Malaysia's then interim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gestures during a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Putrajaya on February 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Asia Times is making this full interview transcript available only for AT+ Premium members.

Four months after his shock resignation, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has his sights set on yet another political comeback. In league with multi-racial opposition parties, the elder statesman hopes to unseat yet another ally-turned-foe successor whose rule he claims threatens a return to corrupt and authoritarian misrule.

Prevailing in an against-all-odds election win in 2018, Mahathir partnered with his estranged protégé and former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, to topple scandal-plagued Najib Razak’s premiership, heralding Malaysia’s first-ever democratic transfer of power and bringing an end to the United Malays National Organization’s (UMNO) 61-year rule.

Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, however, fell less than two years into its mandate, as the leadership of his own party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), or Bersatu, staged a political coup and formed a new, unelected government propped by UMNO that brought incumbent Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to power in February.

In a wide-ranging interview with Asia Times’ Nile Bowie and Shawn W Crispin, the nonagenarian politician articulated his plans to recapture the premiership for an unprecedented third term, touching on everything from his relationship with Anwar, his leadership legacy and Malaysia’s place amid intensifying US-China superpower rivalry.

Asia Times: Why are you now trying to regain the premiership for a third time?

Mahathir: Well, when I had served the country for 21 years, I thought that was long enough and I thought that younger people should take over from me. I declared that I was stepping down, but they asked me to stay for one more year, which I did. After 22 years as prime minister [1981-2003], I resigned to give place to other people.

Unfortunately, when my successors took over, a lot of people felt very unhappy. They all came to see me and asked me please do something, please do something. Now, what could I do? I tried advising, I tried to tell them that they should not do these things which the people do not like, but I was not successful.

During the tenure of the 5th prime minister [Abdullah Ahmad Badawi], I eventually had to leave the party and I had to expose all the wrong things that he was doing. In 2008, he did very badly in the 12th election and I suggested that he should handover the prime ministership to Najib [Razak], who was his deputy.

He retired and Najib took over, and I thought everything would be solved because Najib is the son of the 2nd prime minister [Abdul Razak Hussein], who is very revered by the people because he did a good job as prime minister. Unfortunately, when Najib took over, things got worse.

He began borrowing huge sums of money, spending it in the wrong way. Money disappeared and all that. And because of that, again, people came to see me to ask me please do something, please do something. I again tried to advise, but I was told by Najib that my advice on how to win the support of people was not relevant.

He believes that, with money, you can get people to support you. And he had no money – he had to steal the money, and that is wrong. He was involved in money laundering, borrowing huge sums of money, spending some of it on himself, his wife, and then trying to bribe people into supporting him.

I left UMNO and formed another party mainly to go against him, and I worked with the opposition parties and as you know, in the 14th election, we managed to win, something that was not expected because Najib’s party, the UMNO and Barisan Nasional, had been in power for 60 years, winning every election.

And when I was there as president, I used to win by a two-thirds majority in five consecutive elections. But then in the 14th general election, people were so much against Najib that they decided that that was enough, that time was up and therefore they should not be the government anymore.

And they chose a coalition formed by me and the opposition, they supported this new coalition and that’s how I came to be again appointed prime minister. It’s not my choice, honestly. I would like to retire like everybody else, but I get these people coming who say please do something, please do something. So that’s why I became prime minister once again in 2018.

New Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gestures during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gestures during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 10, 2018. Photo: Agencies

Asia Times: Are you satisfied with the performance of your previous, recently dissolved PH government?

Mahathir: We made a lot of promises. Some of those promises could be carried out, but some are obstructed by provisions in the constitution, for example, so those we cannot do. We have done away with all those draconian laws. We have removed all the corrupt officials in the government.

We have changed the leadership of government companies and institutions from being led by politicians, to being led by professionals.We want to stop this corruption, because all these politicians stole money from these institutions and the companies who were doing very badly. So, we changed.

And at the same time, one of the things that I always feel was special about Malaysia, the transition was smooth and we could form a new government of five parties, and we could function as a new government. We had the administration carrying out our policies and doing well, but of course the time was very short. It wasn’t even two years.

