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Publication -Exclusive media interview with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad by The Star conducted by June H.L. Wong, Mergawati Zulfakar, K. Parkaran and Wong Chun Wai

Q: Datuk Seri, you have less than 30 days in the most important job in Malaysia. What is racing through your mind at this point of time?

I hope all the projects that we have launched will be completed as scheduled and the new leadership will continue the process of developing Malaysia at a fast pace.

Q: You said last week that you would continue to be active in politics. What did you mean by this? Do you see yourself playing the role of a backseat driver?

No, no, not a backseat driver. I am not going to direct the Government. The Government can go on and do what is directed by the leader. But during elections, and even in between elections, I consider it my duty to support the party and talk to the people.

I believe I owe a debt to the party members, party leaders who have made it possible for me to become the president (of Umno) and Prime Minister. They supported me and it is now my turn to support them.

Q: Do you plan to write your memoirs or have you already started doing so?

Well, I think I should record some of my experiences as it may become useful for other people to learn from all the mistakes I have made.

Q: Will you be going on a lecture circuit as in going around giving talks?

I can't say no because there have been a lot of people who want me to go and give talks here and there. As Prime Minister, of course, I am not free. When I am free, I suppose when I am invited, I will go. There have been many invitations; in fact there will be one in November to which the Food and Agriculture Organisation has been inviting me for years and I have not been able to go. If I want to go, I will have to go after I retire.

Q: So, an even more punishing schedule?

No, no, not a punishing schedule. I think by comparison to the work I have to do, it is not. I can do the work as Prime Minister but what I cannot handle are the demands made by people who want to make use of my authority for their personal gains. That is something that is very taxing.

Some of these come from friends, party members, relatives. They all think that since I am in a position of authority I can give them contracts, projects and things like that. It is terrible. If I go to Alor Star, I will see a file like that (gesturing to show the height) made up of requests for projects and things like that.

This taxes my time and is a burden. Some of them, including friends, quarrel with me, refuse to talk to me because I say .No, I can't give these things, you have to go..

At the most I can be a postman and forward their applications but I will not recommend and say give to this person, give to that person. I just write .Sila lihat (Please take a look).. That's all I can do.

Q: Is it difficult to say no?

It is not easy to say no to friends and colleagues. They become very angry and don't talk to me. I know a very good friend who refused to even look at me. But subsequently his application was approved and then he came smiling. That is the level of friendship I get in my position.

Q: We understand you are going to spend more time polishing up your French.

I will try, I will try. I can understand French when people speak but I cannot speak French because there is not enough time to learn.


Q: Now that the end is finally near, are there any concerns or fears that you have for the nation after you step down? Like you have said, will the new leadership continue with the progress and projects?

I hope people don't take this personally. Maybe they think of support for me. To me, support for me is not important. It must be support for the party, support for the Government, for the country. These are the things that should motivate people to contribute and support the Government in order for the Government to serve the people.

We are in the Government to serve the people, not to make money for ourselves, not to think about your position and authority and things like that. The authority given to the Government and the prime minister is to enable him to serve effectively. Without that authority you cannot really serve, because you may have a fantastic idea but without authority, you can't progress the idea.

Whatever ability I may have in the development of this country is because as prime minister I have the authority to not only direct but also supervise. I remember when I was deputy prime minister, I made just a simple suggestion that we should have satay restaurants. I met a lot of resistance and the Datuk Bandar then actually said I was trying to sabotage the satay sellers on the streets. And it was not done until I became prime minister. So you can see that if you do not have authority, you may have brilliant ideas but they are not going to be implemented.

Q: After 22 years, you have impacted the lives of Malaysians to a very great extent. Your retirement will bring a major change. How do you think Malaysians will adapt to it?

It is only me who is retiring. The Government is there and the party is there. It is, after all, the party which enabled me to do the work. So, people should accept the fact that this is the best way, actually.

Supposing I were to drop dead, the transition would be very sharp and very destructive. There will be quarrels, struggles in the party but here I made sure that I've put things in order. I spent time (doing that) until June last year when I announced my retirement.

At that time, I was convinced that the party had already been resuscitated and the Government was doing well. That was the time I wanted to go off, but because I had slightly more than a year after my announcement, the process of adjustment and smoothing out the transition has already taken place.

I don't think it will have much effect on the people.

Q: You have transformed Malaysia into a progressive and well known nation in your 22 years at the helm. But there is this perception especially among the non-Muslims that a large number of Muslims has gone backwards and become more conservative in their outlook.

