“Before this, those who became prime ministers were all from the elitist Malay families, they were the Tunku and Datuk. I was a nobody but I managed. Now the mould has been broken and any commoner who has the ability can become the prime minister. “


3 Sept 2007: Merdeka Special: ‘Let the rakyat be my judge’ 

Article from The Edge, Merdeka Special, 3 Sept.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was an Umno outcast when Tunku Abdul Rahman was nearing the end of his premiership. He was expelled from the party in 1969 for his criticisms against the party leadership. Today, in what seems like a similar situation, Mahathir considers himself persona non grata in Umno. Between 1981 and 2003, he was the prime minister, the longest serving in our 50 years of nationhood.

As a leader, he was a supremely confident man, doing things his way and often enough, the contrarian way. He is adamant that Proton is a viable national venture and remains upset that the double-tracking rail electrification project from Johor Baru to Padang Besar was scrapped by the present administration two weeks after he stepped down. At the same time, he is worried about the future of the nation if corruption is not tackled — a problem which his detractors say was not only prevalent during his time but also reached an unprecedented scale.

Love him or loath him, Mahathir, in his 22 years as prime minister, led the nation’s industrialisation process, diversified its economic base and built the Multimedia Super Corridor, turning Malaysia into a nation envied by many developing countries. To secure its economic future, he believes the country should invest heavily in R&D and carve a niche in high-tech industry. In an interview with group executive editor Azam Aris and associate editor Leela Barrock, Mahathir insists that he cannot lay claim to too much of the country’s success since Merdeka as a lot of things happened because of other people. If there is any need for an assessment of his premiership, he is leaving it to the rakyat to be the judge.

The Edge: As the elder statesman, can we have your views on the years before Merdeka?
Tun Dr Mahathir: Malaysians, notably the Malays, believed that they had no capacity to do anything, certainly not to rule the country by themselves. They believed this country would forever be ruled by others. In fact, in many agreements entered [into] by the Malay Rulers with the British, it was stipulated that these agreements would remain valid as long as there is the “moon, the sun and the stars”, which is permanent. Apparently, they never thought at any time they would become independent.
Why so? Didn’t they show any ability to self rule the country?
We were unlike the Indonesians or the Indians. The Malays here have a certain culture… a culture of being loyal to the Rulers. When the Rulers did anything, they did not seek the support or the agreement of the people. The rakyat on their part never expected to be part of the political process. It was understood that politics was not for the people.
That was why when the Rulers gave away chunks of the country, there was no protest (from the rakyat) and when the Rulers entered into agreements that were actually submission to foreign powers, there was again no protest. So the mentality of the Malays for about 450 years (since the downfall of the Malacca Sultanate to the Portuguese in 1511) was that they never made any real attempt to free themselves from foreign rule. When the Portuguese were here, the Sultan of Johor (a descendent of the Malacca Sultanate) did try to recover its land but the support of the people on the whole was quite pathetic. When they were under the Portuguese, they lived under Portuguese rule ­— similarly when the Dutch and British were here. No rebellion except for some opposition from individuals like Mat Kilau and Tok Janggut, which were actually not organised rebellions or a struggle for independence.
What changed?
When the British proposed the Malayan Union (in 1946), by that time quite a number of Malays were better educated and they suddenly realised they were about to lose this country completely because of the proposals for citizenship for all who considered Malaya their home. Furthermore, the positions of the Rulers as the heads of the states were practically downgraded. That awakened a lot of resentment and partly too because the British had lost to the Japanese during the early part of World War II. There were views among some people that the British were not invulnerable after all and (as ruler and colonial master) they were not able to provide protection. There were many other factors that changed the minds of some Malays, notably the members of the intelligentsia of those days.

The intelligentsia was able to activate a groundswell of support for independence?
Yes. The kampung people were not much moved until we started talking about the price of padi, for example… that we would be able to inflate the price of padi if we ruled the country by ourselves. To them, it was not so much about having more say in the government. But some of the Malays began [to be] more involved in opposing the Malayan Union because it was detrimental to the interest of the community. In those days, the Chinese and the Indians were not regarded as citizens except in the colony states. In the Malay states, they were not regarded as subjects of the Rulers… the subjects of the Rulers were only the Malays and the Indonesians who came to live here.

