A respectful but straightforward speaker is hard to find in the political world. Aung San Suu Kyi, once a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is considered a hero by many but her silence over the genocide in Rakhine has tarnished her halo.
Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte enjoy a cult-like following among many who admire them as straight talkers, while others are appalled by their vulgarity. Many other politicians lower themselves in the public eye by making personal attacks on their opponents.
However, what I experienced when interviewing Mahathir Mohamad was different from what I expected from a politician in search of a stage to criticise his rivals. Having served as prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 and 2003, longer than anyone else, Dr Mahathir is one of the most influential Asean leaders of modern times. Now 92, he clearly merits more respect than most other elders in his field, but he doesn’t act like someone who expects or demands it.
I felt like I was talking to one of my uncles, someone who, even if I asked a stupid question, would answer patiently, like a friendly teacher to a pupil. My only wish is that I can be as coherent and as passionate about what I do when I am his age.
Dr Mahathir has never been far from the spotlight but now he is at centre stage, leading the campaign against a government headed by a former protege who, in his opinion, has lost his way.
“It was in response to a lot of people who asked me, who came to see me, urging me to do something about the situation in Malaysia,” he said of his decision to come out of retirement. “Initially I was trying to advise, to give my views, opinions, but they were ineffective and eventually I had to leave my own party before, together with few others, forming a new party to contest against the government party.”
So here he is, leading the new Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) as part of an opposition coalition that hopes to bring down the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and its allies in the general election next year.
Dr Mahathir, a former Umno president and long-time beneficiary of its formidable electoral machine, had been speaking out since 2014 against what he saw as mismanagement and corruption by the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, but he felt his words alone were failing to sway the public. That prompted him to leave the “badly damaged” Umno and strike out with a new movement.
And while Umno has never lost in the 13 elections since Malaysian independence, the new Pakatan Harapan (Pact of Hope) coalition believes there is hope. It is counting on a public backlash against the looting of 1Malaysia Development Bhd, one of the biggest financial scandals in the world.
Questions continue to swirl about US$680 million allegedly diverted from 1MDB and transferred to the account of the person US investigators call “Malaysian Official 1”. A cursory Malaysian government investigation last year cleared Mr Najib of any wrongdoing, but only time will tell how much impact the scandal has on voter sentiment.
Dr Mahathir is optimistic about the opposition’s chances and he is certainly passionate about the coming campaign. But not once during the interview did he raise his voice, nor did he show any sign of age. He was calm and collected. I even gave him an opportunity to go on the attack –– “Do you think Mr Najib should be put in jail if he was later proven to guilty?” — but I was met with a very careful political response.
“People would want to see him on trial if there is any evidence that he has committed anything wrong. The law does not differentiate between a prime minister and ordinary people and it is up to the court to decide,” he replied.
“As far as we know, he has done something wrong but we will follow the law,” he added, without going any further.
He did not dodge the question, but answered it straightforwardly while maintaining respect for his rival and the judicial system.
One could not ask for any more from a veteran statesman. And while I have to concede that his administration was certainly no champion of media freedom, I can honestly say that it was an honour to have spoken to a man with such experience as Dr Mahathir.