Dr M on his critics, their allegiance to past wrongs and radical changes

The Cabinet that we have formed has performed quite well despite the fact that many of the members are new, says the PM


IT WAS one of those press conferences that shot a dose of worries into your bloodstream that a lorry load of coffee would fail to calm. It was Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s press conference, a year after he returned to the helm of the government with his newly formed alliance — Pakatan Harapan.

The media were ushered to the main meeting room at the main block of the Perdana Putra complex, a room often used for key meetings, including with foreign leaders.

The Perdana Putra complex has remained as majestic and impressive as when Dr Mahathir had moved to the complex when it was completed in April 1997.

A video montage of Dr Mahathir’s journey in the last 12 months was playing. From that historic night on May 9 a year ago, to the many state visits, meetings and interviews that would shame someone a quarter of his age.

“I’m working 24 hours a day, but if you can find me more time in one day, 36 hours, I will also work for 36 hours,” Dr Mahathir said in the video.

From the world’s most astonishing story of a leader who returned to active politics and democratically elected at the age of 92, to a man who in a rush to complete a mission with whatever time he has left.

Dr Mahathir arrived in a black suit and a red tie, always ready to take any questions. In the hour-long open interview, Dr Mahathir reflected on Pakatan Harapan’s journey over the last 12 months, the government’s achievements and challenges, his ideas and what the future holds for him and the nation.

This is the extract of the interview with the leader who defies the odds, age and logics.

Q: this is Pakatan Harapan’s first anniversary. Could you brief us on what you have achieved this past year, and the things you would like to do, but require more time?

Dr M: Firstly, nobody expected us to win and they said this coalition is fragile and there will be a break up in Pakatan Harapan. But that has not happened. We have stayed together. We have worked together and are united. For me, that is an achievement.

That they have kept me as their leader is also an achievement. I was a man they were against then and yet they chose me as their leader, and until now, I am still their leader.

The Cabinet that we have formed has performed quite well despite the fact that many of the members are new. They have been in the Opposition for 60 years and yet they are able to change and become the government. However, sometimes they still feel as if they are the Opposition.

The country still feels quite happy with the change of government. The change of government is something they want and to a certain extent, we have achieved the objectives we set out.

The first objective that we have achieved is on corruption.

Today, people don’t complain so much about corruption or any difficulty in doing business or anyone demanding extra payment. People are getting their approvals quicker than before and that, to us, is an achievement. This is something we value.

Of course, there are complaints and criticisms, but often, these criticisms come from the very people who created all these problems. What we are doing now is we are trying to resolve the problems created by them.

They borrowed money by the billions, they punished people for not supporting them, cheated them around, took away their jobs and all that. These are the people who are now criticising us.

We have removed quite a lot of people who are openly corrupt. We have evidence on them and we have taken action against them.

The actions taken are within the rules and laws of the country, and that itself is also an achievement because there was no rule of law before. We obey and we accept the separation of power between the judiciary and the executive.

There are a lot of other things that we have done, like dealing with the money borrowed. On the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), we have saved more than RM21 billion.

This has not been achieved by anybody else where people get caught in such contracts and they have money that they have borrowed, and they have not been able to revise the agreement. We have also resolved the problem of Bandar Malaysia.

Q: What about things that you have not been able to do?

Dr M: Well, we promised to abolish the tolls, but we now realise that before, when we wanted to abolish tolls, we didn’t understand the costs involved. But now, we realise that to abolish the tolls, the government would have to buy all the highways and that costs a lot of money.

PLUS Malaysia Bhd alone would cost the government RM30 billion before we can say no tolls will be collected. So, the question is, do we use RM30 billion for that or for other, more important purposes?

Also, if we abolish the tolls, we earn nothing from the usage of the highways, but we have to maintain them and the maintenance cost runs in billions too.

If there is a need to build another highway, it will also be on the government. If we cannot collect tolls, then the private sector will not invest in new highways because they cannot earn anything from it. That will just amplify our financial problem.

At this moment, we find it very difficult to implement our promise that was made without full knowledge of the extent of the costs and damage that can be done. So, that is one thing that we promised, but we cannot do it.

There are other promises which we find them difficult to accomplish. We will have to study how we can abolish the death penalty, for example. Quite a number of things are now opposed by a lot of people because they feel that they will affect their interests.

Q: Congratulations on being ranked as the 47th most influential leader in the world. You’ve spoken about the decline in support for Pakatan Harapan, given its drive to weed out corruption, which is ironic. the people voted for Pakatan Harapan for this very reason and now some are shifting their support back to other parties because of this. What are you doing to get people to understand what corruption really is?

Dr M: Only 47th? I thought I would be the first on the list. It’s true that a lot of money were distributed to different groups of people.

Fishermen received salaries of about RM300 a month even when they don’t catch anything. Bachelors get RM450 a month, and then there was Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BR1M).