But what we have achieved within that short period of time, I think it is quite something by comparison with other countries where, when there is a transition, a change of leadership, a change of government, there is always a lot of problems like demonstrations and strikes, bringing down the elected government and all that.

AT: If you were to assume a third term, what would you do differently than incumbent Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government?

Mahathir: Well, not much different. You see, this present government have reversed all the things that we have done. For example, they have removed all the professional chairmen of companies and all that to be replaced by, again, the politicians.

And with these politicians, some of them are facing [corruption] charges in the courts, they shouldn’t be appointed as chairmen, but they have removed all the professional people we have appointed, so this has got to be reversed again. I mean, its tedious and very irritating that we should have to do that. But again, the practice of this government is to try to eliminate opposition to it.

AT: If Muhyiddin survives a vote of no-confidence brought by you when Parliament sits in July, what would be your next move?

Mahathir: Well if we lose, then we’ll have to wait for the general election. But this vote of no-confidence is valuable because it will give me a chance to list out all the wrong things that has been done by Muhyiddin, particularly with regard to his undermining his own coalition government in order to become prime minister. He does it through the backdoor, not in accordance with normal democratic practices.

And there are many other things that he is doing. He has become quite a dictator. He is dismissing people, appointing people at will, without any reference to law or party rules and regulations, or constitution. He just gives orders. And unfortunately people seem to accept his decisions.

For example, I am the chairmen of the party (ruling Bersatu). For no reason that I know, he just dismissed me from being a member of the party. What right has he? He should ask me to go to the disciplinary committee or something. But no, he dismissed me and many others, even at the branch level…That is not the kind of government we like to see in Malaysia.

AT: Do you think Muhyiddin is popular among ordinary Malays, the constituency you have sought to appeal to as part of your multi-racial coalition?

Mahathir: Well, initially he was quite popular because he says that he’s going to form a Malay Muslim government. Of course, the Malays like that. And then he says that DAP (Democratic Action Party) will destroy the Malays, so we need to bring down DAP.

A lot of Malays believe what he says. But now they find that he is worse than the Najib government in terms of administration. He tends to do things on his own without any authority, any legal standing. So, people now are beginning to see the true Muhyiddin.

New Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin takes questions from the press, February 29, 2020, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Mohd Daud

AT: If snap elections were held next week, who would win – you or Muhyiddin?

Mahathir: [Laughs] I think he will not win. Who will win will be the party that lost the last election, UMNO, and Najib, provided of course if Najib is found not guilty. And we feel that that is what they are working towards. They want to declare Najib not guilty because if he is found guilty, together with five other people, then Muhyiddin would lose his majority.

So Muhyiddin has to make sure that Najib is not found guilty. But if he is not found guilty, then he is going to compete in the election, and I think he’s going to undermine the leadership of Muhyiddin in particular because he wants to be again the prime minister. 

AT:  How much influence and actual control over this current government would you say Najib wields from behind the scenes?

Mahathir: Well, quite a lot. Muhyiddin knows that without Najib’s support, his government will collapse. So he has to support Najib. But to support Najib means you have to pay a high price, because Najib’s whole idea is that if he can seize the power from the elected government and be a part of the new government, then he would have influence.

He would be able to, somehow or other, wrangle things so that he will not be found guilty. Of course, at this moment, the trial is still going on. But we have seen in four other cases where people who were always thought to be guilty suddenly found himself free of charges. 46 charges were withdrawn from one case (former UMNO chief minister in Sabah, Musa Aman).

AT: Anwar Ibrahim has refused to serve as your deputy, and you have declined to work with him again. Do you see Anwar as being unfit to lead? What is really at the core of your disagreement with or distrust of your former deputy?

Mahathir: It’s not about distrust. It’s about getting the support of the people. While Anwar used to be very popular, now he has lost quite a bit of the support. I believe these people will not support an attempt to make a comeback by Pakatan Harapan if he is designated as prime minister.

A lot of people feel that, for a time at least, I should come back. I have no wish to come back. I mean, coming back three times is a bit too much. [Laughs] Again, the appeal by people is there, they all come, they all ask [and say] that if you are in, we will support. If you are not in, we will not support.

