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Interview

Mahathir vows comeback if government goes wrong

Malaysia's two-time prime minister says Anwar's impatience cost them both

Malaysian former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks to Nikkei Asian Review in Putrajaya on March 12. (Photo by Wong Ying Xian)

PUTRAJAYA -- Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, three weeks after tendering his resignation, said his arch-rival-turned-ally Anwar Ibrahim's hunger for power cost both of them the chance to lead Malaysia.

Mahathir, 94, said he will not retire, as many have expected. Instead, he vowed to make a political comeback if the people still want him and if there are wrongdoings in the administration of current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.

"Even now, they are coming to see me," Mahathir told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview in his office in Putrajaya, referring to his party cadres and supporters. "I tell them, look, I'm old, 94 years old, but they say they [don't] see people with experience. I had experience as PM for many, many years [and] I learned something, so they think that I can resolve many of the problems."

Mahathir said it would be selfish of him to retire because he is still the representative for Langkawi's parliamentary constituency, a position he wants to keep until the next election.

"I cannot stand seeing a government that does something wrong," Mahathir said. "I feel I have a duty to do something."

Mahathir, clad in his signature gray bush jacket, gave the interview in his office overseeing a lake in Putrajaya, the administrative capital created by Mahathir during his first stint as prime minister. The planned city became the seat of government in 1999.

When asked if he wants to run in the next general election, due in 2023, Mahathir said he is willing to if the people wish it. "If you ask me, I don't want to do it because by then I would be 98."

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks to the Nikkei Asian Review in Putrajaya on March 12. (Photo by Wong Ying Xian)

On Anwar, Mahathir said that since 1998 the 72-year-old has been impatient to become the country's prime minister. Back then, Mahathir and Anwar were the Nos. 1 and 2 in the then ruling Malay-based party United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

"Well, I think he has always been impatient," Mahathir said. "During the last time when he was in UMNO, I promoted him until he was the second man, where he would take over when I retire. But he couldn't wait because I was staying too long and he started some movement to overthrow me but of course he failed."

This time around Mahathir accused Anwar again. "He was campaigning, through his boys, to ask me to step down," Mahathir said. "I felt that I will step down when I think that it is safe to step down."

Mahathir trained Anwar to be his successor during his first stint as prime minister, from 1981 to 2003. But he was also among those claiming Anwar was guilty of sodomy, charges Mahathir used to declare Anwar is incapable of leading Muslim-majority Malaysia. The charges are considered a political vendetta by human rights organizations and world leaders, including former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

In 2004, after Anwar led a campaign against Mahathir from prison and started the National Justice Party, headed by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ibrahim, the Supreme Court overturned Anwar's sodomy charges. That was the year after Mahathir stepped down.

Anwar Ibrahim waves to supporters after a news conference in Petaling Jaya on Feb. 26.    © Reuters

But sodomy charges continued to dog Anwar. In 2015, he began a five-year prison sentence, receiving a royal pardon from the Malaysian King and winning his release in May 2018, a week after the Mahathir-led Alliance of Hope swept to power.

Mahathir resigned on Feb. 24 due to disagreements with the leadership of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), including Muhyiddin, who wanted to form a new government with UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

"I don't regret resigning," Mahathir said. "Thinking about it now, I only did what was right when my own party didn't agree to my views."

The resignation threw Malaysia into a political crisis. Mahathir was asked to stay on as interim prime minister while King Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin privately interviewed 221 lower house lawmakers on their choice for a new leader.

According to the federal constitution, the King can appoint a prime minister who in his judgment is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the chamber's members.

The Alliance of Hope, which first nominated Mahathir as a prime minister candidate, changed its stance within a day, after Mahathir mooted talk of a grand-coalition government. The alliance sidelined Mahathir and named Anwar as its prime ministerial candidate. Two days later, it reversed its decision and supported Mahathir again. But it was too late; by then the King had decided that Muhyiddin would be sworn in as the country's eighth prime minister, on March 1.

Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as Malaysia's eighth prime minister on March 1.   © Reuters

Mahathir said he was disappointed when some lawmakers shifted their support to Anwar and some to Muhyiddin after promising to support him.

"Well, I feel disappointed," Mahathir said. "Disappointed because they all practically swore and even signed statutory declarations saying that they supported me, but it's all bluff.

Mahathir added that some lawmakers intended to break the Alliance of Hope away from the ethnic Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP) by using Mahathir as a wedge.

Responding to a statement by Muhyiddin on Wednesday that the prime minister had written a letter to apologize to his predecessor and to say he would like to meet him soon, Mahathir said the only condition for such meetings is if Muhyiddin can assure that the criminal prosecutions on former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi are carried out without any obstructions.

Mahathir said he fears Najib might use his current influence in UMNO, which is part of the current ruling coalition, to minimize charges in relation to former state wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad and its subsidiary SRC International. Najib currently faces 42 money laundering and corruption charges regarding dealings with 1MDB and SRC.

"The government may [now] need to please [Najib and Ahmad] by not charging them more," Mahathir said. "Alternatively, [Najib] may want to leave the country. ... During my time, he was not allowed to leave the country.

"But now he might leave the country either legally or illegally, stay abroad and escape punishment like Jho Low."

Mahathir was referring to the fugitive businessman and Najib's alleged money launderer. Jho Low is currently on the run from Interpol and is believed to be traveling in China.

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