We are no different than the previous government if we continue with this practice of buying support with money — this is bribery. We cannot do it and we don’t have the money to even think about doing it.

For people who benefitted from this, although they hated the previous government, the Pakatan Harapan government has no money to give, so they are disappointed.

Back then, they could look forward to earning extra cash. Now, they fear that actions will be taken against them, so they are relying solely on their fixed salaries.

Of course everyone thinks what they earn is not enough. But those who no longer get this money are now upset with the government. That is why we are seeing a decline in support for Pakatan Harapan.

Q: Some critics point out that Putrajaya has only repackaged some of the Barisan Nasional initiatives like BR1M. What do you have to say about that?

Dr M: The fact is the previous government (under Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak) tried to do what the “previous” government (under Dr Mahathir’s previous tenure) did, and they failed.

We will do it the proper way — not through corruption, or giving contracts to cronies, or asking contract prices to be hiked in order to make money. Those were the things they did. Now, we have to do the same thing, but without corruption — that is the difference. It is not just doing what they have done.

Any government would have to do certain things and we are doing what is necessary, what is our responsibility as the government, but without corruption and cronyism.

That is what we have done and I think we are different in many cases, such as the ECRL.

It took us almost a year to renegotiate the contract. The contract was very, very bad because the contract was given to a Chinese company from China simply because we borrowed money from China, and we borrowed more money than we should.

On top of it, all payments are made in China, not in Malaysia. All profits are made in China, not in Malaysia. We cannot tax them here. So, the terms of the contact were very bad.

We don’t do that. We go back to proper practices of the rightful way of entering proper contract agreements. We do due diligence before we enter into any contract, so it is not right to say that we are doing what the previous government was doing.

Q: Perhaps, the message that Pakatan Harapan is sending has not gotten through to the grassroots, particularly the Malay community. How do you view the challenge to make people understand that the economy is on the right track?

Dr M: We need to meet and have engagements with them. If we don’t go to them, we will not be able to explain what we are doing to them. People can read news reports, but even that is not enough to explain the message that we wish to impart.

I think I’ve met over 50 separate groups who have come to tell me about their problems. Yesterday (May 5), I was in Perak where I met the civil servants there. One of them was complaining that we have not done anything to help the farmers at palm estates, given that prices are down.

I had to explain to him that we have been doing things wrong this whole time. That is why they (farmers) are in trouble. You see the British planting palm trees and rubber, but they did that on a big scale — 10,000 to 20,000 acres (8,093ha), and very professionally managed, so they made money.

When we (locals) see that, on our two acres of land, we decide to plant palm trees and expect to be millionaires? That will not happen. You tell a paddy farmer that he must cultivate rice and nothing else, the farmers will forever be poor because you cannot make a living out of planting paddy.

So, we have come up with new ideas. We want to do big farming and we want to ensure that they have proper advice on how to do modern farming. We must amalgamate the land, so it becomes big and they can become profitable.

Anwar (left) and Dr Mahathir. The nonagenarian says his job is to prepare the country as much as possible so that it can be taken over by his successor. (pic by MUHD AMIN NAHARUL)

We have many ideas about how to change, but it will take time and there is resistance. When we say that you cannot make money out of two acres, and the only way you can make money is to join up with others and have 1,000 acres, they will say no, this is my land that I had inherited from my great-grandfather who inherited it from his great-grandfather and all that.

So, selling the idea is a problem, but we are sure we can.

We pointed out to them that this country imports RM60 billion worth of food every year, and most of this can be produced here, but we don’t because we see palm trees and we follow suit. You can’t even eat palm fruits. When the price goes down, you cry and say what is the government doing?

When we lose money, the government must make us profitable again by giving money. That is what Najib did. That is not the way. Our way is to change the way they make money.

They must do business, they must farm in a modern way, they must have bigger farms — all these things are being worked out by the government and we are already planting.

Before this, we didn’t know that planting pineapples could make you a millionaire, until we saw it. Some people have done it. I had received some fruits from Rompin, they called it “Rompine”, and it is very sweet and it doesn’t have that bad taste in the mouth. Please buy, it is a Malaysian produce. They have already planted on some hundreds of acres of land.

Today, even mangosteens are being produced. These people are making money because they realise that if you have land, and you plant it with palm trees, you are going to get into trouble.

Q: It is understood that you will pass your role over to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Have you thought about the succession plan yet and are there things you wish to do before giving the baton to your successor?

Dr M: I have made this promise that I will step down and give way to Anwar. That is something quite definite. There is no talk about who is going to be (doing what) or what is going to be done. When somebody does take over from me, he is not required to follow my instruction or follow what I have done.

He is free to do what he thinks is best as the PM. I have no say of what happens after. My job is to prepare the country as much as possible, so that it can be taken over by my successor.