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Interview

Mahathir's son ready to inherit Malaysia's political legacy

Mukhriz denies timeline for succession, notes PM needs time to repair economy

Mukhriz Mahathir, left, the son of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said he is willing to take on a bigger political role if asked.(Photo source by AP)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Mukhriz Mahathir, son of the current prime minister of Malaysia, says he is prepared to follow in his father's footsteps after the world's oldest leader hands over the premiership to his longtime political foe and now ally, Anwar Ibrahim.

Mahathir Mohamad, who celebrated his 94th birthday on July 10, is facing rising pressure to pass the baton to Anwar, as agreed by the ruling coalition parties before the country's general election in May 2018.

Mukhriz is the prime minister's fifth child and only political heir. He is currently the chief minister of the northern Kedah state. In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, he said he was open to assuming a bigger role in the federal administration, if the country's next leader wishes.

"I am open and it really depends on the leadership at that time on where I'm suited best," he said. But he also stressed, "I'm not really ambitious, I don't set myself a course that I must become a prime minister one day as some other people do."

"As and when it is seen necessary for the country that I would be placed at the federal level, I am willing and able to assume that responsibility," Mukhriz said.

He said there will be no concerted effort from his side to push him to become the country's prime minister after Anwar, although he will remain open if the opportunity arises. "I won't on my own work on trying to move up the ladder as if it is given that I must be the prime minister one day."

Mukhriz, 54, is a businessman and currently the deputy president of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), a component party of the ruling government chaired by Mahathir. He also sits on the powerful Pakatan Harapan presidential council.

Like his father, Mukhriz left the former ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in 2016, to form Bersatu. The same year due to the political tension between Mahathir and then Prime Minister Najib Razak, Mukriz was removed as Kedah's chief minister. His first served in government as the deputy trade and industry minister from 2008-2013.

Mukhriz Mahathir speaks to the Nikkei Asian Review in Alor Setar, northern Malaysia. (Photo by Takashi Nakano)

Mukhriz studied at Tokyo's Sophia University thanks to Mahathir's famous Look East Policy introduced in 1982. He received a bachelor's degree in business management in 1987, then studied marketing at Boston University.

On the cloudy Mahathir-Anwar succession plan, Mukhriz said the presidential council is aware of an agreement between the two on the purported succession. However, he denied the existence of an agreed timeline.

"There was no agreement that it has to be two years. There may have been suggestions like that, but nothing was stated on paper or in a verbal agreement," he said.

Mukhriz said the general consensus among component parties in the ruling coalition was that Mahathir should be given ample time to repair the country's economy and finances before the handover to Anwar.

"He (Mahathir) should be given enough time to do what he wants to do. Although we acknowledge his age, he has not shown any signs of slowing down," he said.

He reiterated that there is no political tussle in Pakatan Harapan as some have reported. He also said that, contrary to speculation that Mahathir prefers Anwar's political rival Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali to be the next prime minister, there is no dispute among the ruling parties about Anwar's position as the prime minister-in-waiting.

"My sense is that since the majority believes that Anwar is the appointed heir, he (Mahathir) should be given enough time to do what he needs to do," he added.

Political observers remain skeptical that Anwar will be given the opportunity to lead the country before the next election in 2023, given the bitter history between the two men. Mahathir sacked him from the ruling government in 1998 on sodomy and corruption allegations.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, right, raises the hand of Malaysia's reform icon Anwar Ibrahim during a rally in Port Dickson, Malaysia, on Oct. 8, 2018.   © AP

Mahathir trained Anwar to be his successor during his first stint as prime minister in 1981-2003, but declared Anwar unfit to be Malaysia's leader -- an action deplored by human rights organizations and world leaders.

Anwar led a campaign against Mahathir from prison and started the National Justice Party, headed by his wife and current deputy prime minister, Wan Azizah Wan Ibrahim. The supreme court overturned his sodomy charges in 2004, a year after Mahathir stepped down.

Following his release in 2004, Anwar became the leading figure in the opposition and led a coalition of opposition parties to contest the 2008 and 2013 general elections. Then, in 2015, he began another five-year sentence on a second sodomy allegation involving his personal aide.

However, he received a royal pardon from the King of Malaysia and was released in May 2018, a week after the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan party shocked the nation by sweeping into power.

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