So, I have to take their views seriously because if we in the opposition now want to bring down the present government, we need to have a majority. At the moment, we do not have a majority.

AT: So why can’t Anwar forge that majority? Why does it take you, not him?

Mahathir: Well, he has certain support, I agree with that. But there are certain people who are so strongly against him that if he is named, they will not give the support. And we need quite a number of supporters from the government party so that we can have the majority. I fear that there will be no majority if it depends on him alone. I would like to help him.

AT: If you are not going to work with Anwar and his Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), then mathematically you will need to partner with elements of the current PN government to secure a majority. In that respect, do you consider [Minister of International Trade and Industry] Mohamed Azmin Ali a “traitor” and would you work with him if he formed a new party?

Mahathir: Well, Azmin is a disappointment. I was very close to him, but he was part of this plot to change the government. Basically, he doesn’t like Anwar. He doesn’t want Anwar to be the next prime minister.  He wants to withdraw support from the party which is headed by Anwar, so he took a number of their members out.

He joined Muhyiddin and they have formed a government now, but I find that such plotting is not good for government. We shouldn’t plot and try and negate the wishes of the people. The people had already chosen their government. But you go through the backdoor, you manipulate things and you want to be the new government together with the [preceding] government rejected by the people.

The people are disappointed. They took a lot of trouble to defeat that party, UMNO and BN. And now, those who are chosen by the people worked to frustrate the wishes of the people. And people are not happy about that.

Anwar Ibrahim (L) together with Party deputy president, Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali (right), arrive for celebrating of 20-year Party Keadilan Rakyat at Dataran Rantau, Negeri Sembilan. Pix by Malay Mail / Hari Anggara.

AT: Prior to the fall of your Pakatan Harapan government, many people speculated you in fact preferred Azmin to succeed you rather than Anwar. Was that ever the case?

Mahathir: No. I have made my promise. I will step down but after that, it is up to the members of Parliament to give their support to the candidate. They can choose Anwar, of course, but they may not want to choose Anwar. That is up to them, it’s not for me to deicide.

Because normally the candidate for prime ministership [needs] support of the majority of the members of Parliament. I can determine that to a certain extent there are others who have other ideas, so it is up to them. If they want Anwar, he will be there. If they want Azmin, he will be there. But I think Azmin has, well, done something that the people do not like.

AT: On other ideas for prime minister, do you think your son, Mukhriz Mahathir, would make a good future prime minister?

Mahathir: [Laughs] Well, it’s up to him. You see, when I was prime minister, I didn’t allow my sons to be involved in politics. I don’t want people to accuse me of nepotism. But I stepped down. They have a right to go into politics and Mukhriz seems to be the one most interested.

He has been made chief minister of the state of Kedah, and obviously he is one of the leaders. If people like him, it is up to them to choose, not for me. I don’t choose. I have always abided by the choice made by the people.

AT: But do you think he would have risen to the same national prominence if he was not your son?

Mahathir: [Laughs] He has his own way. Actually, he could have done better. During the time of [former Prime Minister] Abdullah [Badawi], he was competing against Abdullah’s son in law and he lost, and because of that he is not prominent in the center. He is only prominent in his own state.

AT: If you are unable to regain control of your political party, Bersatu, will you and your faction remain independents in Parliament or would you consider joining a party you are aligned with, such as the DAP, which is currently the largest opposition party?

Mahathir: [Laughs] I don’t think I would join the DAP. As you know, they are making DAP the scapegoat. They blame the DAP for controlling the government so as to win over Malay support for them. But if I join the DAP, which is predominantly Chinese, I don’t think that would be well accepted by the people.

I have always represented the Malay segment of the population, it has always been from the very beginning that way and I think I will continue to do that one way or another, whether it is through joining another party or being independent or forming another party. These are options that I don’t think I need to make at the moment.

AT: How would you respond to criticism that you currently run the risk of slipping into the political wilderness and that your current drive for power is more a personal power play than your 2018 drive for reform and justice?

Mahathir: Well, if people don’t want me, that’s okay. [Laughs] I go by the wishes of the people. I don’t think I will be popular always. In fact, I criticize people quite a lot and many of them feel very unhappy with me.

