Dr Mohamed Yacob Dawood was a 33-year-old government doctor when he was invited by Dr Mahathir Mohamad to work at his clinic in Alor Setar, Kedah.
Little did he know that his future boss would be one of modern Malaysia’s most prominent leaders, helming the nation for more than two decades and returning to the top post 15 years later.
In 1974, two years after Yacob started his job at Klinik Maha in the town’s Pekan Melayu, Mahathir stood as the Barisan Nasional candidate for Kubang Pasu in the general election.
Even then, he was known for his active participation in the country’s political debates. His criticism of the Umno government, led by Tunku Abdul Rahman, had landed him in trouble including his expulsion from the party.
After his election victory in 1974, he was appointed to the Cabinet as the education minister under Abdul Razak Hussein who was prime minister at the time.
It was then that he decided to quit his medical practice.
“As an assistant to him for two years, I really learnt a lot. He is my real boss lah. Bossku lah.”
“In 1974, when he won the election and became the minister of education, he left me alone and he went to Kuala Lumpur,” Yacob told MalaysiaNow during a visit to Klinik Maha, the first Malay-owned private practice in Kedah which Mahathir established in 1957.
The clinic moved to the town centre in 1980, just a year before Mahathir was appointed as the fourth prime minister.
With his former boss now pursuing his political ambitions in Kuala Lumpur, Yacob was left to run Klinik Maha alone.
Yacob, who remembers Mahathir as a man of strict discipline, found himself with big shoes to fill.
“As an assistant to him for two years, I really learnt a lot. He is my real boss lah. Bossku lah,” he quipped.
He recalls the procedures and systems that Mahathir would follow to the letter.
“He has been following SOPs ever since I knew him,” said Yacob, who hails from Penang. “He was professional in whatever he did, that’s SOP lah.”
Mahathir would go on to become prime minister twice, first in 1981 at the age of 56, and then in 2018 at the age of 93, making him the world’s oldest leader.
He was the first Malay to enroll for medicine at the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore, graduating in 1953.
In many later interviews and writings, he attributed his style of governance to his medical training, saying problems need to be diagnosed before medication is prescribed.
This was challenged by critics who cited several controversial decisions by Mahathir over the years which they said had undermined the country’s legal institution.
Today, at 95, Mahathir leads the Pejuang bloc, a small group of independent MPs who broke away from Bersatu, the party he helped create with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
But throughout the years, as his former boss rides the political roller coaster, Yacob has remained in the doctor’s office with its veneer-panelled reception area, narrow corridors and the swinging doors ubiquitous to clinics across the country.
A line of chairs greets patients who walk in, and Mahathir’s portrait, taken during his time as prime minister, hangs prominently on the wall.
The two still meet up whenever Mahathir comes to Kedah.
“The last time I met him was for buka puasa, not this buka puasa, but the previous one (2019),” Yacob said.
Yacob’s admiration for Mahathir is shared by Mercy Samuel, who has worked as a nurse at Klinik Maha for the past 40 years.
Although she joined the practice after Mahathir left, Mercy feels a sense of pride at working in an establishment with such a legacy.
“My years spent at this clinic are so much because of Tun Mahathir,” she said.
“I have great admiration for him, that is why I have been working here since 1979.”