Yes, that is because of the Opposition. What happened is that PAS made use of religion to subvert Umno and to make it appear that Umno is not an Islamic party. Then, of course, people began to move in that direction. PAS is not interested in Islam at all, it is interested only in using Islam. Anybody who doesn't look Islamic will expose himself to a lot of accusations. And some people are not sincere about the religion. They want to put on the outward appearances of the religion; that they are pious, they wear white caps and go to the mosque.

Unfortunately, it is not religion that they talk about in the mosque. It is neither religion nor the observances they talk about. They go there actually to run down other people, which is against the teachings of Islam. They make false accusations and talk bad about people. So outwardly Malaysia appears to be more Islamic but, actually, it has gone backwards in terms of true Islam.

It is no more the brotherhood of Islam, the tolerance of Islam not to fitnah. This is a big thing in Islam because fitnah is worse than murder. But every day, you will find that they will say all kinds of untrue things about me, in particular, and Umno and other leaders. It is un-Islamic.

Outwardly it appears to be more Islamic but actually it is much less.

Q: How do you counter this?

The only way to counter this is to explain what Islam is all about. In fact, foreign countries, foreign Muslim states look at Malaysia as a model. They can see this because they are not contesting for elections but these people, who are using Islam to gain political mileage, will deny everything we do as being Islamic. So, we have to explain what really is the teaching of Islam.

Q: Do you have any uncompleted business that you may need slightly more time to get it done?

(Laughs) Plenty. As I said before, one of my disappointments is that I cannot change the culture of the Malays, in particular, and the indigenous people. I want them to learn how to look after themselves and not be dependent on the Government. I want them to work hard; I want them to be honest and not try and get rich quickly. All these things I keep on hammering.

I scolded, I praised, I did everything but I'm afraid, as I have said before, there is improvement only to a little extent because there are Malays doing well now. But by and large, they've become even more dependent on the Government.

You know, I asked one person: why do you ask for this contract? Before, (former prime ministers) Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, Tun Hussein Onn and Tunku Abdul Rahman never had the problem of people making such demands. His answer was: .Well, you developed the country and made it rich, so I want to have a share of the riches..

So, it was my fault because I developed the country and enriched it. And so now they think that they should get a share not by working hard but just by handouts.


Q: It has been noted that over the last few weeks you have gone through a punishing schedule.

It's not my choice. People put all kinds of events into my daily programme. They put all kinds of things, so I have to try and complete them because, like you insist that I should have this interview (laughs), others are also insisting I make a visit. I do this and that.

Q: You have set a punishing pace in all aspects of life; people are wondering where you get this energy from.

It is something that everybody seems to ask me but what they expect to hear is that I swallow some pills to keep me going. I don't swallow pills other than the usual vitamins. But I think if you do something that you like, you will have the energy. It's a kind of labour of love. When you are in love, you are capable of all kinds of gymnastics (laughs) but if you are not happy, you will find your work boring. If you are not interested, then it becomes a burden.

Q: Is that how you describe your work . a labour of love . all these 22 years?

Yes, it is a labour of love. I think if you have an opportunity to do something for your country, for your own people and for your own religion, I think you would do it without thinking too much about the strain that you impose on yourself.

Q: So there is no truth to talk that you take placenta of lamb or Botox?

(Laughs) Nothing. I don't do it. People say I go to Europe for injections. I don't believe in those things. I am a trained doctor; I know what is good and what is bad.

Q: Throughout your 22 years as Prime Minister, there must have been times when your words or actions were misunderstood by others. Is there any specific period which you consider to be the toughest because the public and even those in the Government misunderstood your actions and decisions?

During the time of the (Datuk Seri) Anwar (Ibrahim) thing, a lot of people were saying that I was deliberately getting rid of him. I had no such intention at all but I had to have some responsibility for the future. If somebody is going to succeed me, he must be of some good character.

Because of that I had to take an action which I hated very much because he was, after all, a friend. But for the sake of the country, I had to take the action and forget about friendship and about my becoming unpopular. So that was something that was a very big regret.

But I did what people didn.t understand and they thought I was out to take revenge. I don.t take revenge. You can see in the Cabinet . Datuk (Seri) Abdullah (Ahmad Badawi) was against me, (Datuk Seri Dr) Rais Yatim was against me, (Datuk Seri) Syed Hamid (Albar) was against me, (Datuk Paduka Abdul) Kadir Sheikh Fadzir was against me . but I took them all in.

As long as they are qualified to contribute towards the party and Government, I have no right, because of personal reasons, to get rid of them.

Q: So loyalty and ability to work are what you would consider when you appoint somebody to do the job?

Loyalty to the Government, the party, the principles of the party struggle, that is important. Not loyalty to me.

Even if they were not loyal to me, had contested against me, or even plotted against me, I don.t mind. That is part of politics.

