view of a Muslim civilisation. “Now we have people who tell us you mustn’t read except for about religion. That is not part of the teachings.
“It is the interpretation of the religion that is wrong, not the religion. The religion is right.”
Mahathir believes, as something of an elder statement not only on policy but faith, it is his responsibility to question this. “I have a right to suggest that these wrong interpretations should be eliminated and we go back to the basic teachings from the Quran and the traditions of the prophet. 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 Shariah 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 Quran. The Quran 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.”
I ask how the public views him now, and he points to the “millions” of people who access his blog. (This is correct: according to the blog’s own stats, 2.3 million had visited by December 2014.) Also, “lots of people come to see me, asking me to do something, to eliminate what they think is wrong. Any politician will have people who oppose them, I accept that. People will criticise me, and that doesn’t matter. The majority, I think, are not against me.
“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 thankyou.
“There are no Gallup polls here,” he says, “but I think, by and large, I am still not unpopular.”
We talk about how legacies can change over time, and about the various books that have appeared since our previous interview: his own memoirs, and books by foreign journalists such as Barry Wain and Tom Plate. How does his own legacy look now? “I think because people make a comparison with the current administration, they appreciate more what was done during my time,” he says. “I’m inclined to think that because I have no power, people are less against me than they were when I had power. When you have power, you have to exercise power. And that means some people will be unhappy.” Today, he says, “I more or less reflect their thoughts which they are afraid to voice.”
“Their unhappiness with the present government.”
We’re back to that.
One recurring Mahathir subject is the fate of the native Malays. We discussed this last time at length, but I’m interested to see if anything has changed in the meantime. His blog posts reflect a certain hectoring, scolding tone towards his own people, urging them to be better than they are, although he is clearly a deeply proud Malay and a believer in his race’s potential.
“In my years I had the opportunity to observe peoples and countries, I see some countries doing well, others failing, and my analysis of things is that whether you fail or succeed is a function of your value system,” he says. He talks about how the Malays were peasants, fishermen, farmers, not business-minded, always poor; but that the arrival of the Chinese, with a tradition of excellence in business and therefore a rapid accumulation of wealth, brought inequality and the potential for confrontation. “So the idea is to bring them up. Not to bring the Chinese down, but to bring the Malays up. To do this, they must change their culture. They must be more trustworthy, they must make use of their thinking power, plans, strategies, things like that. If they don’t do those things they can’t catch up.”
He says, as he has often said, that his own people just don’t compare with Chinese business nouse. “The reason the Chinese came here is because the Malays are not performing. To perform they have to change. I tell the Malays: if you don’t change, you are going to be the poor in a rich country.”
It was from this idea that affirmative action grew up. “They are not capable of making even slight increases without help,” he says of Malays, in terms of their share in national wealth. “Therefore we provided them with opportunities.”
But did it work? “Of course there are abuses, we have to accept that: even in developed countries there are abuses of power. But there is some success. We need to continue only in certain areas.” Is there more to be done? “We still need to have a leg up for the Malays but not to the same extent as before. Before, we were insisting if you have a business, even a private business, 30% should go to the Malays. We have dropped that.” Rightly so? “Yes. Nobody will want a private business to find some strangers coming in and making a lot of problems.”
This sense of relative equanimity convinces me it’s time to ask the more provocative questions, the ones that I left to last in our previous interview: about Anwar.
Preparing for the interview, I’ve read Mahathir’s 800-page memoirs, and among that vast collection of information and opinion and memory, one sentence stands out to me 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 were concocted for this reason). Instead, it appears Mahathir is referring chiefly to Anwar’s alleged homosexuality alone.
I repeat the line, and my understanding of it, to him. How can it be right, I say, that a man’s sexuality – even his alleged sexuality – stops him from being considered as a leader?
At this, he sits back and frowns, and sighs a little, but there’s none of the visible anger of last time.
“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: he asks for certain things that they would not like but they have to submit, until they cannot submit any more.” (It should be stated at this point that Anwar, who is married, has consistently denied sodomy, which is a crime in Malaysia, and to the best of my knowledge no case against him has ever alleged the use of force or abuse against a sexual partner.) “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 thiscountry 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 Prime Minister. “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.”
It has been a slightly rambling response covering a range of territory, and I want to be crystal clear, so I choose the next words carefully. “To be clear,” I say, “if it had not been for his alleged homosexuality, you would have supported him and he would have succeeded you.”
“Oh yes,” says Mahathir.
[Author’s note: I write about banking and finance in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
I interviewed former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in December, having previously also interviewed him some years earlier. Initially the interview was for a chapter for my book No More Worlds to Conquer, focusing on life after a defining moment, and in his case in particular life after power. But with too much material for one book, the relevant chapter was held back to a planned second edition. However, following increased public interest in Mahathir’s views on Najib Razak in recent months following the 1MDB scandal, and the investment case for Malaysia internationally, I am printing the elements of the chapter that cover his views on Najib, Abdullah Badawi and Anwar Ibrahim.]