I am not supported 100% by the people, a majority of them used to support me. But maybe now they have changed their minds. But in politics, of course, sometimes you go up and sometimes you lose. You have to accept that, and I am willing to accept that.

AT: As a two-time premier, who was often popular, sometimes not, what is your biggest political regret?

Mahathir: My regret is my attempt to ensure that people are equally benefiting from the country. That is where I failed. I find that the disparity in terms of wealth between the different races is still very big. That may cause resentment and may even lead to a lot of tension and confrontation.

I tried to do that in my 22 years, but there I only succeed a little. But we need to do a little bit more because there is a disparity between town and country, from state to state, between people of different ethnic origins. All these things will undermine the stability of the country. That is what I tried to do, and I did not fail completely, but I failed quite a bit. Some success, but mostly failure.

A motorcyclist rides past portraits of Malaysia’s former prime ministers (L-R), Abdul Razak, Hussein Onn and Mahathir Mohamad, painted on a wall in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan

AT: During your first tenure in the 1980’s, you put out a 2020 vision target speaking to some of these issues. It’s now 2020. Did we hit or miss?

Mahathir: [Laughs] There was a 30-year period of time to achieve developed country status, that was what, at the rate of growth, we were achieving in the 80s, we believed that we could achieve this ambition to become a fully developed country.

Unfortunately, after I stepped down in 2003, the two governments which succeeded me decided on a different course, on a different way of administering the country. Mostly they have shown a degree of corruption that is not contributing towards the growth of the country. So, because of that – today is 2020 – we have not been able to achieve the target.

But we feel that with a new policy, where we would get rid of all the things that were abused by the previous people, I think by 2030 we may achieve that status as a developed country.

AT: Critics would say many of Malaysia’s problems are rooted in the political culture of the UMNO machine you commandeered and built. So, in retrospect, do you regret forging UMNO into the political force that it is today?

Mahathir: No, I inherited that. You see, in most multiracial countries the indigenous people formulate the culture. Mostly people identify with the people who are already there. For example, America, the first settlers were British and they brought the English language and the British culture, and subsequent migrants adopted that, and the same thing in many other countries.

But in Malaysia, we find reluctance to adopt the culture, the language of the indigenous people. They want to retain their identity with the country they come from, and because of that there is always this separation based on race, based on where we originate from.

When you want to have a political party that is multi-racial, there is a reluctance on the part of many races to support a multi-racial party. They want you to represent them, that particular race, so we have to respond to that.

You want to be popular, you want to be supported, you must know what the people feel and they still feel very much attached to their own race. If you say, forget about that, we must be multi-racial, the result is that you never get to be a government. You will never win an election.

Over the years, UMNO remained in power. As they say, power corrupts. Initially UMNO was very clean. When we fought against the British, against the Malayan Union, no money was involved. We all made sacrifices.

But later on when we became independent, people realized that if you’re actively in politics, you can actually become quite rich. You can become a minister, a prime minister. Instead of focusing on the development of the country, on solving all the many economic problems, they decided that they must become politicians.

And to do that, many resort to bribes. They use money, and when they use money, then there arises a need for them to have the money. And how do they get the money? They try to get into some companies, of course promoted by their government, and as a result, the politicians become quite corrupt.

I was telling them way back when I was prime minister in my first term, I was telling them at the rate you’re going, you’re going to lose the election. But they managed to survive until the 14th election. The 14th general election was because people did not like this corruption. That’s why they defeated the incumbent government and decided to choose [our] opposition.

Aerial view of UMNO’s assembly meeting, December 7, 2019. Photo: Facebook

AT: How were you able to finance your movement without the benefit of government coffers?

Mahathir: Well, I kept on telling people that you don’t have to give money. You go down to the villages, shake their hands, talk about their family problem and try to resolve that. I think that will make you very popular. I don’t have to give money. I didn’t have money and I couldn’t give money to them.

What I can do is identify myself with them. I go down to the villages, I talk to people, I ask about their problems, I try to resolve their problems. For example, they were poor, and they couldn’t send their children for higher education, we created more scholarships for them and things like that. This is what wins you popularity.