When independence actually happened, did the feeling of Merdeka from the British permeate all the way to the ground level?
No. Merdeka to many meant that the officers in the government service were changed from British to Malayan. The administration of the country would be carried out by us. But by and large, many did not think about changes that would change our lives. This came later when the feeling of mengisi kemerdekaan (filling the aspirations of an independent nation) became a priority, notably at the time when Tun Abdul Razak started to emphasise rural development. Then only, people began to realise that they can now ask for things that they never had asked before. People in the villages, at least in Kedah, began to set up jawatankuasa desakan (action committee).

In that scenario, did you foresee at that time that we could achieve so much today in terms of mengisi kemerdekaan?

Why so?
There was no model for us. All you know about independence is that we rule by ourselves. We don’t talk about developing the country or progressing. These came later, initially as a response to unemployment. It was a big problem then. The only employment the Malays could think of at the time was to cultivate the land. The old practice was if you opened up land and showed evidence of working on the land, you were entitled to ask for a grant [for the land]. They went into the forest and cut down trees to cultivate the land but it was a costly affair and it took a long time for them to get the money. Rubber trees take a long time to grow. Many people were without income and so they started asking questions like what were their representatives [in the government] for when they could not look after them.

When did you see that this independent country could become more than just another banana republic and be developed into a modern nation?
Before I became a member of parliament even… I had travelled to Hong Kong in 1960, Japan (1961) and Europe (1962) and I saw Japan, in particular… how it rebuilt itself [after the war]. I felt that it was not only the Europeans but others could do it too. I was envious of what I saw, especially in Japan. If you stand outside Tokyo station, even in 1961, you see trains coming in and out endlessly. Obviously, we can make a try of having all these in our country. Why not? Malaysia was not a beggar country. Right from the word go, we were not dependent on foreign aid as many other developing countries were after achieving independence. We had rubber, tin and enough money to have a fairly good level of development and it’s a matter of going up. Of course, we don’t plan to be like this [today] but we do think that we should improve a little on this and that….

When you became the prime minister in 1981, did you think that the country could actually progress the way it has?
Yes. I felt we could do it… there was no reason why we couldn’t do it. What is there about having more trains and roads? Before I was the prime minister, I was already proposing the North-South highway but the cabinet at the time did not approve it. As the deputy then, I thought of many things, for example, we should occupy Pulau Layang-Layang… it is ours. We should try and be like Japan. If Japan can do it, we can too. What is so difficult about building roads?

In our progress and development as a nation, how crucial was education?
Education is very important. It is the key. I was grateful to my parents not because they gave me money but they enabled me to get a good education. It was because I was able to go to an English school [and university] that I was able to improve my earnings and better my life. If you have an education, it allows for upward mobility… doesn’t matter if you are the son of a fisherman or padi farmer.

So education is a crucial part of mengisi kemerdekaan?
Definitely, education helped in improving earnings. It happened to me so I thought other people who got the opportunity for education would benefit too… and I graduated [from medical school] before independence. Initially, [about the education system after independence] we thought that all the schools would use Malay as the teaching language but this would only be done after people were better prepared to learn using the Malay language beyond the primary schools [and eventually in universities]. During the British [era], the Malay language was practically for primary schools only. If you wanted to go to secondary schools, you had to go to an English school and the Malays, Chinese and Indians spoke English at school. For me, there was no problem of interaction and mixing with the other races and conversing in English. Again, I faced no problem when I studied medicine [in Singapore] where the Malays were a minority; there were only seven Malays out of 70 people in my class. In 1970s, the education system was changed when Bahasa Malaysia was used as the medium of interaction [for secondary schools and universities]. Of course, this is something that we aspired to but the time was not right I think, and it resulted in many of the Chinese students leaving the national schools, which are now considered Malay medium schools. They left to join the Chinese schools.

