May 20, 2010
Barry Wain speaks to Malaysiakini (Part 1) on the Malaysian Maverick
Some have suggested that Wain, a veteran journalist formerly with the Asian Wall Street Journal, managed to beguile the octogenarian statesman into doing so, a suggestion which the author flatly denies but instead considers it a compliment.
In an interview with Malaysiakini today, Wain said he did not trick Mahathir, but was amused by the suggestion of his detractors.
“(Mahathir) is one of the most consummate politicians of all time and anyone who can outwit him should be elevated to a higher status, but I don’t think I did,” he added.
In fact, Wain, who is in town to promote the book which was recently given the green light by the Malaysian authorities after five months of pondering on whether to slap a ban, insists that he has been fair to the former premier.
“You could describe my book as critical in the sense that I look at the issues very closely… but critical as in disparaging, no.
“It is understandable that he should feel a bit defensive because you have to understand that with Mahathir, he doesn’t really accept that he has ever done anything wrong or that he made a mistake.
“I’m very happy that a number of reviewers who have no stake in Malaysian politics (have said) that the book is extremely fair to Mahathir,” he said of the best-selling book, now in its seventh edition.
Dr M’s short memory
Soon after hitting the bookstands, the book made it into the best-sellers list for several weeks in Singapore, where it was published, but the Malaysian authorities withheld the books allegedly for “insulting the national leadership and the institution of the Malay rulers”.
Mahathir himself was very displeased with the book and initially threatened to take Wain to court. He also claims he was misled by Wain during the course of three interviews.
“I thought he was a reformed character. He used to criticise me before. He was so very nice when he came to see me. He asked me very nice questions. On the topics he wanted to say nasty things, he didn’t say anything. That’s journalistic freedom,” said Mahathir.
Wain defended the integrity and factual accuracy of his book, claiming it was “100 percent accurate”, because the allegations were backed up by evidence referenced in 1,326 footnotes.
Among the contentious claims made by Wain was that Mahathir had squandered about RM100 billion through several financial scandals during his 22-year premiership.
One such scandal was the case of Perwaja Steel, which Mahathir was quoted in the book as stating losses involved of “maybe RM1 billion or RM2 billion”, instead of RM15 billion to RM20 billion as estimated by others.
“He’s got a short memory. His finance minister (Anwar Ibrahim) actually introduced an audit report by Pricewaterhouse (Coopers) in Parliament in the mid-1990s, and that the losses then were I think RM9.5 billion and they accumulated after that.
“He won’t be very happy to be reminded of this, but that’s life as they say. As long as I’m fair to him, and I have put across his point of view,” he said.
Willing to be challenged
Other denials by Mahathir include dismissing Wain’s claim that UMNO’s 40-storey headquarters at the Putra World Trade Centre was financed by public funds and that UMNO was broke when Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah stepped down as party treasurer in the 1980s.
“I’ve got a copy of UUMNO’s audited accounts, including (data on) the secret political fund and it shows quite clearly, they had tens of millions of dollars in that account when (Daim Zainuddin) took over,” he said to stress the veracity of his facts.
However, Wain did admit to one instance in which several anecdotal accounts by second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein’s political secretary Abdullah Ahmad, could not be corroborated and backed by documentary evidence.
Referring to Abdullah’s claim that Razak had instructed him to ensure the loss of several UMNO members in the party’s 1975 General Assembly, Wain said: “It is impossible to get another person to corroborate this since Razak is dead.
“I have chosen to accept a detailed explanation because I have gone through it over and over again and I am convinced that it is true.”
In any case, the seasoned journalist will not have to worry about defending his claims in court, as the ‘maverick’ himself, despite an initial outcry, chose not to sue after all.
“I feel entirely calm and happy, quite content that he is not going to sue me,” he said, laughingly, thanking Mahathir also for doing his bid in marketing the book which has sold about 17,000 copies thus far.
He added that in the five months since his book was launched, it has been reviewed throughout the world and no one has challenged his facts to this day.
Helping people remember Dr M
Wain also appeared unperturbed by critics who claim that there is nothing new in his book, and that it is just a compilation of old allegations. “If it were merely a compilation of whatever’s that is already there, then why are people buying it?” he said tongue-in-cheek.
He added that many people around the world are interested to read about Mahathir and his career, and that for these people, the story must be told in full, whether or not it has been reported before.
“A lot of the financial scandals were not published in Malaysia (and) many young Malaysians were two years old or weren’t born when the Mahathir administration decided to manipulate the tin price,” he said.
Interestingly, he added, some readers have dubbed his book a “political thriller” which has found fans in the banking industry, with several foreign banks buying it in bulk to give to their clients as a sort of handbook on understanding Malaysia.
Will this account of Mahathir’s colourful political career make it onto the reading lists of university courses?
“This is a hybrid book, the best of journalism and academia. I hope it gets accepted for undergraduate political science or Southeast Asian studies. Heaven forbid, students may actually enjoy reading it!” he said.
Wain, who is the writer-in-residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, explained that he had intended to write a book that was easily readable for the masses but properly referenced for the academia.
Tomorrow: The two sides of Mahathir