Wisdom in Political Insights: My talk with Mahathir Mohamad

Before we dive into the world of politics, I was eager to learn how he managed his style and which fundamentals he followed to pursue the goal of the common good. I had the privilege of sitting down with none other than Mahathir Mohamad, the luminary force behind Malaysia’s ascendancy. Yet, before he became an icon in the political arena, Mahathir Mohamad was a physician, a graduate of the esteemed King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore. I sought his wisdom on the enduring principles that guide a life and a profession.

As he leaned forward, his eyes reflecting the wisdom of a life well-lived, he shared, ‘If I may speak of my calling as a medical doctor, there is one cardinal principle that reigns supreme – the patient’s well-being. It’s not about profiting from others’ misfortunes but about tirelessly working towards healing. In my practice, I encountered countless individuals grappling with life’s myriad challenges.’

Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, a towering figure in Asian politics, helmed the office of Prime Minister for an astounding 24 years, from 1981 to 2003 and later from 2018 to 2020. He revealed a philosophy that has been his compass throughout this remarkable journey.

‘I lead a life of moderation, avoiding the extremes. For instance, when I eat, I do so in moderation, sufficient for sustenance. My mother’s wisdom echoes in my ears – when food becomes overly delightful, it’s time to stop. Moderation, in all aspects of life, is key. Never veer to the extremes,’ he advised with a serene smile.

In explaining his longevity, he shared, ‘I abstain from smoking and drinking, and I refrain from overindulgence in food. I consume just what is necessary for my vitality.’

Turning to the subject of knowledge, he harked back to his foundational beliefs. ‘Knowledge has eternally held sway. The ancient Egyptians didn’t erect pyramids through divine incantations, nor did the waters flow in the irrigation canals of the Indus Civilization by the ignorance of their laws. Knowledge has perpetually been the font of power and prosperity.’

Mahathir stands as one of the senior-most active politicians in Asia, if not the world, having borne witness to the ascents and declines of countless leaders. When I inquired about those whom he admired and those who presented challenges, he narrated with a gleam of respect in his eyes.

‘There are leaders I greatly admire, striving to emulate their approach to problem-solving. Take Nelson Mandela, who endured over 27 years in captivity yet emerged without a trace of bitterness, working hand in hand with his former captors to rebuild South Africa. He exemplified selflessness, prioritizing society over self. Leaders of this caliber endure suffering for the greater good of humanity.’

As for the more trying encounters he encountered during his tenure, he gracefully refrained from singling them out, understanding the potential consequences it could have on individuals and their families.

To encapsulate our conversation, I posed a question that goes to the core of leadership: ‘What, in your view, are the defining qualities of a true statesperson? How does one distinguish a genuine leader from someone who exploits racial or religious elements for power?’

With a measured tone, he responded, ‘A true statesperson is one who places the world and society above personal interests. Even when faced with personal hurt, they remain committed to what is right and beneficial for the common citizen.’

Next, our conversation delved into the profound impact of nationalism on the process of nation-building. I sought Mahathir’s insights on the pivotal role of nationalism and how he harnessed this concept during his tenure as Malaysia’s leader, even in the face of contentious allegations regarding anti-Semitic rhetoric, favoritism towards the ethnic Malay majority, and the treatment of political opponents.

In response, he articulated, ‘First and foremost, one must cultivate a deep love for their country. It’s the place where you were born, raised, and achieved your aspirations; essentially, it’s where your roots lie. This genuine love for one’s nation fosters a sincere desire to contribute to its development. When you hold authentic affection for your country, the thought of causing harm or tarnishing its reputation becomes inconceivable.’

He continued, ‘When individuals feel that their nation is capable of self-sustenance, it instills a sense of pride and responsibility. This sentiment, at its core, embodies the essence of true nationalism. Once a common goal is attained, there arises no inclination to harm the country.’

Shifting gears, I delved into the remarkable economic transformation Malaysia underwent during his leadership. In 1981, when he assumed office, Malaysia’s GDP stood at approximately 25 billion USD. Under his visionary stewardship, the nation’s GDP burgeoned to a staggering 110.2 billion USD. Many attribute this success to his leadership, despite its association with contentious policies. I inquired about the secrets behind this economic triumph.

His response carried the weight of experience, ‘To foster a nation’s growth, stability and peace are imperative. A nation beset by instability and racial tensions cannot thrive. In Malaysia, a diverse and multicultural country, my foremost task was to unite people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds to work together, thereby establishing social stability and peace. Once this foundation is laid, the path is paved for economic growth, attracting new investments, and enabling individuals from diverse fields to flourish professionally.’