Do you think the change in education system from an English medium to Malay contributed to the problem of racial polarisation today?
Yes… but politics also played a role. There is this perception that the Malays were given better treatment, mostly propagated by the Chinese educationists. They keep on harping to this day and refuse to see that in this country that the Chinese are still far better off than the Malays. They just refuse to acknowledge this.

How can we prevent racial polarisation from getting worse then?
The problem is each side [the different races] start saying things that are much resented by the others. If you hear the things that some of the young Malay leaders are saying about the Chinese, which the Chinese can hear, of course, they don’t like it. And some of the things the Chinese say about the Malays angers them. We can tone this down and be rational. People asked me if the New Economic Policy [NEP] is a hindrance [to development and national unity]. If it is a hindrance, then how come Malaysia is the best developed of all the developing countries? Other developing countries [have] got no racial problems, maybe theirs is tribal in nature and they don’t have the NEP… now, are they better off than us? Look at this country, if you say the Chinese are not well off, I think you are just lying to yourself. The Chinese are well off, yes, there are poor Chinese but look at the towns like Puchong, Serdang and Seri Kembangan — there are townships in front of my house. Who are living there? You go to [upscale] residential places like Mont’Kiara, how many Malays are living there? Why resent the little things that we [the government] do for the Malays… in order for them to get up.
I do blame the Malays also as many did not respond to all opportunities that were given to them. We tried to get many of them into universities but some [notably the boys] prefer to end up as Mat Rempit, as they are more interested in riding motorcycles instead. Look at the public universities today… about 60% to 70% of the Malay student population are girls. Where are the boys? We can’t tell the non-Malays… look, you wait while we play and you cannot get to universities until the Malays decide to go there. You can’t do that. That was why when I was the prime minister, I removed the quota system and [made the decision that] the entry to public universities should be based on merit. But still, the entry is not based on apple to apple as the majority of Malays entered universities through matriculation courses as compared to the Higher School Certificate for the non-Malays.
We give them licences and contracts too, but many don’t bother to work. Some were successful and have done well… it is not that the Malays have low capacity, it is just that many cannot be bothered. Then there’s politics coming [into the picture] and political leaders wanting to be popular. Now we are even seeing ministers supporting the abuse of the NEP by the Malays. They give approved permits (APs) and licences, which were eventually sold off by the beneficiaries. And you expect the Chinese and other non-Malays to say it’s all right and let them have the APs? I am quite sure they resent this. Why can’t the APs be given to the Chinese or the Indians? Are the Malays just interested in getting the APs for free and selling them? This is abetted, unfortunately, by the government.

But this has been going on for many years. At what point were these abuses realised and why was something not done to curb the abuses?
We don’t just say… we stop it. For years, I have been appealing to the Malays… look at the speeches I delivered at the Umno general assembly and elsewhere. I urged them, please don’t do this, please work hard, please study. I hoped they would respond and some of them did and they have done well. But by far, the majority wanted to do things the easy way. If you get a contract, sell the contract, if you get the licence, sell the licence and if you get an AP, sell the AP.

But you were the prime minister then and you could have put a stop to it.
Yes, I was the prime minister… I could have put a stop to it but my way of doing things is that I don’t just chop things off. I try to do it gently to try and get them to realise the errors of their ways. I told myself I must be patient but I would not allow it to thrive… now it is driving backwards. During my time [as a cabinet member] APs were given by the minister [Trade and Industry] quite lavishly, mostly to Umno staff at the headquarters. Each of them was getting 10 APs a month which they were selling at RM8,000 per AP, giving them an income of RM80,000 a month. When I became the minister of trade and industry, as well as the deputy prime minister, I put a stop to it. Unless you have premises where you sell cars, you will not get the APs. The people in the Umno headquarters wanted to demonstrate against me but finally they didn’t. I cut back the APs but now apparently, the APs are given out in huge numbers, by the thousands, and some are selling them for RM60,000 each without doing any business. These people have huge houses and even helicopters. This is not the NEP, this is abuse of the NEP. The government must put a stop to this.

What would you do?
I would put a stop to it. I never allowed this during my time. Did you see any Korean cars on the road during my time? You may not notice it but I did not allow Korean cars to come in because we had difficulties selling our cars there. The Koreans have a closed car market, very few models are allowed in. Why should we open? We get no benefit from them.

