WHAT is it like working with Dr Mahathir Mohamad for his former foes?

Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister now heads the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan as its chairman and is the only one able to give it cohesion, structure and a concrete decision-making process.

Yet, he remains a divisive figure among PH component parties, with all but PKR agreeing that he should be the pact’s prime minister candidate.

The nonagenarian was called “Mahafiraun” (pharaoh) for his dictatorial persona while he led the country.

While traces of that same firmness can be seen in his current leadership of PH, the former dissidents he once put in jail who are now his comrades in the opposition said there are other sides to the man.

“He’s always willing to spend time listening to extreme views and never ridicules anyone. He lets everyone have their say and he won’t stop you,” DAP vice-chairman M. Kulasegaran told The Malaysian Insight.

The Ipoh Barat MP said he was surprised by Dr Mahathir’s magnanimity, as most people in the PH meetings were once his political rivals.

Dr Mahathir, who also chairs PH component party Bersatu, is a dominant personality and stickler for punctuality and discipline, said Kulasegaran.

Without naming anyone, Kulasegaran recalled an incident where one of Dr Mahathir’s lieutenants was several minutes late for one of PH’s meetings.

“He asked, where’s so-and-so.

“Someone replied that the person was getting a snack before the meeting outside and Dr Mahathir said ‘Call him in now! We’re late!’” Kulasegaran said.

Dr Mahathir is also always well dressed for meetings and can sit for four to five hours without a toilet break.

“Even younger guys like me cannot tahan. But he’s old school.”

DAP vice-chairman M. Kulasegaran says the former prime minister is willing to listen to others and never dismisses their views. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, January 2, 2018.
DAP vice-chairman M. Kulasegaran says the former prime minister is willing to listen to others and never dismisses their views. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, January 2, 2018.

PKR vice-president Chua Tian Chang, who has battled Dr Mahathir since 1997, said the 92-year-old is neither as evil nor as power crazy as he is made out to be.

“I think Dr Mahathir was created by a system that is repressive,”   said the human-rights activist turned politician better known as Tian Chua.

Having said that, Chua, who has attended more than a dozen meetings chaired by Dr Mahathir, said the former prime minister was very objective, determined and focused.

“He has super confidence and if he thinks he’s right, he will go all the way. He’s also prone to take risks and always believes he can win by taking risks,” said the two-term Batu MP.

The three things that come to mind for Amanah deputy president Salahuddin Ayub about Dr Mahathir are his punctuality, patience and discipline to drive other leaders towards a decision.

“He insists that meetings must come to a decision all the time and once decided, that is that,” said the former two-term Kubang Kerian MP, who used to be with PAS.

Salahuddin said this approach was very different from PAS, which allowed “too many backdoor meetings and changes all the time”.

“Take the issue of PAS’s cooperation (with PH after its formation), for instance. Once the deadline for PAS to join was over, he decided that there would be no more talks with them.

“And he has kept to that even though we all know that having PAS would improve PH’s chances,” said Salahuddin.

Dr Mahathir has been consistent about why PH cannot work with PAS, citing the Islamist party’s insistence on excluding DAP and Amanah.

The lighter side of a recalcitrant

Chua and Kulasegaran recalled the ease with which Dr Mahathir faced those who disliked him and the first time they met the then prime minister in person.

“My first meeting with Dr Mahathir was during a memorial for Merdeka-era lawyer and activist James Puthucheary in 2000. He was a close friend of James’ and came to the memorial with Razali Ismail.

“He was sitting in a corner in a room filled with people who did not like him and I went up to him and shook hands,” said Chua.

“He looked up at me and said: ‘Weren’t you arrested for sedition?’ I replied yes and he said: ‘Well, you better eat more if you are going to be in and out of jail’,” said Chua, who was among PKR’s early leaders when the party, then known as KeAdilan, was formed after Dr Mahathir sacked his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998 and charged him with corruption and sodomy.

For Kulasegaran, his first encounter with Dr Mahathir was when the latter went around canvassing for signatures for the people’s declaration in March 2016 to demand Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation.

“Although, I became the Teluk Intan MP in 1997, we have never spoken. He was the prime minister then and he would just come in and out of Dewan Rakyat and never lingered in between the sessions.

“I had spoken up against him in the dewan but that was all,” said Kulasegaran.

Amanah deputy president Salahuddin Ayub says Dr Mahathir Mohamad is a stickler for punctuality. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, January 2, 2018.
Amanah deputy president Salahuddin Ayub says Dr Mahathir Mohamad is a stickler for punctuality. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, January 2, 2018.

The brief meeting over the declaration left an impression about Dr Mahathir’s sharpness and wit – and also a hint that the authoritarian ruler knew he had hurt many in the past.

“When he saw me, he bent over and asked ‘Are you one of those who received a nasty letter?’  

“I wasn’t sure what he meant and later asked Lim Kit Siang, who said it meant that Dr Mahathir wanted to know if I was also one of those jailed under the Internal Security Act.

“He knew he was going to work with many people who were locked up under ISA during his rule and it was his way of acknowledging the past, without saying sorry,” said the Ipoh-based lawyer.

An apology and reckoning of his undemocratic misdeeds during his tenure are what many of Dr Mahathir’s critics are still looking for.

His apology for past wrongs on December 30 when he spoke at Bersatu’s inaugural annual general meeting has not been received well by those who still blame him for the current state of Malaysia’s institutions and political culture.

Salahuddin said the situation of working with a former foe like Dr Mahathir now is similar to when PAS collaborated with PKR de facto leader Anwar in 1999.

“Many nasty things were said. That PAS was a village party and so on and so forth. But former PAS leaders, such as (president) Dr Fadzil Noor and (spiritual leader) Tok Guru Nik Aziz (Nik Mat) always told us to focus on the big picture.

“The reality is nobody can win alone in Malaysia. Not even Umno, as it still needs MCA, MIC and PBB in Sarawak.

“And PAS, DAP, Amanah or PKR is no different. If we want a better country, we need to work together.

“Only a diamond can cut another diamond,”   added Salahuddin, who was jailed in 2001 under Dr Mahathir’s rule for protesting against a visit by Israel’s cricket team to Malaysia in 1997.

Consensus v control

Kulasegaran, who has been involved in previous incarnations of opposition pacts like Pakatan Rakyat and Barisan Alternatif, said none ever had a former statesman at the helm.

Prior to Dr Mahathir’s inclusion in PH, the opposition has never been able to organise itself well enough to form a legal coalition the way Barisan Nasional is.

As such, whether it was Gagasan Rakyat or Barisan Alternatif or Pakatan Rakyat, parties joined and broke off as quickly as they had gathered after the elections.

With Dr Mahathir, PH submitted its application to the Registrar of Societies in July last year and is now clearing legal obstacles to ensure it is registered before the 14th general election.

“Anwar is a consensus-builder while Dr Mahathir is more clinical,” said Chua.

“Dr Mahathir is an important icon for PH as he is a magnet for publicity.”

But the PKR leader stopped short of endorsing Dr Mahathir for prime minister again.

“I’m still not sure whether he can convince the public that he can be PM again but he can definitely help us start something for the rest of us to finish.

“He won’t say he was wrong in the past. But his actions show that he wants to right those wrongs.”