I told Najib many times don’t give money, don’t believe in bribing people. You just go down to the village and talk to the people. His answer was that “cash is king.” He believes in bribery and bribing, and to bribe he has to steal money because he also gives big bribes to ensure that they support him.

AT: Nothing epitomizes UMNO’s money-driven, patronage politics more than the 1MDB scandal. Why in your opinion did the US government recently repatriate $300 million in seized funds to the same political party, UMNO, reputedly responsible for their initial theft?

Mahathir: [The US government] shouldn’t have repatriated the funds, because you’re giving the stolen money back to the thief. It’s absurd. I think they have stopped now. They will have to be a little more circumspect in this matter. Yes, you want to return the money, but not to the thief. You have to return the money to the people who take action against the thief.

AT: Do you think Goldman Sachs should be held accountable for its role in the 1MDB scandal?

Mahathir: Quite definitely, because they raised the funds and charged a very high interest rate, 6%. Normally governments are entitled to 3% or even less, and then they got a commission of 10%. Its absurd.

That kind of thing has never been done, but they seem to see a chance to take a lot of money from Malaysia because this government is corrupt. So we feel that to some extent, Goldman Sachs is responsible. But, of course they are not going to pay us back the money that they caused us to lose.

AT: There is rising pressure on smaller countries to take sides in an emerging new Cold War between the US and China. How should Malaysia position itself as this rivalry intensifies?

Mahathir: Well, both China and the US are good trading partners, big markets for us. We want to sustain that. Unfortunately, the US wants to have a trade war with China, and China of course has to focus on how to overcome the pressures applied by the US.

In doing that, they have to focus more on countering US rather than on building more trade with Malaysia. But nevertheless we gain sometimes when American companies operating in China find that they are not very welcomed there, or they find that their governments do not approve of their investments in China, they want to go out, and we feel that Malaysia is a good place for them to come to.

They can manufacture in Malaysia and export to America. But of course China is suffering a bit. It’s not growing at the rate it used to grow. So the capacity to buy our products is much reduced. Of course now with this Covid-19, things have gotten worse.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaking in Beijing in 2018. Photo: AFP/How Hwee Young

AT: You made big headlines in 2018 when you spoke of China’s “new colonialism.” Do you still see it that way and should Southeast Asian countries be worried by China’s rise and America’s coincident decline?

Mahathir: Well, I have a reputation of saying things which are not very welcomed by many people. [Laughs] Besides America, I have criticized Russia, I have criticized China. But on the other hand, we tell China, look, this is not right. You shouldn’t claim that you own the whole of the South China Sea, simply because it is called the South China Sea. On that basis, the Indian Ocean would belong to India and things like that.

But of course they are a big power, and there is only a certain amount of pressure we can apply to them. But we need to have good relations with China because it is a huge market for us, and we want to continue our trade with China. So, we have to be a bit diplomatic. You have to say the truth, and on the other hand you have to reduce the fact by being more diplomatic.

AT: You were, somewhat, elected on a ticket of pushing back against Chinese influence in Malaysia. Do you feel like you sufficiently pushed back and reset your terms of negotiation with China?

Mahathir: We have no problem with China’s Chinese, but we have a problem with Malaysian Chinese. [Laughs] They have very dynamic people, they have become extremely rich in Malaysia and they own practically all the towns in Malaysia. This is not healthy.

You know, even if there is a single race, the disparities between rich and poor have led to revolutions, to violence and all that. We find that in Malaysia, the disparity between town and country is amplified by the disparity between the Chinese in the towns and the Malays in the rural areas. We need to correct that.

I think many Chinese accept that, but, of course, some who lost out on a certain project that they want may not feel happy about that. But I would like to point out to everybody that as a multi-racial country, Malaysia is much more stable, much more peaceful than many other multi-racial countries. Even by comparison with the United States [and its] problem with the blacks.

AT: What are your thoughts on US President Donald Trump’s policies towards Southeast Asia and do you see the region as poised to benefit from US decoupling from China?

Mahathir: We get the feeling that he doesn’t know much about Southeast Asia. [Laughs] In fact, he doesn’t know much about East Asia.

