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Mahathir: “People must be able to hold their heads up.”

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was in Penang as part of his cross-country tour – and as a guest of Penang Institute – to gather at least one million signatures for the Citizen’s Declaration he initiated. He spent 20 minutes talking with Ooi Kee Beng in between arriving from KL with Tun Dr Siti Hasmah and rushing off to deliver his speech at the packed Straits Quay Convention Centre. The interview took place in the late afternoon on May 8, 2016 at the E&O Hotel.

Ooi Kee Beng: Tun, your generation fascinates me. You are of the nation-building generation who dared to imagine that it would not only change the world, but configure it to fit local conditions. The impact of that generation has of course been enormous in all post-colonial countries, but that generation is passing. What advice would you give young Malaysians about the future, given what you see now of global economic dynamics and the political situation in Malaysia today?
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad: The first thing for people to learn is the history of the country, because if you don’t have an understanding of the background of the country, you cannot make an assessment of events or of the improvements that have taken place. Many Malaysians today were born long after Independence. I would tell them that what we are seeing today is completely different from what we had under the British or even in the early days of Independence. So we must be able to make a comparison between the past and the present.

OKB: If there is one word to describe you, Tun, I would use the word “nationalist”. You are very much, for want of a better word, a situationalist. Your analysis of events and different times shifts as things evolve; you seem very tuned into evolving dynamics. In that sense the methods you adopt would be understood best in a tactical mode. Would that be correct?

MM: I was trained as a doctor, and a doctor approaches a problem with a certain method. He has to know the background, the history of the patient, and do an additional examination to see what the problem is. For a sick person or for a community, it is the same thing. Once you adopt that approach, you recognise a problem much more clearly. And after recognising what the problem is, you can think about how to resolve it. Having been trained as a doctor, I approach most problems that way. I find it to be really very easy. It is methodical and it is very consistent and often quite accurate.

You may end up with three possibilities, for example, and then you will have to do a further analysis to determine which disease it really is and what the cure should be. It is the same with a community – you have to determine what the problem is first.

OKB: But are there shortcomings to that kind of approach?
MM: Well, I suppose there are. There are of course people who can instinctively see what the problem is and come up with a solution. But instinct is not methodical. It may come or it may not come. You have no control over it. But the methodical process of examination by doctors is something that you do almost automatically, and you eliminate other possibilities to arrive at the right diagnosis.

OKB: One has to always consider multiple factors.
MM: Yes.

OKB: Since you have been in the limelight for an amazingly long time – in fact since after the Second World War, when you started writing as Che Det – you are very overexposed by now, and one would expect people who are overexposed to be very predictable. Yet you are not. You can be very unpredictable. I tend to think that when people are unpredictable, it is usually because they are being misunderstood. People have their own logic and in following that logic, they are really being consistent.
I would like to ask you a straightforward and personal question: “What motivates you deep down?” How do we see consistency and how do we make sense of your actions over the last 70 years? You do know that many think that you are often contradictory.
MM: Like you said earlier, I am a nationalist. That’s what motivates me. I have been exposed to many things inside the country and outside the country. The desire to do things, to achieve and to be proud of what [I] can do… [that] is consistent. You just have to do something to improve any situation. The situation may be already good, but you have to think – what else can you do?

So in that sense, there is consistency all the time. When I was a young boy, I saw poverty, I saw people who were jobless and living very poor lives. I felt it was not right. You see that some people are rich, and some people are very poor, and some people do not even have regular meals. These are social problems and when you see problems like that, you want to do something. We are brought up that way, to be concerned about people who are less fortunate than we are. So if they are less fortunate, what do we do for them?

Throughout my career that has been my motivation, and even the approach has been very consistent. I don’t come up suddenly with some fantastic thing. I think things over to myself. For example, when I wanted to resign [as Prime Minister in 2003], I did not tell anybody. I thought it was time for me to resign and give place to others. So without anybody pushing me out, I resigned.

OKB: I suppose the poor usually can’t help themselves, and so those who have the opportunity have the responsibility to help them.
MM: That is true of course. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer – at least relatively speaking. The rich can get richer because they have the means. For example, in business, they have the capital and if they see an opportunity, they make use of that opportunity to enrich themselves. A poor man may see an opportunity, but he has no capital, so he will forever be poor because he does not have the means. So what we should do is not only give him the opportunity but also give him the means to make use of that opportunity.

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OKB: You are practically a socialist, are you not?
MM: Socialism itself is not bad. But it is used sometimes to oppress people, and that is bad. A system is good only if you make use of it properly. During colonial times, the Europeans were the “masters”. You called them “Tuan”, and you think that they are superior and that they know a lot while you don’t. And they can do what you cannot do. And in a way, you feel very inferior. You get an inferiority complex.

OKB: The whole of society, really…
MM: Yes. I asked myself, am I as inferior as they make it out to be? Well, I thought, they are there because of their dominance over the people. They have practically colonised the country, and they are given [good] jobs, authority and power. That was what made them superior people. They could do what you could not do.

OKB: These experiences in your younger days must have affected you very deeply.
MM: Yes, very much. But I was fortunate. I was among the 20 or so boys who had the opportunity to go to an English school. There were hundreds of others who were equally good, but they did not get the opportunity to get a good education. It seemed to me quite unfair.

You had the opportunity, they didn’t have the opportunity. So, the solution to that is to create the opportunity and to give them the means to make use of the opportunity for their own good.

