KUALA LUMPUR (May 9): Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, one of the oldest leaders in the world today, said he feels “as strong as I could be, at the age of 93” when asked if the past year leading the Pakatan Harapan Government as Prime Minister has exhausted him during a special interview on Monday, which coincided with the first day of the Ramadhan fasting month.
“Not many people at the age of 93 can even think. I think I'm still able to answer your nasty questions. I don't think I'm worse than [US president Donald] Trump. I don't think I'm worse than the British leaders, or the French leaders, who have to deal with the Yellow Shirts, or the Spanish leaders who have to deal with secession and all those other leaders.
“By comparison, I don't think I've done so badly. Can you tell me which leader has done better than me?” he quipped, drawing chuckles from the room as he took questions from reporters during the interview that was arranged ahead of the first anniversary of the PH Government today.
He was clearly unconcerned about his supposedly declining approval rating, which came in at just 46% in March based on a Merdeka Centre survey, compared with the 71% recorded at end-May last year, while PH’s rating plummeted to 39% from 79%. Instead, he made a jibe at the pollster who previously predicted that PH would not win in the last general election.
“They thought we would lose, and there were so many things they found through their surveys, which were quite wrong. But they are entitled to make their estimates,” said the man who has just been ranked early this month as the world’s 47th greatest leader by Fortune magazine.
But, is the rating that the Merdeka Centre poll garnered a fair assessment? “I don’t know. What I do know is that people are not shooting at me or taking pot shots at me, except for the press lah. The press must, that’s their duty and I appreciate that. I like to be told where I’m wrong, where I’m weak, so I can correct myself,” said the man who was previously criticised as an autocratic leader during his first stint as Prime Minister from 1981 till 2003.
Having said that, he thinks PH is doing “quite well”, considering that the coalition never thought it would be in Government a year ago, even as it struggles to fulfil some of its election promises, like the abolition of tolls which he reiterated Putrajaya is now finding it “very difficult” to implement as the promise was made without full knowledge of the costs and damages involved. Doing away with the death penalty is another promise that PH has yet to deliver, he noted.
Notwithstanding those, he said PH has achieved much too, like removing openly corrupt people and taking legal actions against them, and insisting that the rule of law be followed. "If the courts have not been able to have the hearing early, we never complain, we follow the law. We accept the separation of power between the judiciary and the executive," he said.
Re-negotiating with China to reduce the cost of the East Coast Rail Link by over RM21 billion is also a notable achievement, as well as the revival of Bandar Malaysia, according to Dr Mahathir.
To critics who said Putrajaya has only repackaged some of Barisan Nasional's initiatives, he said: "The fact is that the previous government tried to do what the previous government did, and they failed. So we will do it in the proper way, not through corruption, not through giving contracts to cronies, [and] not by asking contract prices to be hiked, in order to take money. Those are the things they did," he said.
Pointing to the ECRL, he said the contract was "very, very bad" because it was given to a Chinese company and all payments were made in China. "We can't even tax [on the profits made]. [Now] we go back to proper practices... We do due diligence before we enter into any contracts. So it's not right to say we're doing what the previous government did," he added.
He personally also finds it an achievement that the coalition, deemed “fragile” by many in the past, has stayed together and continued to work together. That his colleagues accepted him — a person whom they had previously run down — as leader, a post which he continues to hold, is another achievement.
'To buy support is bribery and we don’t have the money to do that because we don’t steal'
As for manifesto promises, one objective he highlighted PH has achieved is to fight corruption in the Government, he said.
“Today, people don’t complain so much about corruption...People are getting their approvals much more quickly than before. That, to us, is also an achievement. That people are quite happy to have us. That is something we value,” he said.
But, ironically, the fight against graft, which helped PH wrest power from BNl on May 9, has caused a deterioration of support for PH, a fact that Mahathir acknowledged. The deterioration is mainly among those who used to be on the take, as well as those who were used to getting free money, who are now disappointed they can no longer do so, he said.
“The previous government used to give money to all kinds of groups. [For example] fishermen get paid RM300 a month, even if they don’t catch fish. Bachelors get RM450 a month. BR1M (Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia) gave money also. All kinds of people got money. If we practise this, we will be just as corrupt [as the previous Government]. To buy support with money, that’s bribery. We can’t do that and we don’t have the money to do that because we don’t steal money,” he said.
Changing the mentality of those who have been used to getting free money is difficult, he said. “But we are going to make people feel it is normal for them not to be supported by [such] money. We will try to improve their pay... After some time, I think people will begin to appreciate [this]. The public certainly should appreciate because now they don’t have to pay extra money to corrupt officers,” he said.
The Government is also looking at helping people change the way they make money, he said, to raise their income level, using as an example of a complaint he received about how the Government was not doing anything to help farmers suffering from low palm oil prices.
“We have been doing the wrong things, that’s why they’re in trouble. The British planted oil palm and rubber trees, but they did that on a big scale — 10,000, 20,000 acres — and [the plantations] are professionally managed, so they make money. Here, we have two acres of land, we plant oil palm, and expect to be millionaires. You will not be. The padi farmers also will forever be poor because you can’t make a living out of planting rice [only],” he commented.
The only way to turn a profit, he said, is to amalgamate smaller plots into bigger ones. “We have many ideas about how to change, but it will take time.” There is also resistance, as some farmers view their plots as family inheritance.
“So selling the idea is a problem, but we are sure we can. This country imports RM60 billion [worth] of food every year, and most of this can be grown here, but we don't because we only see palm oil and rubber. You can’t eat rubber. So, when rubber price goes down, you cry and ask what the Government is doing. When you lose money, the Government must make you profitable again by giving you money. That is what [Datuk Seri] Najib [Razak] did. That’s not the way,” Mahathir said, referring to his predecessor. The same, he said, has been done to artificially prop up household incomes.
“Our way is to change the way they make money. They must do business. They must farm in the modern way, they must have bigger farms. All these things are being worked out by the Government,” he said.
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