Your solutions to the NEP abuses?
You have to be more selective. You cannot give [these NEP benefits] just because he is an Umno division head. Let’s have the names out. I showed the names of those who got the licences or contracts. This government says it wants to be transparent, let’s see how transparent it is. Let’s have the names of the people who are behind these companies. Not only the APs… everything. If you want to be transparent, then be transparent. If people ask questions, show it. I did, I showed it.

But your sons did very well in business.
Not very well before, they do well now. During that time [as prime minister] where were they? My son [Mokhzani, who is now the executive chairman of Kencana Petroleum] was trained as a petroleum engineer before he decided to go into business. He bought shares in Pantai Medical Centre and that was his business then, but I did not help him. My other son [Mirzan] was doing business in transport. He bought a shipping line and lost money. Yes, he sold the company to Petronas because there were no other Malay companies that wanted to buy it [to keep the company bumiputera owned]. There were no Malay shipping magnates then. Petronas eventually sold some of the ships at a very high price, better than what it paid my son, who was facing problems during the Asian financial crisis. He could not pay the money he borrowed, so he had to sell and even after selling, he still had to carry a lot of debt. He did not make any profits [out of selling the ships to Petronas]. You can get all the information… it’s on the Internet.

You were a leader of this country for about 30 years, including your years as the deputy prime minister. What would you consider as your successes?
There were a lot of things you can call successes. Among the things I feel happy about was that I was able to ensure relative racial harmony during my premiership. People were suspicious of me as a Malay ultra. When I became the prime minister, the Chinese were suspicious of me. They did not like me… well, they caused me to lose in the general election in 1969 but by the time I stepped down, I think the Chinese no longer hated me. I don’t know if this is true or not but that is my assessment. At least, when I walk around, they come out to me and say thank you, etc. The other thing is that I broke the mould. Before this, those who became prime ministers were all from the elitist Malay families, they were the Tunku and Datuk. I was a nobody but I managed. Now the mould has been broken and any commoner who has the ability can become the prime minister.
These were your two biggest successes?
I cannot claim too much. Many of the nation’s successes were not due to me. A lot of things happened because of other people.
So you do not consider the rapid development experienced by the country during your premiership as one of your biggest successes?
That is for other people to assess. If I said it, then people would say that I would be claiming as if I did everything. I am not making any claim. In fact, I don’t care about what legacy I left. People ask me what was my legacy… what legacy? In a few years’ time, I will be dead… does it matter?

Don’t you think it matters to the country and the people?
It’s up to them. If they want to appreciate it, they will appreciate it. Some of them would say “even though you were responsible for the development, you were a dictator”.

How would you answer to this?
In their assessment, I am a dictator. Of course I would say no, I am not a dictator and nobody would believe that I am one. Those who have worked with me know that they survived because I was not a dictator.

What was the most difficult thing that you had to do during your premiership?
In the beginning, I had not established any credentials and people challenged me. I had practically supported Musa Hitam to become the deputy president of the party and deputy prime minister. He resigned. In those days, it was still possible for those who didn’t agree with the prime minister to show their disagreement, so Musa resigned. But subsequently he teamed up with Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and challenged me [for the Umno presidency]. It was difficult because we allowed for challenges and they went around saying nasty things about me and my ideas of building a national car, etc… and I very nearly lost and only won by 43 votes. Later on, I became a little bit more popular. I had to also tackle a lot of economic problems, including the recession [in the mid-1980s] and later the [Asian] currency crisis [in 1997/1998]. In the party, I always had to work hard to get the support of the party and most of the time, some senior members of the party were against me; people like Shahrir Samad, Adib Adam… I have no grudge against those who fought me. Those who backed Razaleigh, the so-called Team B, when I won, I brought them back into the government ­— Syed Hamid, Kadir Sheikh Fadzil, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Rais Yatim. These were the people who tried to pull me down and challenge me and I have got no grudges against them. In fact, I helped them to go up and up and up into the sky.

