Avengers: The Age of Mahathir

As I watched the country’s seventh prime minister giving a press conference on television yesterday, it brought back memories of the fourth prime minister. Dr Mahathir Mohamad has not lost it: he is still very much in charge, and he still has his charm, his humour, and his cynical, wry smile.

He is as sharp as he was in the days when I was among those crowding around him asking questions, during his first stint as prime minister. Of the prime ministers I have covered, as a journalist, I liked him best. Why? He was always approachable and we’d never go back without a good story. If he saw a group of newsmen milling around after an event he had officiated, he would stop and, smilingly, ask: “Apa mahu? Cukup lah” (What do you want? Enough lah). And promptly start answering our questions.

He respected newsmen, unlike a couple of ministers during his time who felt that as they were close to the top editors, they could afford to be condescending or even rude to reporters on the ground. Dr Mahathir would normally stand or sit and talk to newsmen, unlike some ministers who would keep walking with the reporters running after them trying desperately to hear what they were saying.

In the 80s and 90s, I was based in Penang, and for a short while in Kedah. As Dr Mahathir loved to visit Langkawi, I would often go there to cover him.

Those of us who covered him frequently learned a trick or two about how to get him to answer difficult questions. We would start by asking him questions about the function that he was attending or, say, the factory that he had opened. He would take delight in answering such questions, emphasising the importance of that function, or the factory, to the country or state or economic growth. This is because he felt that as he was there for that particular event, reporters should write about it and its significance.

Only after that would we ask him questions about other issues, including sensitive questions. He would answer them, or, rarely, say that he would do so at a later time.

I have never seen him get angry with any reporter or question, although once, when a reporter started off by asking a question related to China’s activities in the Spratly Islands, (yes, this problem of China flexing its muscles has been existing for a long time), he stood up and said: “I think you would have had enough to write from my speech.” Berita Harian reporter Thillinathan and I quickly changed the topic by asking him about the function he was attending. He sat down, we sat down and he began answering questions. Later, the China-related question was posed and he answered it.

He was very witty, but he also had a biting sarcasm. And, observing him in recent months, I realise that he has not lost that, either.

Therefore, when I saw this bunch of newsmen asking him questions, and listened to his answers, it brought back many memories.

It is amazing that the man, at 92, is so active and alert, especially after a gruelling general election campaign and non-stop meetings, probably snatching a few hours of sleep, after Pakatan Harapan’s victory. No wonder the young are proud of him, admire him.

To many of them, he is a super hero. It is almost as if this hero-worship is becoming a fad, according to a young man I was talking to yesterday. He said: “They see him as a grandfather figure, and what a grandfather!” Many people Dr Mahathir’s age can’t do half the things he does, and many people about 20 or even 30 years younger can’t keep pace with him.

He was a hero in those days too, with former Commonwealth secretary-general Shridath Rampal describing him as the “hero of the developing world” at the Smart Partnership Gobal 2003 International Dialogue in Swaziland.

But Malaysians who are older know there is a Thanos-like side to Dr Mahathir; and there are those who still put this medical doctor in the same category as Dr Doom – a villain. He has been accused of weakening, even destroying, institutions such as the judiciary, and curtailing media freedom. Most of the present ills that he is now trying to reset – including rampant rent-seeking and political patronage that has gone out of hand – began during his first tenure as prime minister. While he developed the nation and made Malaysia an internationally respected country, he also weakened institutions that provided the checks and balances.

He himself has expressed regret and apologised over his contribution to the problems the nation faces, and that, mind you, takes a lot of guts. This, and his age, could explain why he is in a rush to clean up the situation.

And those who had doubted that a leopard could change its spots would likely be reassessing their stand; especially since Dr Mahathir is working to get Anwar Ibrahim – his former friend turned enemy turned ally – a full pardon immediately after being sworn in as prime minister, as he promised he would, if they would all team up to bring down Najib Razak’s government.

The leaders of the parties making up Pakatan Harapan had agreed to perform surgery on the cancer eating into the body of the nation, and Dr Mahathir, even before the ink on voters’ left index fingers can disappear, has started pouncing on those suspected of having abused their positions or being involved in corrupt practices or abetting those involved.

And that has got the young even more excited. They almost expect Dr Mahathir to wield some magic, like Dr Strange, and rearrange stuff to put this nation on a happy trajectory.

Just yesterday, Dr Mahathir told Attorney-General Apandi Ali to go on leave and transferred Treasury secretary-general Irwan Serigar to the Public Services Department for the next 30 days, after shortening his contract to end on June 14, instead of March 6, 2019. Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission head Dzulkifli Ahmad, who was certainly in the sights of Dr Mahathir, tendered his resignation.

To the young, Dr Mahathir resembles an avenging angel, the hero who swoops down on villains to ensure speedy justice. And he hasn’t even assembled his avengers… I mean Cabinet, yet. No wonder they seem to adore him.

(Note to readers: This is the last piece for Election Vibes. A Kathirasen will be writing a weekly column which will appear every Tuesday.)

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.