I think he needs to learn more about Southeast Asia, because we are the only regional grouping (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN) that has survived all these years. All the Caribbean groupings, South Asian groupings, they have not done well but Southeast Asia, ASEAN, has managed to sustain itself and can sit down and talk and discuss problems amongst ourselves.

People must understand we are ten different countries, we have the same objective. Maybe we implement in different ways, but people must understand that this is a region that is growing very fast and I think we should be helped along instead of, well, creating problems, accusing us of this and that.

We are not perfect. The different countries may be a little bit more authoritarian here and there, but we have to accept that we are new democracies. And you can see, when you introduce democracy, you actually introduce instability. That is what happens in the Middle East. So you have to be tolerant with us. Over time, we will become more liberal, more democratic.

A Malaysian naval officer looks out over the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook

AT: How concerned are you that this US-China rivalry could derail that progress and actually devolve an into armed conflict, including in the South China Sea, making Southeast Asia a potential superpower proxy theater? How big a risk is this?

Mahathir:  I hope it doesn’t lead to armed conflict because it’s not productive. War is non-productive. Both sides will be destroyed if they go to war, and there will be collateral damage – that will be us. We’ll be the collateral damage if they go to war. So we don’t want any violence.

That is why our policy is that there should no warships stationed in the South China Sea. You can come, you can pass through. But please, don’t station warships because that is an aggressive act. And that will cause a response from the other side, and some incidents may happen, and before you know it we are at each other’s throat.

That is not civilised. To me, killing people to solve problems is very primitive. When you are savages, maybe. But now even savages don’t do that. These so-called very highly civilized countries resort to war. I would say that they are very primitive people.

AT: Do you find China’s moves in the South China Sea to be “primitive”, because many say they seem to be tilting the region towards conflict?

Mahathir: Well, that is a policy which they adopt because all countries want to enlarge their territories. Of course, China being powerful, they see America bringing warships there and controlling the South China Sea, they want to claim it for themselves also.

Although we don’t agree with them, the fact is that before there were Chinese warships there, there were American warships, the Seventh Fleet was stationed in that area. That invites other people to do likewise. It is a Chinese response to the American policy of dominating this part of the world.

AT: When you were prime minister in the 1990s, you had a vision of closer East Asian cooperation which didn’t catch on likely because of the Western resistance you alluded to. Given the state of the world now, do you not think that regional cohesion is needed now more than ever?

Mahathir: We wanted the Northeast Asian countries and the Southeast Asian countries to come together in certain areas, for example with regard to the currency. We are dependent on American currency, but we should have our own currency that would facilitate our trade. But we should grow together.

Northeast Asia is of course very advanced and I think we can benefit by their investments here, their transfers of technology to Southeast Asia, and together we can grow.

But when we suggested that, America took exception and advised Japan and Korea not to have anything to do with our proposal, even to the point of saying that these people wear sarongs, as if wearing sarongs means we are not civilized. [Laughs] I mean, those kind of remarks are not welcomed. We are independent countries. We want to do things for our own good. But why is America stopping this, stopping that?

AT: Would this vision for regional cohesion you make be made more complicated if Donald Trump is re-elected in November? 

Mahathir: It will be, it will be. You don’t know what Mr Trump will do or say. His analysis of things is not always correct. For example, he didn’t regard this coronavirus as something serious initially.

He thought it was just a flu, but you know what is happening in America today, with more than 100,000 dead and more than 1.7 million people having contracted the disease. So now he’s trying to campaign as if he has done nothing wrong. I do hope the Americans will see through all his bluster.

AT: Do you think presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden would be a better leader in so far as Asia and Southeast Asia are concerned?

Mahathir: By comparison. I don’t know what Joe Biden is like. But I don’t think he would be like Trump. Trump is unusual for an American president. He doesn’t reflect the American character.

A man walking past a mural wall painting during the eleventh day of the Movement Control Order in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on March 28, 2020. Photo: AFP via EyePress Newswire/FL Wong)

AT: How do you think the pandemic will change or reshape the region’s political and economic order? Should China be held accountable for the pandemic as the disease’s initial epicenter?

Mahathir: Well we can blame this country or that country for what happened. The thing is that this is bound to happen because today people can travel very fast and cross whole countries. And if you are infected, the next day or even three hours later you would be in another country with your infection.

