October 2, 2018
A Political Comeback at 93
Malaysia’s Prime Minister discusses his alliance with a man he once jailed, his trouble with the Chinese, and his country’s system of racial preferences.
By Tunku Varadarajan
Dr Mahathir with Dr.Fareed Zakaria after the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York.
Even in a city swarming with statesmen and panjandrums from every nook of the globe—all gathered here for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly—Mahathir Mohamad stands out as exceptional. That he is the world’s oldest head of government is almost prosaic compared with the magnitude and audacity of his political reinvention. After 15 years out of power, he’s back as Prime Minister of Malaysia for a second time. Now he is ruling in a courteous (and remarkable) coalition with a man he once sent to prison for sodomy and abuse of power on charges widely accepted to have been trumped up and politically motivated.
Illustration: Ken Fallin
The wily Dr. Mahathir—he’s a physician—may be 93, but he insists in conversation that that’s merely his “chronological age—biological age is quite different.” He seems perhaps a decade younger. “I’m still myself,” he says, “still able to function.” He returned to office in a cathartic May election, which swept out incumbent Najib Razak, regarded by many, including the U.S. Justice Department, as exceptionally corrupt. While it would be an exaggeration to say that Dr. Mahathir is contrite about the autocratic way in which his critics believe he governed from 1981 to 2003, he does have a few regrets.
“There were criticisms against the time when I was Prime Minister for 22 years,” he says in his suite at the Plaza Hotel, “and I find some of the criticisms are worth looking into.” Now, he adds, “I have the benefit of all this experience, 15 years working with the opposition.” But “I will do things only slightly differently. Otherwise, a lot of the old policies and strategies are still relevant today.”
Dr. Mahathir admits that “one of the things that they criticized me about was that I had cronies, and that I helped my cronies.” He argues that criticism is unfair, that those people received his favor “because they were able to do things. I tend to support people who are capable, who have shown some achievements.” This results-oriented approach to doing business, he believes, was misunderstood. “But now, since I am [governing] with the people who used to criticize me, I want to show them that I’m not what they think I am.”
Those new partners include Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the People’s Justice Party, or PKR, which has 47 seats in Malaysia’s 222-member Parliament—the most of any party. Mr. Anwar was Dr. Mahathir’s protégé and Malaysia’s finance minister, but the two fell out acridly in 1998. The following year Mr. Anwar was tried, convicted and imprisoned.
Dr. Mahathir leads the Alliance of Hope coalition, of which Mr. Anwar’s PKR is the spearhead. The prime minister’s party, Bersatu, has only 13 of the coalition’s 113 parliamentary seats. Dr. Mahathir’s status as the foremost politician of modern Malaysia might have made him the obvious choice to lead the coalition into elections. Yet he did so also because Mr. Anwar was still in prison—on a second iteration of the sodomy charges for which he was first jailed by Dr. Mahathir in 1999.
The coalition campaigned on the understanding that Dr. Mahathir would be prime minister for two years, after which he would cede office to Mr. Anwar. It was also understood that the latter would receive a pardon and be released from prison—as he was. Will Dr. Mahathir stick to the promise of a transition of power to Mr. Anwar? “Well, there have been a lot of people who mention two years,” he says, “but I am supposed to be the interim prime minister. It may be two years, it may be one year. . . . It may be three years. I wouldn’t know.”
Pressed to clarify, he remains cryptic: “I didn’t know what to say, but I believe that after two years he will take over.”
Does Dr. Mahathir regret the legal action against Mr. Anwar in the late 1990s? “Well, I don’t know about regretting,” he responds, “but at that time, it was done by a court of law. The trial lasted nine months. All kinds of evidence was produced, and the court decided. It’s not me! So people will blame me for that, but I don’t interfere with the courts.” His critics, he says, “want to take a political view” of Mr. Anwar’s imprisonment. “I was not the best-liked leader in the Western world, because I’m critical about other wrongdoings elsewhere”—he was famously outspoken against Israel—“so the moment they find reason to blame me, they will.”
Dr. Mahathir suggests he could have resorted to Malaysia’s Internal Security Act, “which allowed the government to detain a person without trial. I didn’t do that. He went to the courts.” Asked if Mr. Anwar’s succession would be good for Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir says, “well, that is what the people want. It’s not a question of what I like. If the people want that, they will have it.”
How does Mr. Anwar feel about his erstwhile jailer? “He seems to be quite nice,” Dr. Mahathir says. “He sees me; we talk to each other. We didn’t discuss about old things, because we decided that those things are the past, and we can’t look at the past. We have to look ahead.” As for the sodomy law, Dr. Mahathir says his government will not repeal it. “We are a Muslim nation, and we do not tolerate sodomy. The rest of the world may tolerate it, but we cannot. That is against our religion.”
