SINGAPORE – Cuture and Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz has long been a maverick, a rare politician in a country where most lawmakers echo the party line and defer to their leaders.

He has attracted attention in the past for asking a prince to “keep out of politics”, and shocked conservatives by calling religious officials “ignoramuses” for banning the word “hotdog”.

Nazri is firmly back in the spotlight these past few weeks as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s staunchest defender, protecting his current boss against another politician who is more brash – former boss and former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

When police stopped a planned debate between Nazri and Dr Mahathir for the second time last week on security grounds, the 62-year-old minister retorted that the event should perhaps be held in Antarctica.

“The penguins there don’t understand the Malay or English language, so there won’t be a riot,” Nazri said.

Dr Mahathir, 91, wanted to debate on the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal which occurred under Najib’s watch. Nazri wanted to raise the Bumiputra Malaysia Finance Limited (BMF) scandal that took place when Dr Mahathir was premier.

In the 1MDB scandal, some US$3.5bil (RM15.5bil) was allegedly misappropriated from the state investment fund by individuals linked to Najib.

BMF, a Hong Kong subsidiary of state-owned Bank Bumiputra, had in the late 1980s lost nearly US$bil (RM4.4bil) in bad loans made to property speculators.

After a war of words conducted via the press and Dr Mahathir’s blogsite, the former premier challenged Nazri to a no-holds-barred public debate. Nazri, ever fearless, accepted the challenge.

“I agreed because he’s a liar,” Nazri told The Straits Times in an interview.

“He’s the biggest fraud of all.”

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Once a Mahathir loyalist, the defiant Nazri said he is merely heeding Dr Mahathir’s advice from years ago.

“He said that in a big ship there can be only one captain, not two or three. The captain now is Najib, he’s (Mahathir) retired,” Nazri said.

Labelling the former premier as “dictatorial” and “mad”, he said he had hoped to show that Najib “has done nothing wrong”.

Nazri said: “I’m a big defender of the Prime Minister and, in order to bring down the PM, he (Dr Mahathir) has to bring me down.”

His loyalty, he said, also extends to the Umno party and voters in his Perak constituency.

Despite having in the past decade repeatedly voiced his wish to retire, he is not sure whether he will do so before the next general election, which must be called by mid-2018.

“To be honest I can go anytime,” he said, but would stay if he is asked to by Najib. “For as long as they want me, I’ll always be there because I belong to Malaysia.”

Having served under the leadership of three prime ministers, Nazri said his long tenure in Cabinet is largely due to his honesty and his not being a hypocrite.

“Politics and being a minister is not everything to me,” he said, adding that, if given a choice, he would retire to read, travel and wake up in the morning knowing there isn’t work to attend to.

“I don’t think I’ll stand a minute longer as minister if I’m not allowed to freely express my opinion.”

His blunt views often differ from those of his Umno colleagues, whom he said are more cautious with their words out of fear of losing political power.

True to form, Nazri is brutally candid even on PAS proposal for Syariah courts to impose harsher punishments for Islamic law offences, which has become a huge controversy in the country.

“PAS has failed in Kelantan,” he said, referring to the Islamist party’s inability to stamp out vices, such as drinking alcohol, in the state.

“Why else would you ask for heavier sentences?” asked the minister.

But, with almost two decades as minister under his belt, Nazri has himself been a target of criticism and accusations. Local gossip blogs have published rumours of his extravagant wealth. His son Nedim used to be tabloid fodder, with photos of him partying being widely circulated.

However, the minister is used to bad publicity, saying that he’s not around “to please my opposition”. He insisted his priority is to “protect my Prime Minister and voters”.

“Anybody else can say anything if they’re not my voters. I don’t care. I don’t give a damn,” he said.

– The Straits Times/Asia News Network