Turning to his interactions with Sri Lanka, a country he had visited multiple times, I couldn’t help but pose a question about the nation’s divergent trajectory compared to Malaysia and Singapore. In the face of this, he offered his perspective with characteristic composure.

‘You’ve made several visits to Sri Lanka, with your last visit in 2014, during which you launched various development projects. At one point, you and your political rival, the late Lee Kuan Yew, emphasized the importance of learning from Sri Lanka’s successes. However, today, Sri Lanka’s path diverges significantly from that of Malaysia and Singapore. What, in your opinion, went wrong in Sri Lanka?’ I inquired.

With sagacity, he observed, ‘A country’s progress is greatly contingent on its leadership. If the leader is inept, unfocused on authentic national development, or lacks an understanding of what development model suits their nation, regression is inevitable. History is replete with examples of countries that once shone brightly but have since faded.’

He continued, ‘Some nations falter when leaders prioritize personal gain and well-being over the welfare of the nation. Consequently, regression becomes the destiny. The history of every country exhibits cycles of ups and downs, and change is an intrinsic part of a nation’s journey.’

Mahathir’s spirited political debates with the late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore remain indelibly etched in the annals of history, captivating audiences worldwide. In a book titled ‘Conversations with Mahathir Mohamad,’ he offered a glimpse into the dynamic, remarking, ‘The fact remains that he is a mayor of Singapore. This is something he doesn’t like. He wants to be big, you see, and he feels that we took away his opportunity to lead a real country.’ Conversely, Lee Kuan Yew referred to Mahathir as ‘a thoroughly destructive force. He is a very smart man, but his mentality is still stuck in the 1970s.’ I probed him to reflect on those years of fervent political rivalry and the intricacies of their relationship.

With a gentle smile, he journeyed back in time, recounting, ‘When Singapore merged with Malaysia, it was a nation struggling to find its footing. Emerging from British rule, it had encountered its share of challenges during that period. Lee Kuan Yew saw this merger as his chance to become the Prime Minister of Malaysia. In Malaysia, he believed he could hold a substantial role, akin to a real Prime Minister, whereas in Singapore, he would be more like a mayor. However, he soon discovered that Malaysia was not as welcoming as he had hoped. Ultimately, Malaysia expelled Singapore due to the disruptive political climate he had introduced. The then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, decided that Singapore should no longer be part of Malaysia. Singapore, of course, thrived after its expulsion, but at that moment, Lee Kuan Yew believed he had lost a significant opportunity to become a Prime Minister, which is why he shed tears.’

Responding to Lee Kuan Yew’s characterization of him, he remarked, ‘Well, everyone is entitled to their perspective. He viewed me as orthodox, and perhaps he wasn’t entirely wrong. I was deeply concerned about racial relations in Malaysia. We have three major ethnic groups, but their achievements were not on par. The Chinese community had made significant strides and seized opportunities post-independence, while the Malays struggled in business, despite being afforded similar opportunities. This disparity was a persistent obstacle to our nation’s development. My aim was to eliminate these disparities and drive the country toward true development. To some, my methods might have seemed orthodox, but my focus was squarely on bridging the ethnic divides.’

Shifting our conversation, I inquired about reports suggesting that during his tenure as Prime Minister of Malaysia, he had made efforts to secure ASEAN membership for Sri Lanka but faced opposition from certain political quarters in other countries. I asked him to confirm the accuracy of these reports.

He responded thoughtfully, ‘Indeed, ASEAN is a remarkable success story in the realm of regional cooperation, notably for its ability to reject war in the region for over six decades. While many other nations expressed interest in joining ASEAN, certain factors, such as geographical location, posed obstacles to their inclusion. The organization’s concern was that if it expanded too rapidly, it might become unwieldy.’

He continued, ‘I believed Sri Lanka was a suitable candidate for ASEAN membership, transcending geographical differences. However, other member nations were hesitant to extend the invitation.’

Next, I aimed to glean his perspective on a crucial aspect of leadership – the development of secondary leadership. Often, exceptional leaders, when they depart, leave behind a void that can lead to political polarization and division. I queried how he, drawing from his decades of political experience and wisdom, fostered secondary leadership in Malaysia and navigated the challenges along the way.

He began by emphasizing the responsibility that comes with power, saying, ‘When you assume the role of Prime Minister, you wield immense power, and that power can be either a tool for personal gain or an instrument for national progress. I was acutely aware that if I used that power for personal purposes, I would tarnish my legacy and leave a stain on the nation’s history. Instead, I chose to focus on the nation’s development. For me, the enduring satisfaction came from witnessing the country’s growth. That was the only reward I sought, and it was the reward I received from the world through recognition of Malaysia’s development.’

