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‘Not a good judge of people’: Dr M on regrets over support for Najib, Anwar and others

The former prime minister gives his familiar take on Anwar Ibrahim, the man who was twice named as his successor for the top post.

4 minute read
Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad shakes hands with Anwar Ibrahim in this Feb 22, 2020 file picture. Photo: AP
Former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad shakes hands with Anwar Ibrahim in this Feb 22, 2020 file picture. Photo: AP

Dr Mahathir Mohamad has admitted that he is not a good judge of character, saying this can be seen in his support for individuals who climbed the political ladder only to become enemies with him later.

Mahathir named his successor in 2003 Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, former prime minister Najib Razak, and his former deputies during his first term as prime minister, Musa Hitam and Anwar Ibrahim, as people whom he thought were capable of running the country.

“Now, looking back, I wonder what this all says about me. I have made a lot of choices which have turned out to be bad,” he wrote in one of 13 chapters of his latest memoir “Capturing Hope: The Struggle Continues for a New Malaysia”, which among others tells his version of the major events that took place during his second term during which he led the Pakatan Harapan government.

“My choices say that I’m not good at assessing people. Perhaps I expected too much of them. They certainly showed strong potential to lead, but once they actually gained power, they changed completely.

“I’ve seen this happen again and again.”

In the book which was launched yesterday, Mahathir explained at length his experience with Anwar, who was named his successor twice but whose prime ministerial ambition was never realised.

Mahathir suggested that Anwar, who served as his deputy in the 1990s before their fallout culminating in Anwar’s dramatic sacking from the government in 1998, was repeating the same method of trying to force him out of office in order to become the prime minister.

Under an agreement among PH parties, Anwar was to take over from Mahathir. However, the succession did not materialise following the collapse of the coalition due to disagreements over the date for the promised transition of power.

Mahathir said the promised transition was only “verbal”, and would only take place “after I had cleaned up the mess left behind by Najib”.

“No actual period was decided but it was assumed that I would not serve the full term.”

Mahathir said his request for “extra time” did not sit well with Anwar.

“It was only Anwar who was putting pressure on me to leave sooner,” said Mahathir, adding that other parties had agreed to allow him to remain as prime minister in order to sort out the “mess” left by the previous administration.

Mahathir then repeated his well known assessment of the PKR chief.

“From past experience, I knew that the man had no idea how to govern the country.”

When he first assumed the top office in 1981, Mahathir welcomed Anwar into Umno in what was then thought to be a move to use the latter’s Islamic image to counter the growing influence of PAS.

Mahathir said he had dismissed protests from Umno leaders in supporting the entry of Anwar, who within a decade had climbed up the party ranks, becoming the number two in the government.

Anwar’s ‘boys’

Mahathir said their relationship grew sour due to Anwar’s impatience for the top job.

“Initially we got on very well. But after several years when it didn’t look as if I would be retiring any time soon, his ‘boys’ – and this would happen again and again – began to attack me,” he said in a reference to a campaign within Umno accusing Mahathir’s leadership of cronyism and nepotism.

Mahathir said a similar game was also played by Anwar’s supporters during the 22 months of the PH government.

“It didn’t take long for his boys to start attacking me again. When asked, he (Anwar) would say, ‘I can’t control them’,” he said.

Mahathir also questioned Anwar’s numerous visits to his office in Putrajaya.

“Off and on, he would drop by my office for a chat. He never talked about taking over from me or about my policies,” he said.

He said Anwar could have gotten updates on what the government had embarked on from his party leaders who were also in the Cabinet, instead of getting it directly from him.

“I was not under any obligation to brief Anwar but if he had shown some interest and wanted to know more, I would have gladly obliged,” he added.

‘He says what they want to hear’

Mahathir painted Anwar as a man who plays to the gallery, giving an example of his talks on multiracialism and racism once he was booted out of Umno.

“Whatever his intention was, he told them what they wanted to hear: that giving privileges to the Malays was wrong and that all citizens should be treated equally,” said Mahathir, adding that this contrasted with his own approach to empower the Malays in order to achieve economic equality.

Despite their famous differences, Mahathir said he had no personal quarrel with Anwar.

He recalled their first meeting in 18 years after the dramatic events of 1998, when Mahathir visited Anwar in court while the latter was serving a five-year sentence for sodomy. This was the second such charge of which he was convicted, following an earlier one for which he was jailed six years before his release in 2004.

“We talked like old friends, although of course we didn’t talk about why he was jailed,” Mahathir wrote.

Anwar was released from prison a week after PH’s election victory in May 2018, after receiving a royal pardon following a recommendation by the new government.

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