They stole him from me — Dr Siti Hasmah

Without hiding her feelings, she says she never liked politics. It is one area she will never even put a toe into


Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali was apologising profusely for being slightly late for the interview. She had just flown with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on the helicopter to a remote village in Pahang.

Dr Mahathir made a last-minute campaigning bid, 24 hours before the voting day for the Cameron Highlands by-election. Dr Siti Hasmah then flew back to Kuala Lumpur (KL) after seeing her husband off to the Orang Asli village in Sungai Koyan.

“I feel rotten today because I have to sacrifice my husband. I had to go on a helicopter which I don’t like, just for a short while to drop my husband for a by-election in Cameron Highlands,” said a tired, but always spirited wife of the prime minister (PM).

“During his first term, he has never done it. But this time, I don’t know, he decided to go and campaign for our candidate,” she said.

Clearly, the 92-year-old Dr Siti Hasmah was not a huge fan of the rotorcraft. Past incidents related to such aircraft may be the reason of her worries.

“I hate helicopters,” she said in jest. “They have a bad record in my mind,” said Dr Siti Hasmah who has clocked millions of air miles in her 63-year marriage while accompanying Dr Mahathir around the four corners of the globe.

Such intimate narratives may be trivial to outsiders. But it demonstrates the worries of a wife of her husband’s trip.

No one can fault her though. Dr Siti Hasmah has seen it all over the past six decades, a large part next to the man who decided his life extends beyond the four walls of a clinic.

From the opening of Dr Mahathir’s first clinic in Alor Setar to seeing her husband expelled from Umno after a falling-out with Tunku Abdul Rahman, leading the nation for 22 years, battling two successors and returning to the campaign trails for the 14th General Election (GE14) and against all odds, back in Putrajaya at the age of 92 then.

Dr Siti Hasmah’s resolve is second to none. Despite the mountains of sacrifices, she has stood next to her man.

At the age of 92, her eyesight is less than what she desires. She is not as strong as she used to be. A special assistant is always by her side, especially on overseas trips. Even the wives of heads of states take pride in helping her on official visits.

But the simple lady from Klang has been that wife, offering her husband every support she could, making the pair an exemplary couple.

The trained medical doctor, the second Malay woman to do so, is content despite the life of a politician’s wife that demands herculean strength.

Without hiding her feelings, she said she never liked politics. It is one area she will never even put a toe into.

“It can be dirty. I don’t like politics. It is something that is beyond me. I know you can do a lot of things, you can have power, you can do this and that in politics. I don’t like that. It is not natural,” said Dr Siti Hasmah in a recent 90-minute interview with The Malaysian Reserve at the Perdana Leadership Foundation recently.

During the interview, Dr Siti Hasmah shared her experience of coming out of retirement, her likes and dislikes, how she keeps Dr Mahathir’s health in check and her views on some pressing social matters which are close to her heart.

An Unexpected Win for Pakatan Harapan
In 2002, when Dr Mahathir retired as the PM, Dr Siti Hasmah thought the country had returned her husband and she would get to spend the golden years far from the disturbances of running a country of 32 million people.

It was a short-lived dream though.

And not in her wildest dream, did she think she would return as “the first lady” after Dr Mahathir’s 22 years leading the country.

Pakatan Harapan’s historic May 9 victory surprised her as to the world. “The odds were all against us,” she recalled the period before the historic night. “Imagine, Putrajaya was full of Barisan Nasional (BN) flags even before the Parliament was dissolved.

Every part of Putrajaya, even in front of our gates, the BN flags were up. If you were to go by how many flags were up, we had no hope of ever winning the election,” she said.

But fate had other ideas. Though quietly reluctant, she had returned her husband to the country.

“I didn’t give him back, they stole him from me,” said Dr Siti Hasmah cheekily.

The Opposition had come together under one banner. Dr Mahathir had been the Trojan horse that glued the once unthinkable alliance of scattered parties of different ideologies.

But Dr Mahathir’s nomination and his campaign, which zeroed in on the corruption at 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), were enough to bring an end to BN’s 61-year rule.

“When I got to know about it (Dr Mahathir re-elected as PM), I asked him and he said they had appointed him unanimously, four parties, and that he had no choice but to accept it. He felt that it was his responsibility,” Dr Siti Hasmah said.

Now that Dr Mahathir is back at the helm, the question on everyone’s mind is how long will he be there?

While the public continues to debate on whether Dr Mahathir would make way for PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in two years’ time, Dr Siti Hasmah does not hold the opinion that her husband would want to complete a term of five years.

“He has always said that when he took on the job as the seventh PM, it would just be temporary. Just to see the country going back on track, and once everything is settled, he will leave. I don’t think he would want to finish the term,” she said.

