PAKATAN Harapan’s (PH) main attraction now is Dr Mahathir Mohamad as he is more popular among Malay voters especially from rural areas compared to opposition Anwar Ibrahim, PH deputy president Mohamad Sabu told The Malaysian Insight.

Dr Mahathir was Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister for 22 years until 2003, but the 93-year-old now leads the opposition pact in a bid to unseat Prime Minister Najib Razak and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government, which is strong in rural areas.

“I see that the support of Malay folks in rural areas towards Mahathir is higher compared to Anwar when he led (now defunct) Pakatan Rakyat,” said Mohamad, who is also Amanah president.

“(In Anwar’s time) there was support from the middle-class Malays in the west coast, but now we see the support from Malays from the rural areas. 

“(Places) like Langkawi and Felda schemes for instance. I believe that these are the added values after Dr Mahathir led (PH),” he said.

In a PH retreat at Yayasan Kepimpinan Perdana in Putrajaya earlier this month, it was suggested for Dr Mahathir to be the bloc’s prime minister candidate and PKR President Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as the deputy prime minister candidate.

However, this couldn’t be announced to the public due to opposition from several PKR leaders.

Dr Mahathir himself last Tuesday said he is ready to be named as PH prime minister candidate if the bloc is “desperate” and have no other viable candidate.

“If PH has decided, there’s no problem for Dr Mahathir to be the prime minister candidate,” said Mohamad, better known as Mat Sabu.  

“There shouldn’t be an interim tag or whatever, as it will be only for a while. With his age and condition, I’m concerned with his age, I pray for his health,” he said.

He said that age has not dulled Dr Mahathir’s character, and that the Bersatu president’s “stubbornness” made him popular among voters.

“Wherever he goes especially during ceramah, he is still the number one attraction,” said Mohamad.

Dr Mahathir last week returned the awards received from the Selangor Palace following Selangor ruler Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah’s criticism against him in an exclusive interview with The Star.

During a PH rally in October, Dr Mahathir had called prime minister Najib Razak a descendent of ‘Bugis pirates’, earning him the ire of the Selangor royalty, who are Bugis descendents, and those from the Bugis community in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Mohamad said that under Dr Mahathir’s leadership, PH is more organised as compared to PR.

“It’s different than before. Now we can conduct a meeting at state level under the PH name.”

PH is a four-party coalition made up of PKR, Bersatu, DAP and Amanah. The previous opposition coalition, PR, consist of PKR, DAP and PAS which was formed in 2008 but disbanded in 2015.

PAS refused to join PH and formed its own alliance, Gagasan Sejahtera, with smaller parties such as Parti Ikatan Bangsa Malaysia.

Below are excerpts of The Malaysian Insight interview with Mohamad.

TMI: Will the controversies faced by Mahathir affect Pakatan Harapan?

Mat Sabu: He hasn’t changed since his younger days. He speaks his mind and sometimes it will create controversy.  

That is Mahathir. He caused a huge controversy that led to his sacking from Umno during the era of Tunku Abdul Rahman.

He is popular due to his nature. In Kedah, we use the word “ketegaq” (stubborn). His stubbornness made him popular.

During his premiership, his policies had impacted the mind of the people. ‘Buy British last’, his ‘Look East’ policy and also his strong criticism towards Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating.

He is the sort of person who never shied away from controversy. Even in religious matters, his views sometimes led to controversy.

But Mahathir is not someone who is easily shaken by attacks. He embraces it as something normal. And I am confident that Mahathir can face the controversies that he faces now.

TMI: What is Dr Mahathir’s leadership like in PH?

Mat Sabu: He is being more and more accepted from day to day. There are some controversies at the beginning especially when people look at his track record during his reign as prime minister.

But he is being accepted, because the public accepts him as a leader.

I think this is why our opponent is worried. Especially because of the support from the Malays, including the youth, for him.

In the early days, when Mahathir joined the demonstration against GST (goods and services tax), people shouted to mock and curse him.

Even the prayer (doa) recited at the event cursed Mahathir. But he is a determined person. When he attended the Otai Reformasi programme, people slammed him. But he remained casual. I believe Mahathir is someone who can face any criticism thrown at him.