He has also been reviled for muzzling the judiciary and media. Last week Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi took the fight to another level with derisory comments about his Indian ancestry.
The emerging theme in recent months is the Pakatan Harapan chairman’s contribution, or lack thereof, to the welfare and development of the Malay race.
However that may be debated among his critics and his supporters, Dr Mahathir himself is quick to respond to that question with the assertion that the Malays are “worse off” than ever under the leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
“Did I make the Malays worse off? I helped the Malays,” he said in an interview with The Malaysian Insight.
“The one who has made the Malays worse off is Najib. The Malays, who were known to come from a developing Malaysia, are now known all over the world as a country led by a controversial leader.
“Who has made (it) worse (for) the Malays, myself or him?”
“It is worse than ever before because now we have a Bugis leader who pretends to be Malay.
“This person admits he uses money – ‘cash is king’.
“What makes the Malays worse off today is because of the existence of such a leader.”
Dr Mahathir resigned as prime minister on October 31, 2003.
Although he admitted that he failed to change the “Malay mindset”, Dr Mahathir said he saw to the increase in the number of Malay professionals. The number of doctors, engineers, managers and business leaders rose during his administration, he claimed.
It was 15 years ago when a sobbing Dr Mahathir Mohamad stunned an Umno general assembly by dropping two bombshells: That he was resigning as prime minister and that the Malays remained backward despite all the advantages accorded to them.
“The Malays are still weak, the poorest people and are backward,” Dr Mahathir, then 76, said in his closing speech of a three-day party conference in Kuala Lumpur on June 20, 2002.
It was ironic that Dr Mahathir, who played a principle role in establishing Malay privileges in commerce and education, would so publicly acknowledge the failure of race-based protections.
The irony continues today, for it is Dr Mahathir who now helms the Opposition coalition, the leaders of whom he once denigrated and were jailed under his administration.
Below are excerpts of the interview:
Q: Are there no leaders who can change the Malay mindset? Does such a leader exist?
Dr Mahathir: Far from it. Not only that, the possibility of (finding such a leader) is far less than what I hoped for. The ones that we have, both leaders, have no idea how to change the culture and values of the Malays. For me, success or failure of a race depends on the values they hold. If they value hard work, they can succeed. If they don’t, if they take things easy and push things to tomorrow, then they will fail.
Q: Will you ever return to Umno?
Dr Mahathir: I will never return. Umno is beyond repair. The behaviour of its members has changed. They now value the pursuit of material wealth. They are involved in bribery. It has become a party without principles, where its members are just looking for money. I cannot join such a party. It is finished. Whatever that is clean, has already left.
Q: Are you fighting to remove Najib or Umno?
Dr Mahathir: At first I thought, if I rejected Najib, Umno could be healed. But it didn’t. They’re all involved in bribery. The leaders, members are just looking for money. Want that money, want this money… when Najib gives, they accept. This is no longer the party that fights for religion, race and country. It fights for its own interest. I cannot be a member of such a party. The name is Umno, but the principles and struggles of Umno are no longer the same. When I was prime minister, many came to me and asked ‘I’ve been in Umno 15 years (but) I haven’t gotten anything’. I told them you did get benefits. Your children got scholarships, they have an education, they went to university. The village roads are tarred. The villages all have water, electricity, schools and clinics. But what he meant was he didn’t get anything for himself. He wanted money. That is the leadership of Umno today.
Q: The Umno you are describing couldn’t have become that way overnight. You led Umno for 22 years. Are you not part of the Umno problem that you described?
Dr Mahathir: Yes, I saw this trend. That is why I said during my time, there were members and Umno leaders who said they were with Umno for long but never got anything. I told them they did get something. If not for himself, then for his race, the dignity of his race. This is all the result of the party’s struggles. But when Najib took over, the focus is only on money. They want money. They want positions. They want titles. So the struggle has shifted from improving the dignity of (the Malays) to what is in it for me? This is no longer the soul of Umno. Umno was formed (to oppose the Malayan Union) not to give handouts to its members.
Q: What is the state of Umno now?
Dr Mahathir: It is beyond repair, it is totally damaged.
Q: Is Bersatu the new Umno? Umno 2.0?
Dr Mahathir: There are many Umno people in Bersatu, that is true. These people are disappointed with what happened with Umno. Not disappointed because they didn’t get anything, but because Umno is no longer the same as it was when it was formed. When they left, many of them had to make sacrifices. Their businesses were ruined. They were unable to borrow money from the banks. They faced all sorts pressure. But they were willing to leave Umno because Umno has already become a corrupted party.
Q: You said you had many ideas on how to run the country when you were prime minister but now you don’t seem to speak much about them anymore. It seems every time you take the stage, you’re always talking about the same thing – Najib and 1MDB.
Dr Mahathir: If I were to give out my ideas now, someone will steal them.
– THE MALAYSIAN INSIGHT