Q: Talking about personalities, you had three other deputy prime ministers who did not make it.

Well, it.s not my fault. You know, I helped (Tan Sri) Musa (Hitam) become the deputy president (of Umno) and subsequently he became the deputy prime minister.

But somehow or other he decided that he didn.t like what I was doing and he decided to resign from the Government and his position in the party. I didn.t ask him to resign. It was his decision and not mine.

In the case of (Tun) Ghafar Baba, of course he lost against Anwar. And I learnt later how Anwar managed to beat him. But he was so disappointed that he did not want to continue anymore to be the deputy.

Then I had Anwar and I thought that by 1998 I could step down and he could take over. But as you know in 1998, this thing happened and I couldn.t step down. Also of course I found that he was unable to manage the (financial) crisis. So at that time I could not step down.

Now, I find Pak Lah is in place and he will be different from me. His style will be different but that.s okay.

Q: Which issue would you consider was more difficult to handle: the Anwar issue or the financial crisis?

That one (financial crisis) was something that I had to handle anyway, but Anwar.s case was something that was very unexpected. I never dreamt (that it would happen). I mean I have had problems with the world press, international agencies but that, I think, was part of my job. Anwar.s case was very unfortunate. I had to harden my feelings in order to handle it. I feel this put a strain on me.

Q: Will the Anwar factor have a bearing in the next general election?

I don.t know; it is up to the people. If the people still don.t believe me, I cannot help it. I did what I did in all sincerity.

Q: There is this general perception that Anwar has been punished beyond his crime, so to speak.

That is not for me to decide. He did something, he broke the law. Many others from the party who broke the law have been charged in court and sentenced. Mokhtar Hashim (former Culture, Youth and Sports Minister) was sentenced to death. We never intervened. Datuk Harun Idris (former Selangor Mentri Besar) also had to face court action and he was jailed.

These two people did not make an issue out of this and did not go around saying .I have been unfairly dealt with.. These people did not go around building support long before (they faced court action.)

In the case of Anwar, as far as I was concerned, he should be dismissed from the Government. But the police had to take action like they had acted against other ministers. I cannot tell the police that .He is deputy prime minister or ex-deputy prime minister so you cannot touch him.. The police took action but the people say that I directed the police and all that.

It is not easy to direct the police. If you try that, immediately it will be known to everybody. Somebody is bound to go around saying that .I have been asked by the Prime Minister to do this and that.. You see, the judge in Kota Kinabalu made an accusation against the Chief Justice. You cannot direct a judge, you cannot direct the police, you cannot direct the witnesses, because they will leak it out.

If you ask them to do something that they don.t like, they will leak it out. I didn.t do anything.

People were actually victimised so they felt that the person who did all these things to them should be punished. That is all.

On his wife, family and relatives

Q: Those who really know you and your family say that your children have been unfairly punished because their only .crime. is that they have you as their father.

That is true because my son, for example, eventually had to do business outside the country, not inside the country. They do business not with the Government; they do it on their own. I give them no support at all. They never apply to me because they know I will not approve.

But some distant relatives, of course, think that there is an opportunity for them. They think .now that he is going to retire in October, we had better get these things quickly..

Sometimes I have a full day, working from morning till night before going for dinner. And when I come back home at 11pm or midnight, some people are waiting with requests.

It is very taxing because I know the people, and some of them hang around the gates of my residence. I have to refuse to see them although it is not in my nature to be unfriendly. But I just cannot.

Q: According to your second son, Datuk Mokhzani, he sold his shares in Tongkah Holdings Bhd and Pantai Holdings Bhd because he was badly hit by the financial crisis. And because he was from the Mahathir family, the banks were very hard on him because they knew he would not run away from his responsibility. He said that was why he had to sell out. But where your eldest son, Mirzan (who had to sell his shipping business), is concerned, rumours are still persistent that he was bailed out.

No, he wasn.t bailed out. The fact is that he couldn.t pay his debts (like Mokhzani). He had to sell the company to somebody. The best option would have been to sell to foreigners but the Government would not have been happy. He is a bumiputra and to sell it to a non-bumiputra would also not make the Government happy.

MISC (Malaysian International Shipping Corporation) saw the opportunity to get his shipping company at a very low price, you know. And he had to sell . he had no choice. It.s not that he wanted to. He built his own LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) tankers and he got contracts that were still there but he could not pay his debts, so he sold.

And then after that he went to do business outside the country.

Q: In moments such as these, it must have been difficult to distance yourself as they affected your family directly.