Looking After the World’s Oldest Leader
Dr Mahathir is far older today compared to when he took the oath as the PM in 1981. In his earlier bid to oust his successor, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, he held a series of roadshows around Malaysia which began in June 2006.

By November that year, Dr Mahathir suffered a heart attack and was rushed to a hospital.

From an open-heart surgery to a chest infection just months before GE14, many described Dr Mahathir’s health attacks as near-misses, given his age. But since his return as the PM, Dr Mahathir has generally been well despite frailty of age going unescaped.

Dr Siti Hasmah has made it her utmost priority to look after Dr Mahathir’s wellbeing. She described their recent visit to Europe as a point of concern due to the extreme cold weather.

“I know his weaknesses and his weaknesses are his lungs and throat. He cannot stand the cold. We just came back from Europe. We went to Senegal, London and Vienna.

“Senegal was okay. It is sunny like what we have here. But when it came to London and Vienna, it was -5°C and -6°C, we couldn’t stand that. That was what we were afraid of. He was afraid of that too, the cold.

“We had to be bundled up right up to the neck. Once he gets the cold, then his sinuses will be blocked up and then the nasal drip, whatever…it goes to his throat, and that would go to his lungs, which is not a very good condition for him to stand. He has to talk too, at the same time.

“So, I look after him to make sure that he doesn’t catch a cold. That is the only thing we fear when we go overseas, especially to cold countries,” she said.

Dr Siti Hasmah also shared her concerns on some criticisms that are thrown at Dr Mahathir. While she is too worried about Dr Mahathir’s strong-held opinions on matters like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she is afraid when Dr Mahathir responds incorrectly due to his hearing loss. An example, she said, was at the Oxford Union debate.

“My husband couldn’t hear what they said. The questions were posed to him, he didn’t get the question correctly because of his hearing, and he gave them all the wrong answers. That is not good.

“If I had been close to him, I would have cautioned him, but it was not my job to do that,” she said, being the always concerned wife.

“Sometimes, I wish I had an earpiece, and he has one. I can communicate and say, ‘No you’re wrong’.” She chuckled. “I always fear that he might say the wrong things.”

National Issues at Heart
Being married to the nation’s longest serving PM, Dr Siti Hasmah has always had to balance the demands of the nation with those of her growing family.

Many women would find the pressure overwhelming, but not Dr Siti Hasmah. As a trained medical practitioner, she had championed women’s health, childhood development and drug abuse control. She continues to be a strong advocator of these issues, albeit her more advisory role now.

Malaysia is high on some international indexes, but for the wrong reasons.

The country has the highest rate of obesity in the region and has a record of more than 6,000 child marriages in the last five years.

Dr Siti Hasmah did not hold back her displeasure over such issues.

“I criticise women a lot, especially when I see that they’re fat and I tell them straight in the face ‘you look ugly’. I would say stop eating rice and stop the sugar because sugar is poison, then you can reduce your weight and with that, you will not open yourself to diabetes,” she said.

Her solution is simple: Self-discipline.

Being married to the nation’s longest serving PM, Dr Siti Hasmah has always had to balance the demands of the nation with those of her growing family

“I think, it is more to discipline yourself. I can discipline myself, my husband can discipline himself. His mother’s advice was that if you are eating and you are enjoying it, stop. Don’t take a second helping. That is the time when you would say it is so difficult to stop,” she said.

She had an even stronger objection to child marriages. Describing child marriages and child raping as “terrible” and “disgusting”, she said there is an urgent need to instil moral values and equip the public with the right knowledge through health education.

“It is terrible. It is disgusting. I sometimes give up hope on some of these ustaz and ustazah who teach our children only on one aspect of the religion, but never the moral values of the religion.

“Any community has moral values to teach their children, including religion. You must have religion to guide you, but if the interpretation of the religion is wrong, then you are finished.

“The old man should be shot, actually. If it was in an Arab country, he would have been stoned to death. It is terrible,” she said referring to rapes of underage girls.

When asked of her preferred roles — a wife, a mother or a grandmother, she gave a sigh.

“How can you ask me to choose out of the three? I have to become a wife before I become a mother or a grandmother,” she said.

“I know the children need me and they need me the most when they have problems. I’m a punching bag and when they have problems, they come to me and I listen.

“When I talk about it with my husband, my husband punches me back and I defend the children. So, you cannot have a choice of which one you like best,” Dr Siti Hasmah said.

“But the children and my husband need me at times when they are at a low, and when times they have problems, I help them communicate with each other. That is my role.”

Dr Siti Hasmah may be remembered for many things. But first and foremost, she will be remembered as the lady that stands by her man no matter what the world throws at them.

The second part of the interveiw will be published tomorrow.