What happened is that this had become a pandemic starting perhaps in China. But because people were traveling along, they carried the virus all over the world. Having brought it to Europe, it goes to America and goes everywhere. That is one of the things we have to face because of the ease of travel, the speed of travel in this borderless world. When you do that, you have to regard the whole world as one entity. We cannot divide ourselves into different countries because a disease in America can spread to Malaysia within 12 hours.

That is the reality of things, and now we have to deal with the possibility of pandemics because of the ease of travel. We have to learn how to deal with this new threat to the world. You know, America and China and Russia spend trillions of dollars developing weapons to kill people.

And they suddenly find that this little enemy that you cannot see is attacking them. They should focus on how to deal with this virus, these germs, and things like that so that this world will be a healthier place. Forget about fighting. Fighting is a waste of time, so much money is being spent on weapons.

AT: At one point in March, Malaysia had the then largest Covid-19 infection cluster in Southeast Asia, the Sri Petaling mosque gathering. How would you say the country has since managed its Covid-19 response?

Mahathir: We have done rather well by comparison with other countries. At one time daily new cases were above 200. Now it is down to single figures, the other day it was only three (3).

This is the result of discipline, that we do things we are asked to do. Malaysian people do obey government policies. When they are asked to stay at home, they stay at home. When they are asked not to mix, they don’t. They obey all these orders by the government.

And as a result, we were able to control the speed and the width of the infection. Now there are less and less people contracting. We try and identify all the cases as much as possible, we have enough hospital facilities, including all the other equipment. We can identify places which have clusters, all these things are managed very well because in Malaysia, this job is given to the professionals, the doctors.

AT: Shortly after your victory in 2018 that toppled the BN government, you remarked that potentially Singaporeans may also wish to unseat their own long-ruling government, the People’s Action Party. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s brother has recently joined the opposition. Do you have any views on the city-state’s upcoming (July 10) electoral contest?

Mahathir: Well, that is an internal problem. I think they have had one party for a much longer time than we have. People are a bit tired, maybe they want to see a change. They are entitled to change their government. But even if they change their government, the relationship with Malaysia may not change.

Because, for example, we have this ridiculous agreement with them made in 1926 to sell 1,000 gallons of water at three Malaysian sens. Before, when we had that agreement three sens could buy something. Today, three sens is nothing. You can’t buy a single thing with it. So we asked them, please let’s revise.

They are actually making thousands of dollars every day buying Malaysian water at three sens per thousand gallons and selling for 17 Singapore dollars for that same amount of water, after treatment, of course. We feel that you are a rich country, you are making money out of a poor country.

You are buying water a rate that is lower than what we sell between the two states, for example Johor would sell water to the state of Melaka for 50 sens per thousand gallons. And yet we are selling for three sens to Singapore.

If Singapore is a poor country or maybe they need our help… but it’s not a poor country. We want to negotiate a new price. We buy water from them, and if they want to raise the price of treated water they sell to us, we will negotiate that price also.

AT: Do you think you Malaysia would get a better deal if the PAP were voted out and the Progress Singapore Party, Prime Minister Lee’s brother’s party, were voted in?

Mahathir: Well, lah, we hope there is a change. [Laughs] But knowing Singapore, they are not very cooperative. They don’t want to change anything. Everything is to their advantage, so they want to keep it that way. I do hope the brother, who has differences with his elder brother, would have a different attitude towards Malaysia.

Mahathir Mohamad makes a point during a Zoom call interview with Asia Time, June 25, 2020. Photo: Office of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad

AT: You’re going to be 95-years-old next month. Would you ever consider retirement?

Mahathir: [Laughs] I must consider retirement. I don’t want to be working until the last day, obviously. But the thing is that… I have to respond to people’s requests. I would be very selfish, thinking only about my well-being, my wanting to enjoy the last few years of my life. But people come to see me and ask me please, please Tun.

I told them to go find somebody else. But unfortunately, they find that the Malays in particular regard me highly in terms of political management. They think I can contribute much toward the development of Malaysia, and as long as I’m able to walk about and talk, I should be doing service to them.