He continued, ‘During my first term as Prime Minister, which lasted for over twenty years, I realized that it was a lengthy tenure, and I was already in my seventies. I firmly believed that the key to our nation’s progress lay in nurturing a new generation of leaders. I advocated for the notion that developing the nation was a prerequisite for individual growth. I encouraged my successors to follow the same path, with the aim of propelling Malaysia to developed nation status. However, once I stepped down from office, subsequent leaders pursued different agendas. They wrongly believed that during my tenure, I had misappropriated government funds, despite the facts pointing to the contrary. Consequently, they began to wield their power for personal interests, derailing the path we had charted since the early ’80s. This regression halted Malaysia’s growth.’

He went on to recount, ‘This prompted me to re-enter politics. Subsequently, I once again assumed the role of Prime Minister. However, the political landscape had transformed. Certain political parties resorted to exploiting religious and ethnic divisions to disrupt the newly formed government, triggering a series of political crises and eroding political stability. In the past sixty years, we had experienced only four changes in government. However, after my departure in 2020, four different governments came to power, further exacerbating political and social instability.’

Curious about external influences, I inquired if external parties played a role in perpetuating this instability. Dr. Mahathir acknowledged the possibility of some external elements but characterized the situation as a complex political crisis that would require time and effort to resolve.

Finally, I posed a poignant question: What he considered to be his biggest mistake during his tenure as the longest-serving ruler in modern Malaysian history. He contemplated this deeply and replied, ‘I believe that stepping down from the position of Prime Minister was a significant mistake. However, had I not done so, people would not have had the opportunity to see what kind of government they would get in my absence. It’s often during challenging times that we truly appreciate the value of a nation’s well-being. We must undergo difficult periods to realize that the prosperity of a country is not a permanent state.

As our captivating conversation neared its conclusion, I sought Dr. Mahathir’s wisdom on the pressing issues that confront our world today. In this era of multiple crises – from global health emergencies to supply chain disruptions, debates surrounding multi-polarism versus Western hegemony, the rise of the Global South, and China’s aspirations to superpower status – I asked him to convey a message to the global community, one that promotes equity and dignity for all of humanity.

With a deep historical perspective, he reflected, ‘In the past, when conflicts arose among small principalities, strong leaders would unite these territories into larger nations, steering them towards development. That was the historical narrative. However, our world has changed significantly. Today, due to the ease of communication, we are not just neighbors with our immediate neighboring countries but with the entire world. This closeness brings with it shared challenges that demand a collective approach. In essence, we require a form of global governance.'”

He continued, ‘We have seen attempts at this before, such as the League of Nations, which ultimately faltered. Then came the era of the United Nations, which, unfortunately, is also facing challenges. The United Nations, with its five veto-wielding powers, can sometimes be stymied by the interests of a few. Therefore, it is imperative for the world to forge a unified movement to tackle common global issues, including pandemics, the consequences of climate change, the growing global population, and more. Just as small principalities once came together to form nation-states, now nation-states must unite to create a global governance structure capable of addressing these shared problems.’

As a parting thought, Dr. Mahathir turned his attention to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. He observed, ‘Europeans still seem to contemplate resolving international conflicts through wars. They had allied with the Russians during World War II to combat Germany, and together they defeated Germany. However, immediately after victory, they designated Russia as a new enemy, leading to the establishment of NATO, focused squarely on Russia. In response, Russia formed the Warsaw Pact, sparking a prolonged Cold War, which was a considerable waste of resources and time. When Russia eventually decided to dissolve the Warsaw Pact, NATO took a different path. Instead of dismantling itself, it bolstered its capabilities and invited former Warsaw Pact members to join, all directed against Russia. This inevitably fueled a series of conflicts, with the Ukraine conflict being a part of this larger narrative.'”

He concluded with a resounding call for change, stating, ‘While NATO nations provide support to the war in Ukraine, it is the Ukrainian people who are fighting and suffering. Allowing Ukrainians to endure this conflict, with lives lost and their nation in ruins, is untenable. The mindset of resolving disputes through warfare must come to an end.’

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is a Sri Lankan born author. He was the-editor of Sri Lanka Guardian, an online daily newspaper. He was also the editor of the Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, bi-monthly print magazine, co-published by the Danish Institute Against Torture ( DIGNITY) based in Copenhagen, Denmark.