Yes, but fortunately, my children understand. They don.t trouble me. You know, they don.t come whining to me. My children don.t give any trouble. They go off on their own and do their own things. Like Marina (his eldest daughter), she is more interested in charity work. Sometimes she disagrees with me of course, as she has a mind of her own. But that.s all right with me.

Q: Can we then assume that you read her column in The Star?

I read her column in The Star sometimes but she can do things on her own. My father gave me an opportunity for an education. After that there was nothing left for me. The rest went to my other family members. Education gave me the upward mobility. I became a doctor so I didn.t need any more help from him. In the case of my children, I also gave them the same thing. Then it is up to them.

Q: According to your son Mukhriz and son-in-law (Che Wan Mohd Adlil), they were like guinea pigs when you sent them to Japan for further education. Is that true?

Yes, because I say .Look East. so how can I not send them to the east?

Q: Isn.t it terrible to take a risk with your own children?

Well, I took a risk having my heart operation in KL at a time (1989) when people were not confident with the ability of local doctors. I didn.t know who was going to operate on me, I didn.t know (cardiologist Datuk) Dr Robaayah (Zambahari), I didn.t know (cardio-thoracic surgeon Datuk) Dr Yahya (Tun Awang). I met them when I was hospitalised. They asked me whether I wanted to go to America for treatment. I asked them whether they could do it here, they said they could.

I told them then, .Okay, do it here.. I mean if you go to America and if you are going to die, you are going to die. So I resigned myself to the fact that if God wills I should die, I will die no matter where.

Q: There is one thing that many ladies want to know about: your love for Datin Seri Dr Siti Hasmah. What is the one thing that you love about her and have you ever given her flowers?

(Laughs) Well, very, very occasionally I give her flowers but usually I give some little presents for maybe her birthday or something like that.

She has been very supportive all the while. We have been together for a long time; we studied and grew up together. When you are together for a very long time, you will feel it if there.s any separation. She has not only been a wife but a friend (and) a supporter, and has shown a lot of understanding and patience all along.

She doesn.t complain (like) .Why you come home late; you attend to only your work and you don.t look after our children.. No complaints at all. If she has to look after the children, she will do that. If she has to pack for me she will pack. She personally packs for me when I travel.

Like our recent trip abroad, we stayed one night in London, two nights in Stockholm, one night in New York and one night in Monaco. She had to pack and unpack every night before going to sleep as the bags would be going early morning the next day. But she did not complain.

Q: During your recent overseas trip, Dr Siti Hasmah thought you kept looking out for her very often but she did not know why. Is that true?

Well, it is true. I like to have her around. Sometimes she has other engagements. For example, in Stockholm, there were about 700 Malaysians living in Sweden who gathered at the embassy. I should have been there but since I had other engagements, she was at the function.

In the past, she used to attend every function I went to but after a few years, other people started inviting her for their functions. So now, we each do our own thing.

Sometimes she is not able to follow me when I go abroad but that is very seldom. I miss her a lot then.

Q: A member of your family said that one of your ways of staying fresh and alert is by taking catnaps?

Yes, that is one of the things. I can sleep anywhere, anytime. For example, people wonder why I can start work upon reaching home after a journey from London to Kuala Lumpur. But I do sleep. I sleep more on the plane than on the ground. I can sleep more than 10 hours on the plane, on the ground normally I sleep six hours. And that is sufficient rest for some adjustment to the time and to the jet lag.

Q: Surely you would need some exercise apart from enough rest?

This is the thing I would advise people to do but I myself have not had time for any exercise, really. I do some horse riding, which is at the most once a week, but sometimes for weeks on end, I don.t have an opportunity.

I begin my work very early in the morning. I get up at 6am and after prayers followed by breakfast, I start work. And then I work until 6.30pm or 7pm, followed by some official dinners where I have to give speeches. Other people may be enjoying the dinner but I have to provide the entertainment.

Q: What keeps you awake?

I think it is the will. Sometimes, I do feel extremely sleepy but I try my level best to keep awake. After a short while, you overcome the desire to sleep, especially when something interesting is happening.

When I.m doing things, I never sleep. When I.m talking or doing something with my hands or visiting, I don.t feel sleepy.

Q: What keeps you from having a good night.s rest?

Occasionally some problems which keep on turning in my mind, may keep me awake, but normally I will have a good sleep.

Q: Is My Way truly your favourite song or is it some other song?

(Laughs.) It was somebody else who thought of it because he said people say I like to do things my own way, which is quite true. But when they first started singing that song for me, I pointed out that it begins with .And now the end is near..

That was Frank Sinatra in his old age, he was singing about his end being near. So I wondered whether people were suggesting or hinting to me that I should step down. But now it is all right. Now they can sing that song because the end is really near.

Source . the Star Online (5 Oct 2003)