Isn’t that regular party politics, that not everyone will agree with everybody else?
It is regular party politics but today, you cannot dissent. Not allowed to have any criticisms of the leadership. I as the ex-president of the party may not say anything against the leader of the party and I have been prevented from giving talks to various groups… not necessarily from Umno. They invited me and they were called up by the police and menteri besar and told to withdraw [the invitation]. I am persona non grata in the party… an ex-president. And those who persisted [in inviting me], they have lost their positions. These things you cannot publish in the media. You may want to ask me 22 questions and I will answer them all.

What do you consider your single biggest failure, if any?
Well, I feel very sad because I tried to change the mindset of the Malays and their value system. I tried to make them be appreciative of what is given to them, to make use of the opportunities and do it properly. I begged, I prayed and cried… I did everything possible but in the end, I think it’s now worse. For RM200, they [Umno members] are willing to sell their votes.

Why do you think you have failed… including fighting corruption?
I tried. I told them how dangerous it is if you become corrupt but “tak apalah, saya ambil sikit, bukan saya buat apa. Kalau saya tak ambil, orang lain ambil”. That is the attitude.

Did money politics actually start when you were the president of Umno?
No. I did not use money. You look at my constituency, what facilities that I gave… very little. I had the university [Universiti Utara Malaysia] built there not because it was my constituency. During the emergency, the government evacuated the town of Sintok and left it to the communists. I thought it was ridiculous — how can you evacuate the land and give it up to the communists? In order to reclaim Sintok, we put a university there and it became a growth area. That is why the university is there, why should I put it so far except to give some incentive to develop the land? The Kedah-Thai border was previously in Changloon, which is five miles from the real border with Thailand. I had to shift that from Changloon to Bukit Kayu Hitam, which is exactly at the border. That is our country. Why do you put your checkpoint [custom and immigration] five miles inside? That is not no man’s territory, that is ours.

But you must have been aware there was money politics in Umno?

Not in my constituency. There may be money politics elsewhere.

How about the rest of Umno?
I heard there was [money politics]. But it is always difficult to trace. There was a case in Perlis [party elections] where members came and showed me evidence that “this man” ­— who is now a very important man in the party and is today telling people not to be corrupt — gave money. [When this happens] we try to take action but there will be denial and not many will be willing to come forward and give [further] evidence. The problem with corruption is that nobody wants to come forward and provide the evidence. If you take them to court, how many corruption cases, especially the big ones, that the court has been able to convict? It takes years and years.
The only way to fight corruption is to reduce the opportunity for corruption. That was what I did. I tried to reduce the number of approvals needed and the time taken to give approvals. At City Hall, for example, I drew up work flow charts — the manual and procedures — for every officer. That was how we combatted corruption. We cannot fight corruption by hoping to get witnesses to go to the court… because everybody is scared. If you report one officer, the other officers might not be nice to you and you will find difficulty in getting approvals later.

You left office in 2003 and looking back, was there anything that you wished you had completed?
No. I told myself there is no way I can complete everything before I step down. No way. As you go along, new things come up. I told myself that I would step down in 1998 but there was the Asian financial crisis and the deputy prime minister, who was also the minister of finance, just couldn’t handle it. So, I stayed until the crisis was over and Umno got over the problem of the removal of the deputy prime minister. When everything was settled, the party and the finances of the country were in good shape and generally the nation was stable, I decided and announced I would step down. That was in 2002. Umno members appealed and I stayed on to complete two jobs — to chair the Organisation of Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement summits. Then, I stepped down but there were several projects in the pipeline and I told my successor to please carry on. But almost immediately, he reversed my decisions.

You were taken by surprise?
Two weeks after I stepped down, the decision to build the double-tracking from Johor Baru to Padang Besar was reversed because it seems there was no money. It will cost us about RM14 billion over six years, which means over RM2 billion a year. We had the money. I know when I left the country was not bankrupt. We can build the double-tracking to electrify the rail from Johor Baru right up to Padang Besar with the extension to Singapore, which would be dealt with separately. Now the government realises that without the double-tracking line, it would be losing a lot of business coming from southern Thailand. Double-tracking would reduce the waiting time. The roads and highways are getting congested. You have trucks pulling containers causing traffic jams. A train could carry more than 50 containers each time. That is why double-tracking and electrification of the rail is necessary. But to build it now will cost more money.