OKB: Being one of the few privileged ones, you felt this to be your responsibility then?
MM: Yes.

OKB: One of the great innovations of your time was Vision 2020. If I ask you to reformulate Vision 2020 today, would there be things in there that would be different from before?
MM: We wanted to be a developed country, but a developed country in our own mold, not just a copy of some other developed country. So we started spelling out what we meant by “in our own mold”. What do you mean by being developed?

If we do not define it properly, people tend to take the simple definition, which is that if you have money then you are developed. So you see the stress on per capita income. If you have a per capita income of [US$]15,000 or 30,000, then you are developed.

But that is not true. I have always thought that thinking in averages is a very bad way of assessing anything. I tell people that they can drown in a river with an average depth of two feet. If one man is a millionaire and 999 men are poverty-stricken, then the average [wealth] is $1000. You see, averages are not a very good measurement of achievements.

So you have to define what you mean by development. And to me, it is not just about per capita income. It is about our capacity. Do we have very well educated people? Do we do research and development? Do we produce things by ourselves? Are we industrialised? All these things must be there before you can consider yourself developed. At the moment, the stress is far too much on per capita income. Per capita is an average, and it is not a good measurement.

OKB: It’s more about people’s integrity and dignity, isn’t it?
MM: Yeah! People must be able to hold their heads up, to stand tall like other people.

OKB: Something that would have happened along the way since the 1990s would be the development of “Melayu Baru” – the New Malay. It’s a new world today and the Malays are in a different place – as a community and also in their relationship with other communities. Are we seeing something that you would have foreseen, that once the Malays reached a certain level of development a lot of conflict would also come into play?
MM: I spent a lot of time when I was Prime Minister to try and change the value system and the culture of the Malays because I believe it is the value system that determines if you do well or not. I must admit that I wasn’t very successful. But a few of them have acquired new values, new ways of thinking. We do see quite a number of Malay professionals and Malay businessmen who do well. But the rest are not doing so well.

This can be corrected if you can change their mindset.

OKB: You just need to go to the next stage… But do you then think that things are going backwards? I suppose you do.
MM: Now, the focus is not on changing the culture. The focus is now on… well, giving [people] things without their earning those things. That’s bad.

OKB: But people generally don’t like to change, or don’t like to be told to change.
MM: Yes, but we change all the time.

OKB: We do.
MM: Whether we like it or not, we change. If you lived in a kampung and you move into a town, and you still want to live like you did in the kampung, that’s not possible. In fact, we had a problem housing people in places like Kampung Abdullah Hukum and Kampung Kerinchi in KL. They wanted to have a house like they used to, elevated so they can rear chickens underneath, plant some vegetables around the house.

That is not possible in town. In town, you have to have high-rise buildings, you have to live in flats. And living in flats means there are adjustments to be made. You cannot grow vegetables, you cannot rear any chickens. If you don’t make these adjustments, you can’t really live in an urban area.

OKB: One amazing aspect of your life is that you have fought from within Umno and you have fought from outside Umno. And by Umno, I am connoting mainstream politics in Malaysia, really. That has left many people confused, even pundits. It must at times get rather confusing even for you.
MM: Well, when you form a political party, you have an objective. What are you struggling for? When you are running Umno and you forget your objective, and you veer away and you go for other things, then I don’t see any reason why I should be inside the party. Umno is [supposed to be] dedicated to developing Malaysia, to ensure that people enjoy a good life, that everybody has a share of the wealth and power in this country.

But then you find that some leaders do not focus on that. They focus instead on something to make themselves happy. For example, they think that the best thing to do is to give money to people, and in that way, become popular. These are not to be found in the objectives of founding Umno.

That’s why sometimes I am in, and sometimes I am out [of Umno].

OKB: Two Malaysian Prime Ministers ruled for a substantial period of time, and were very influential. These are you and Tunku Abdul Rahman. What is your appraisal of Tunku Abdul Rahman today?
MM: The Tunku contributed a lot to the country. He was the one who won independence for the country. He was also the one who solved a very difficult problem – the problem of multiracialism. Normally, in a multiracial country, there will be conflicts for different reasons. Such countries will not be stable and you cannot develop such countries. But Tunku found a way out for Malaysia. He decided that they should share this country, all these races. He came up with this idea of a coalition – not a single multiracial party because a single multiracial party doesn’t work. Some have tried to have a party with multiracial membership but that didn’t work because people were still not familiar with each other.

So he came up with this idea of a coalition. You remain as you are in your own party looking after your community, and yet you have a common objective [with the other communities], you see? And when wealth is created, then all will have a share. Even the power. You must share the power, you must share the wealth.

So this was put into the Constitution.

OKB: I see your aides are telling us that we have to stop talking now. Let me squeeze in one last question. You are from Alor Setar, not very far away from Penang. Can you share some thoughts about Penang, your reminiscences of the place perhaps?
MM: My father came from Penang. In those days, when you wanted to go someplace different, you went to Penang. Penang was a developed town. But Penang has not changed that much. Some parts are very modern. The quay and all that, they are all still the same – ramshackle buildings and all that, and not very tidy, I must say.

One part has changed, the other has remained as it was before independence. But I think this is a problem with democracy. When you want to do something that is good all round, there will be people who will object. And well, you don’t want to be unpopular, so you allow these things to go on.

I think they did a better job in KL. If you go to KL, you don’t see those ramshackle zinc sheds anymore.

OKB: Thank you for your time and for sharing.

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