Oliver Holmes and David Munk in Kuala Lumpur
23 October 2015
‘Father of modern Malaysia’ brought down two former allies groomed to succeed him. Can he topple prime minister Najib Razak, his most stubborn heir?
He makes a most unlikely blogger. And, for many, an even more unlikely full-throated advocate of freedom of speech.
But that is the role Mahathir Mohamad has carved out for himself in Malaysia, the nation he is credited with transforming into a regional economic powerhouse.
As he enters his 91st year, he has become the country’s most prominent and undoubtedly most effective activist.
He has come out of retirement to throw allegations of arbitrary arrest, throttling of the press and corruption against current prime minister Najib Razak – similar to accusations that were lobbed against him during his own premiership from 1981 to 2003.
Sitting in his cavernous office and surrounded by gifts from world leaders, the man whose two decades in power are described by rights groups as autocratic has slipped seemingly with ease into his new role.
“People are very angry but they have no way of voicing their feelings,” he said during an interview with the Guardian.
He said he felt compelled to speak out on his blog against Najib.
“It’s not something I enjoy,” he said. “I find I need to do something because lots of people came to see me, complaining about the government and asking me to do something.”
Mahathir has become the ringleader for one side of a political battle against Najib, his own handpicked heir who entered office six years ago.
The embattled premier is facing allegations of corruption linked to a heavily-indebted state fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).
Najib has vigorously denied that a sum of nearly $700m that was moved into his personal bank accounts is linked to 1MDB, while Malaysia’s anti-corruption agency says the cash was a donation from the Middle East.
But Mahathir, speaking in the country’s administrative capital Putrajaya, says the allegations convinced him that Najib has to step down, and he has created a coalition of politicians to denounce the man he sarcastically calls “the king”.
This month, Mahathir held a press conference with members of the ruling party who have been sidelined by Najib, including sacked deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin. He condemned “a climate of fear among the people” and abuses of power after two men investigating Najib were arrested.
Dressed in his trademark khaki suit, Mahathir talked of Najib’s ills, painting a picture of a man obsessed with holding on to power.
“Previous prime ministers – we have had five prime ministers – have never been so condemned for corruption as this one and everybody says so,” he said. “[Najib] controls the mainstream media. They dare not say anything, they sort of censor themselves voluntarily,” he added.
“They may be be transferred, they may be sacked, their paper may be stopped from publication. There are all kinds of things that he can do. He can call up the editors for questioning, which is always quite unpleasant, so people try to avoid that.”
Taking occasional breaks to cough, the 90-year-old has lost his youth but kept his direct gaze. Dwarfed by piles of books, documents and newspapers, he remains a central part of Malaysian political life and is visited at his riverside office by the country’s elite, who keep him informed.
“The only avenue is for a vote of non-confidence,” Mahathir said of his desire to oust Najib. “Or some demonstration to the ruler that he has lost the confidence and support of the majority of members of parliament.”
His relationship broke down gradually with Najib, he says: “I tried at first to talk to the prime minister. He doesn’t do anything at all to take that advice. Then I had to tell him privately that I no longer supported him. That also didn’t have any effect. Then I went public and told the public I am not supporting him.
“That had to go through the alternative media because he has literally blocked out anything that I say from the mainstream papers. Lots of people read my blog and they have commented on it,” he said.
Many Malaysians feel his attack on Najib is somewhat incongruous from a man accused of using repressive laws to silence or imprison his own critics.
“What a lot of us feel is that he started that. And we are reaping what he sowed,” said Shamini Darshni, Amnesty International Malaysia executive director. While Darshni says the current human rights climate is worse, she adds that detention without trial started with Mahathir.
While in office, he was condemned for his regular use of the Internal Security Act to detain individuals indefinitely and for curtailing the power of the judiciary through rewriting laws and intimidating of judges.
In 1999, 2000 and 2001, the Committee to Protect Journalists put Mahathir on its list of the 10 worst enemies of the press for his stranglehold on the mainstream media. Some of the Malaysian publications that are being intimidated by the current administration were also harassed by Mahathir.
When pressed on the point that Najib is using executive powers that come from Mahathir’s time in office, the former prime minister claimed he used them only to quell sometimes violent racial divides. Muslim Malays make up around 60% of the 30 million population, with ethnic Chinese at about a quarter and ethnic Indians less than 10%.
“During my time, yes, there were things that I did that were maybe not considered democratic and all that, but my job was to ensure that the race relations in this country remained healthy,” he said.
“To that extent, I never used [the powers] for my personal gain, for trying to acquire funds in an illegitimate way. That is an abuse of power.”
Mahathir has never contented himself with his successors, three times turning on men he handpicked to continue his work at the helm of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) party.
He first contrived to give the reins to his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim, who is now in prison for sodomy, a crime in Malaysia.
“Sodomy is not a crime in many countries. Even [foreign] ministers now come with their boyfriends. That is very acceptable. These people think I am not giving enough freedom. Well, this country is very conservative. We don’t want that kind of behaviour to be connected with our prime minister,” Mahathir said.
“I wanted him to succeed me, I brought him up. But with his faulty moral character, I don’t think he was suitable to become prime minister.
“I think he should have succeeded me. In fact, I was ready to step down after the Commonwealth games in 1998. I thought, ‘I’ve had 18 years of prime ministership, it’s time I go and give it to him.’ But it was exactly at that time that these things were exposed. I felt that he no longer deserved to become prime minister.”
Next to go was his once-loyal deputy Abdullah Badawi, whom Mahathir cultivated for years before Abdullah rose to become prime minister from 2003 to 2009. Mahathir came out of retirement to say he had lost confidence in Abdullah.
Najib, who headed several posts in Mahathir’s cabinet, was sworn in a day after Abdullah resigned. But now Najib too has fallen out of favour, Mahathir is considering whether any Malaysian can hold the office and the power he had in his grip for so long.
“I think if [Najib] steps down, whoever takes over will not be given the kind of authority he had, especially over the police,” he said.
“I think the people have learnt our lesson. They cannot give too much power to the prime minister.”