The project would not be profitable but would you say that this was an infrastructure project that the government should spend money on?
When you build infrastructure initially, it will never be profitable. Sometimes, it takes many years before it becomes profitable. If you want to wait and study if the project is profitable, then you will find it will be costly. Let’s look at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport [KLIA]. It is designed for 100 years, there is one satellite [terminal building there], which can accommodate 25 million passengers, but [the] design can take in four satellites there. If you don’t design for 100 years, in 10 or 15 years, there will be no more space… where do you want to go? It is not easy to get 25,000 acres of land. Tunku Abdul Rahman moved the international airport from Sungai Besi to Subang despite protests but he thought at that time we would be handling 400,000 passengers a year. By the time we moved away from Subang, the airport was handling 14 million passengers a year on a single runway. You can’t expand there because there is no land and houses are built around the area. So if you want to build another one, build a really big one and prepare for the future. Don’t build for today. When the light rail transit [LRT] was built, there were hardly any passengers but today, there is standing room only. Now you have to expand. If there were no LRT and monorail today, what is the traffic like on Kuala Lumpur’s roads? You have to think and do it for the future. And if you wait, it will be more costly and at the same time, you don’t have the facilities.

Who do you think is the best finance minister in the country?
With some reservations, I think Daim Zainuddin did a good job. He understands money. But of course a lot of people think he is corrupt. I get harassed by people who are against him. A lot of people say he is corrupt but I can’t find evidence. As I said, finding evidence of corruption is very difficult. I give people the benefit of the doubt. You can’t just…. on the basis of people telling you with no evidence, mind you, and not willing to go to court to give evidence. They tell me so and so is corrupt, that is not good enough.

Was Tun Tan Siew Sin a good finance minister?
He was a very good finance minister except that he was so stingy that we lost some money. A huge piece of land in the middle of Tokyo, 20 acres, was offered to us very cheaply and he rejected it. Another piece of land in Jeddah, which our ambassador then said we should buy, he rejected. Today, all these pieces of land… imagine 20 acres of land in the middle of Tokyo, how much money you can make. Fortunately, Tunku decided to buy a piece of land to build our embassy there and that land appreciated so much that we could sell the land and buy for ourselves a very big property… that’s how we got our present embassy in Tokyo. The problem with Siew Sin is he did not want to spend money at all. That is also bad.

What are the nation’s future economic challenges?
We have to understand that we have to compete. When we started getting foreign direct investment (FDI), many of the other developing countries resented FDI. They did not want foreigners to come into their countries. We went the other way and invited foreigners here to invest to create jobs for the locals. But now, other countries have learnt and they are more attractive as their cost of labour is lower. We have to think of a higher grade of FDI. Japan, for instance, cannot compete with China on the same basis. Japan has to go very high-tech and find niche markets and it is doing that. We cannot be like Japan but we should build on the same strategy… find a niche. Go up to the high-tech level and train your people. It is not difficult and all people can learn. Then, we would have an opportunity. Yes, agriculture is good but we don’t have that much land. Whatever land we have, we have planted with rubber, oil palm, cocoa and padi. If you have a piece of land, you are not going to plant fruits because it takes at least three years before you can earn anything. Your earnings are uncertain. Agriculture has got some potential because of new technologies but it is limited.
The thing that can save us is to go into high technology. That is why we created Cyberjaya and the Multimedia Super Corridor. We started training people. Biotechnology offers potential too but not much money is spent. The attitude towards research is still very primitive. They think if you put in RM100 today, you can get RM10 tomorrow or 10% returns. Research costs money. If you hit on something good, you get a very big return. We are lagging behind others now because we are not willing to spend money on R&D. Now we are killing the automotive industry. I don’t know what is the policy. Do we want to be a consumer country buying everything that we need or do we want to be a producer country, inventing a new product and selling it to the world? If you go for R&D and high technology and don’t consider yourself a consumer and want to produce things that other people will consume, then I think this country will develop further.


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