Not many 91-year-olds can fill a conference hall. The exception is the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who was given a rock-star reception by the mainly Malaysian audience of over 200 people in London last week. He condemned the abuse of power by the current government under Najib Razak and expressed his fears for the future of Malaysia.
Dr. Mahathir painted a disturbing picture of a country where bribery and corruption are rife. He gave a rundown on the masses of money accumulated by Najib which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle.
Dr. Mahathir said: “We accord the Prime Minister more power than allowed in the constitution. Now we have a Prime Minister who believes that cash is king. The Prime Minister of Malaysia should not have so much money.” Dr. Mahathir said this dubiously-acquired wealth gave Najib license to do what he liked.
According to Dr. Mahathir, Najib has brought newspapers, the police, and the judiciary under his control. “If you report to the police, you and the lawyer will be questioned by the police and accused. If you report anything to the police, they will act against you. You cannot remove him in parliament, because he controls everyone. The National Security Council has been given extraordinary power. People can be killed, so people live in fear of their lives. People in Malaysia feel scared and helpless.”
Dr. Mahathir served as Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003. Not surprisingly, he did not refer to criticism of his own track record as Prime Minister, especially the persecution and jailing of the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Dr. Mahathir confirmed that he had recently met Anwar who is still in prison. He said they now had a common interest – both agreed that Najib should be removed.
Reaction to Dr. Mahathir’s lecture was mixed, although it was generally perceived as an exercise to promote the recently-formed Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. A representative from Malaysian Progressives United Kingdom said: “There were arrays of questions being directed at Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir, and one caught my attention – why is race-based politics very much the domain of the political sphere in Malaysia? The response was very much expected by the Advisor of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia: the formation of the party was a result of the burgeoning demand for a new leadership without stripping the essential value of the party, which is race-oriented. Tun Mahathir also highlighted that a large number of Malaysians felt unsafe if their political privilege is being shared across all races, which begs the essential question, in what direction is this ‘reform’ heading?”
A Malaysian writer, who was also at the lecture, said Dr. Mahathir proffered Bersatu as the party to restore Malaysia to its erstwhile glory: “Among the Malaysian left, there is a deep suspicion about Dr. Mahathir’s motives. Most of them suspect him of using this new party to elevate his son to some political office. With the conservatives who are fed up with Najib’s government, Dr. Mahathir offers some hope, but with diehard Najib supporters, Dr. Mahathir is seen as a threat to the nation’s ‘stability.”
A Malaysian commentator, who declined to be named, said the opposition is like a headless chicken, without a common plan or leadership. In his view, the chance of the opposition being in a position to unseat Najib is remote.
Dr. Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, which hosted the lecture, was impressed by Dr. Mahathir’s oratorical skills: “We were treated to an unforgettable political masterclass by one of the most enduring figures in the recent history of Southeast Asia. Unlike many politicians, who feel more comfortable with set-piece speeches than with the challenges of questions and answers, Dr. Mahathir spoke briefly, but then took questions from the podium for over an hour. Dr. Mahathir was dry, sly, witty, charming, and provocative. But above all, he displayed a commanding presence. One could easily forget that he is 91 years old. After hearing his trenchant criticisms of the current Malaysian government, one member of the audience asked if he was ‘untouchable.’
Untouchable or not, he certainly seems to be unstoppable. This was a great evening for the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.”