At 93, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is the oldest leader in the world. In May, he made a stunning return to political power, he says in a bid to save his corruption-plagued country before it’s too late.
Mahathir was once at the helm of the country for 22 years from 1981 to 2003, becoming Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister. In that time, he was credited with transforming Malaysia from an agrarian society to an industrialized nation. In the process, he ruled the country with an iron fist – locking up political opponents and censoring the press.
CNN’s Talk Asia sat down with the elder statesman at the Prime Minister’s Office outside the capital of Kuala Lumpur.
CNN: Prime Minister, you came out of retirement to run again for political office. Why this comeback at such a late stage in life?
MM: Well, when I stepped down voluntarily, I thought that I would have a very relaxed time, be with my family and maybe cruise around. Unfortunately, the moment I stepped down, my successor decided to change course, adopted new policies and all that. And particularly discarded everything that I have started. So, a lot of people felt unhappy. They all came to see me, asking me “Please, do something, please do something.”
’We should be treated as equal with anybody else’
CNN: How did politics come into your life?
MM: We were under the British rule and then the Japanese came in, conquered us and then the Japanese gave our country to the Thais, to the Siamese people. So it looks as if we are just a football that can be kicked around by anybody. I didn’t like that. I felt that people don’t respect us. I felt that we should be treated as equal with anybody else.
So that is what drove me, that Malaysia can be as good as any other country. I was born here, brought up here and these people around me are the people I have lived with all this time and we have developed a way of life that we cherish.
CNN: In your first term, your critics labeled you authoritarian, a dictator. I know in the past you’ve denied that. Does it take a strong man to move a developing country, an emerging country into the developed world?
MM: I was not a dictator, I was elected five times by the people, and no dictator has ever resigned; I resigned. But I thought that the opportunity to work and deliver certain things for the country was something very satisfying. It is not the money that you earn, it is job satisfaction.
I traveled a lot to many countries and other countries are doing well, why shouldn’t Malaysia? So it is a matter of analyzing our assets, our liabilities, our situation and coming up with some designs that can contribute towards the advancement of this country.
CNN: Do you have any regrets from your first term?
MM: No, not much of a regret but I felt that this country is a multi-racial country. You cannot change that, and that is something that I tried to do because I don’t like disparities between rich and poor, between races, because that will destabilize the country.
I tried to ensure that the disparities were diminished, so that all the races enjoy the wealth of this country together. I had little success but generally I failed. I wish I had [done more], but you know, you can’t change people’s way of life, culture, mindsets and all that overnight. I will try again.
’I suppose I fell in love with her’
CNN: You met your wife, Tun Siti Hasmah, while studying medicine in university. What first attracted you to her?
MM: Actually there were not many girls in those days and she was the only girl taking the medical course who was a Malay. So naturally we gravitated towards the only girl in the group and eventually, well, I suppose I fell in love with her. In those days, not many women went to the university, and she was determined to get a university education. That, I think reflects her strength of character.
CNN: You two have been married for 62 years now. What’s your secret?
MM: We learn to tolerate each other. Initially, of course, we quarreled quite often. I am very strict about time and all that and she takes a lot of time, is late and all that. We used to quarrel over that but I realized that I could not change her and she could not change me, so we accepted that we are different.
She feels in the same way about the kind of things that I believe in – about loyalty, the country, about working for the country and all that. She accompanies me wherever I go and she is, in a sense, quite as dedicated to this idea of loyalty, patriotism that I have.
CNN: You are 93 years old, yet you’re turning up for work every day, you’re running a country, you’re traveling the world. Where does your endurance come from?
MM: Well, chronological age is 93, biological age need not be 93. Sometimes people are younger than their age. I lead a very moderate life. I don’t do anything in excess. I don’t eat food until I get fat and that kind of thing I don’t do. I do get sick sometimes, you know, I have had two heart operations and all that but I look after my health generally.
To keep the mind active you need to read, you need to think, you need to argue. That is very important because like the muscle, which becomes weak and regress if you don’t use your muscle, the brain is also like that. If you stop thinking, you just dream along and don’t study, don’t read, don’t solve problems and all that, then the brain will lose its capacity to think and to function.
’The Islam of the Koran is a very moderate Islam’
CNN: You are the leader of a moderate, mostly Muslim nation and in 2003, you called on Islam to evolve. Has it?
MM: Well, the Islam that you see today is not actually the Islam that is taught by the religion. It is the Islam interpreted by certain powerful people, leaders, scholars and all that. We find that it is quite different from the original teachings of Islam as found in the Koran. So we feel that the Islam of the Koran is a very moderate Islam. It doesn’t preach war, it calls upon all Muslim to be brothers. It forbids killing; well, we are doing all those things which are forbidden by Islam. So, it is the interpretation of the religion that has got us into that world state.
CNN: So in your opinion, it is these interpretations that are running your religion?
MM: Yes. Somebody comes along, becomes a very popular leader and he interprets in his own way – that you should fight, you should kill, you should be opposed to people of other religions. Even among yourselves, you don’t accept people who have other interpretations. All these things have resulted in instability, even in conflicts and civil wars, and also wars within nations.
CNN: Finally Prime Minister, how do you want people to remember you?
MM: I have this belief that once you are not around, lots of people will debunk everything and they will say nasty things about you. To me, that is not important. I will not be around to hear that.
This interview has been edited for brevity and grammar.