Dr. Mahathir doesn’t like the way radical Islam is commonly described in the West. “In Malaysia, we believe that what we practice is Islamic fundamentalism. If you go according to the teachings of Islam, you will be able to set up a good society, a good government. You will not be oppressive.” What the West calls Islamist fundamentalism, he says, “is a deviation from the teachings of Islam. It’s not Islam at all. We have some people [in Malaysia] who are attracted to these deviations, but we have been able to argue against them. And by and large, the people support us.” He alludes to his recent criticism of a Shariah court in the Malaysian state of Terengganu, which ordered the caning of a lesbian couple.
“It’s not a moderate position,” he says of his own disapproval of the court, “it’s an Islamic position. I mean, in Islam there is tolerance. We have to be merciful and compassionate. There are other forms of punishment. It’s not necessary to cane these people, so we objected to that. It gives a very bad impression of Islam.” He has said the two women should have had to undergo counseling, not caning.
Another contentious facet of modern Malaysia is its entrenched system of racial preferences. Ethnic Malays—the Sons of the Soil, in local parlance—receive notable advantages over citizens of Chinese and Indian origin in jobs and educational opportunities. Will the New Mahathir, as Malaysians now describe him, reset his country toward a goal of equality and genuine pluralism? Will the idea of Malay dominance diminish?
“There is no Malay dominance,” Dr. Mahathir says quickly, before launching into an explanation of how he sees his country’s political demography: “The problem is we have three major communities, and the wealth of the country is not evenly distributed between the three. So we have to correct that.” If not, he continues, there will be “tension” as a result of the “big disparity” between rich and poor. And if “the rich belong to one race and the poor belong to another race, then the potential for tension and conflict will be much greater.”
“The rich” are Malaysia’s Chinese, and to a lesser extent its Indians; the poor are the Malays. “What we did was to favor the poorer people, so as to be able to catch up with the rich. That is affirmative action. Naturally, affirmative action means that you have to discriminate against one group in favor of the other. If you don’t do that, there can never be any changes in the disparities.”
He intends, however, to effect one change. Dr. Mahathir plans to crack down on the widespread practice whereby Malay beneficiaries resell to businessmen of other races contracts they’ve been awarded based on affirmative action. “We have to make sure that if we give a contract to the deprived community, then they cannot sell or transfer the contract to anybody else. If they do, then the contract becomes invalid.”
Dr. Mahathir says he also is determined to address the more profound issues of corruption that bedevil his country. These include the relentless prosecution of his predecessor, Mr. Najib, who stands accused of gargantuan theft from a state-owned fund known as 1MDB.
“I believe that if the leader is not corrupt, then the level of corruption will not be very high,” Dr. Mahathir says. “What happened was that the Prime Minister himself was totally corrupt, openly corrupt, and because of that, corruption spread throughout the whole government machinery and the business community.” There will be no amnesty deal with Mr. Najib, Dr. Mahathir insists: “He claims he can explain everything, that he didn’t take the money. And that is up to the judge, to evaluate his defense against the prosecutor’s evidence.”
A legacy of the Najib years is a series of contracts with China, which critics and economists believe will leave Malaysia deeply indebted. Dr. Mahathir has put most of these projects, worth around $22 billion in total, on hold. On a visit to Beijing in August, he startled his hosts by speaking of a “new version of colonialism”—an allusion to China’s galloping economic expansion. In New York, Dr. Mahathir says that “the press put those words into my mouth, I didn’t say that”—even as there are YouTube clips online that show him uttering those words in the presence of an open-mouthed Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier.
In what appears to be a quibble over words, Dr. Mahathir insists that he meant “neocolonialism,” in the sense that “Sukarno said after independence.” (Sukarno was Indonesia’s president from 1945-67.) Dr. Mahathir says that “any attempt to gain control of our country is a form of colonialism. So we do not want that. I wasn’t specifically saying [it] about China.” He adds that “it is the duty of an independent country to retain its independence by whatever means possible.”
The Chinese projects “involve huge borrowings, and we cannot repay that money,” he says. “So the best thing to do is to drop the project. But of course we have made agreements with them. If, unilaterally, we drop the project, we have to pay compensation, so instead we proposed a postponement, or a reduction in the scale.” The Chinese “haven’t said no, so far. They are listening to what we are proposing.”
His own relationship with the giant neighbor to Malaysia’s north isn’t Dr. Mahathir’s only worry. He doesn’t like the growing hostility between the U.S. and China. “Confrontation, I think, isn’t going to be good for anyone,” he muses, referring to the presence of U.S. warships in the South China Sea. “It’s far better to talk and discuss things, rather than to send battleships to show your dislike for whatever move that the countries there make.”
Donald Trump appears to disconcert Dr. Mahathir, who laughs nervously when asked about the American President. “We cannot make out what the presidency is like, because he changes his mind sometimes three times in one day. It’s very unsettling, because how do you deal with a person who is not consistent? This is our worry.”
Malaysia’s previous Prime Minister, says Dr. Mahathir, “tried to bribe” President Trump “by offering to buy aircraft and all that. He actually said he wanted to help the economy of the United States. Malaysia is a small country. We can’t help people.”
Mr. Varadarajan is executive editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Appeared in the September 29, 2018, print edition.