Dr Mahathir — an enigma and legend

There is no such thing as absolute freedom of the press, not even in the most advanced countries in the world. There are things you just don’t say, because it will destabilise the environment.

– Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad

Tomorrow, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed celebrates his 96th birthday.

At one time, the world’s oldest prime minister, Dr Mahathir is a student of Sultan Abdul Hamid College (SAHC) which is also my alma mater.

Born in Alor Setar on July 10, 1925, he is the son of a Malay teacher from Penang, Mohamad Iskandar who rose to become headmaster of Sultan Abdul Hamid College.

Dr Mahathir went to Seberang Perak Boys School before joining the Government English School, now called SAHC, and excelled.

In 1946 when Datuk Onn Jaafar formed Umno, Dr Mahathir became a member but a year later left to study in Singapore.

At 22, the brilliant student earned a scholarship and was admitted to the King Edward VII College of Medicine at University Malaya in Singapore.

Six years later in 1953 and with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degree, he returned to Kedah to become a medical officer with the general hospital in Alor Setar.

Later, he was also attached to the hospital in Jitra, the island of Langkawi as well as in Perlis.

On August 31, 1957, Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaya Tunku Abdul Rahman became the country’s first prime minister.

By the first general election in 1959, Dr Mahathir had risen to become chairman of Umno’s Kedah wing.

He did not contest in that election but in 1964 became the Member of Parliament of Alor Setar.

At that time, I was a secondary student at SAHC and our residence at Jalan Maxwell was a stone’s throw from Dr Mahathir’s family home.

Our neighbour on the right was Lord President of Malaya, Tun Mohamed Suffian who later clashed swords with Dr Mahathir after he became Malaysia’s fourth prime minister.

As fate would have it, many years later when I became a reporter, we would cross paths in Kuching.

More trouble was brewing during the turbulent years of the 1960s, culminating in the May 13, 1969 racial riots.

Then Dr Mahathir wrote “Malay Dilemma” and the quarrel between him and the prime minister was an open secret.

First published in 1970, Dr Mahathir gave his opinion on the problem of poverty, inequality and special privileges.

The book was banned; he was sacked but this was the beginning of his rise.

In 1976, the death of Tun Abdul Razak, who succeeded the Tunku, enabled Tun Hussein Onn to take over and Dr Mahathir to become his deputy.

Due to health reasons, Tun Hussein resigned on July 16, 1981, paving the way for Dr Mahathir to become Malaysia’s fourth prime minister.

As the first New Straits Times Sarawak correspondent, two weeks before Dr Mahathir became prime minister, he was a regular visitor to Kuching.

Apparently, Dr Mahathir was able to cultivate a close relationship with Chief Minister Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud who was a Tunku Abdul Rahman loyalist.

And because of my father’s close connections with the Tunku — both had Thai ancestry and could speak the language and owned race horses.

But in his own style of cultivating friendships, Dr Mahathir continued to visit Sarawak, especially during the 1987 Ming Court family tiff between Taib and his uncle Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub. 

Despite everything, it was business as usual for the prime minister who went on to transform the country into an Asian powerhouse.

As prime minister for 22 years, he established many benchmarks — from education to Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) and a dynamic ICT hub.

In 1985, he introduced the Proton Saga, Malaysia’s first car which became a major milestone in the national automotive industry.

On June 1, 1993, he established the Kuala Lumpur’s International Airport (KLIA) and the Langkawi International airport.

He built the Petronas 452-metre high Twin Towers on August 1, 1999, making it the tallest twin building in the world.

In 2018, he achieved what appeared to be the impossible, when he became prime minister at 92 — a record no one has achieved.

The best part of his character is that despite what people say, he is loyal to the core.

At the height of the anti-logging campaign in Sarawak, he received a delegation of Penan chiefs, led by MP for Rajang Datuk Justine Jinggut, to Kuala Lumpur.

I chaperoned the group members who were on their inaugural trip to the federal capital.

Dr Mahathir reciprocated the gesture when he visited the Penan in Baram and was accorded a warm traditional welcome.

As stoic and serious as he seems, he has a sense of humour, and once after I gave him a book I wrote on a Swiss environmentalist, he asked: “How’s your friend Bruno?”

Even though he promoted the “Look East” policy, he is not anti-Western.

And now he croons like Sinatra as the doyen of politics and as “Father of Modern Malaysia”, having developed the country “Mahathir’s Way!”

The views expressed are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.