Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reacts during an interview with Reuters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

The frenzy around Dr M’s health

THE rumours surrounding Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s health reached a frenzy last weekend.

Some of the rumours were so absurd, claiming that the former premier had passed away and that the hospital was hiding the fact.

The craziness subsided only after his family issued a brief statement, indicating that he was alert, stable and responding to treatment.

Information is vital in such situations and the lack of it has fuelled the ridiculous stories on social media.

A photo of Dr Mahathir wearing a blue robe and a winsome smile next to a pretty medical worker helped to convince people he was alright, although that photo was actually taken a few months ago when he had his booster Covid-19 shot.

Dr Mahathir’s most recent hospital stay triggered the alarm bells mainly because it was the third in the space of a month and the media swarmed Institute Jantung Negara (IJN).

Love or hate him, Dr Mahathir’s health is a matter of national interest.

It is big news whether he is going into the hospital or coming out of it.

“It’s of international interest, too. I just got a call from a group in Turkey asking about him,” said Akhramsyah Sanusi, who is the research head of Parti Pejuang Tanah Air (Pejuang).

As 2021 drew to a close, the Pejuang headquarters was informed that their party chairman would not be available for any appointments until the end of December.

“We only knew why when his office issued the statement that he was going for a medical check-up,” said Akhramsyah.

The medical check-up led to an unspecified medical procedure during a second hospital stay in early January.

The elective surgery was a success and he was apparently discharged after a week, although he was still very much under the watchful eye of IJN doctors.

It is unclear what caused him to be admitted into IJN again on Saturday but at 96, any ailment is a serious ailment.

News of his health was trending on Google and Twitter and there has been a deluge of calls from all over the country for “sembahyang hajat” or special prayers for his well-being.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob called on the family in IJN and took to Facebook to urge Malaysians to pray for Dr Mahathir’s recovery, while adversaries like Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin offered prayers for his health.

That is one of the more appealing traits of Malay political culture.

They fight tooth and nail in politics but when it comes to situations like these, in times of illness, death and hardship, values of compassion and empathy take over.

There have been nasty remarks about Dr Mahathir in the Malay social media, but by and large, even his enemies have refrained from harsh words or disrespect.

They have largely been able to put aside their differences to wish him well.

But Chinese social media has been something else altogether. The vitriol against him has been awful, crude and reflects badly on Chinese political culture.

Many Chinese are still bitter about his role in the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government. They have also resorted to blaming him for all the wrongs in the country and calling him racist names.

“What has happened to common courtesy and decency? Fallouts and disagreements in politics should not be taken so far as cursing and wishing ill of people,” said a lawyer who is active in the Chinese schools movement.

The Chinese went into the 2018 general election with their eyes open, it was not as if they were arm-twisted into accepting Dr Mahathir as their leader.

Pakatan leaders used him to get to Putrajaya.

The community should also blame their Chinese heroes like Dr Hew Kuan Yau – better known as “Superman” – and Perak DAP strongman Nga Kor Ming, whose soaring oratory during the election campaign won over the Chinese into supporting Dr Mahathir.

Dr Mahathir, like most politicians, is far from perfect.

He is a polemic personality with more than his share of faults and shortcomings, but those who grew up in the 1990s would readily acknowledge how he transformed the country from an agro-based economy to a modern state.

It is most likely that Dr Mahathir will be a spectator in the next general election. His family will surely be reluctant to allow him to go into another gruelling campaign.

His party should start preparing for someone new to contest in Langkawi because the would-be Umno candidate Datuk Armishah Siraj has been quietly making the rounds on the island the past two months.

The Johor election ought to motivate Dr Mahathir to recover.

He would not want to miss the southern battle, where his party Pejuang is contesting 42 seats.

Pejuang’s goal is not only to damage Umno but also to finish off Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, whose leaders are deemed to have betrayed Dr Mahathir.

The elder leader would not be able to join the campaign, but it is important for his party to have him up there as a figurehead and to turn to for advice and ideas.

Meanwhile, his family and doctors should be less opaque about his health situation.

It will help to quell unseemly rumours because in the age of social media, rumours are often more powerful than facts in influencing thoughts and opinions.

And as some have noted, in Malaysia, rumours are regarded as something waiting to happen.