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.
This abridged transcript was edited for clarity. Read the full interview’s many additional revelations at AT+ Premium here.
AT: 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 have 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 chairman of the (ruling Bersatu) party. 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.
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: 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: 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.
AT: Nothing epitomizes UMNO’s money-driven, patronage politics more than the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Why in your opinion did the US government recently repatriate US$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.
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: How concerned are you that this US-China rivalry could devolve into an 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: 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.