INTERVIEW | Dr Mahathir Mohamad first became a prime minister in 1981, holding the post for 22 years. Having retired in 2003, he made a comeback to fight against two of his successors - Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Najib Razak - before once again winning the 14th general election in 2018 to become the country's seventh premier.
The 2018 election saw Mahathir leading Pakatan Harapan, a coalition of opposition parties comprising Bersatu, DAP, PKR and Amanah, to defeat Barisan Nasional, the very coalition which he led during his first term as premier.
However, Mahathir's second term as PM only lasted for 22 months. This period was marred with allegations that the nonagenarian lacked power, and was purportedly under the control of DAP, which held the most number of parliamentary seats in the Pakatan Harapan governing coalition.
Speaking to Malaysiakini in an exclusive interview on Thursday, Mahathir once again refuted the belief that DAP ever had him wrapped under their thumb.
"To say that DAP controls me... I think you are insulting me if you think DAP can control me," Mahathir said sternly.
"DAP had no such power. The one who had power was me. Everyone knows that I was the PM for a long period. During the first 22 years when I was PM, who controlled me?
"Who had control over me? Not the International Monetary Fund (IMF), not even the World Bank could assert their control over me. I had various parties (under BN then); they too did not control me," he stressed.
Mahathir was referring to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis when he declined assistance from the IMF and steered Malaysia out of the regional economic meltdown.
DAP, he added, may have 42 MPs in the coalition but they had six seats in the cabinet, the same as Bersatu which only had 13 MPs.
Anwar Ibrahim's PKR, meanwhile, held one extra ministry with seven of its MPs made cabinet members, and Harapan ally Warisan was given three.
"DAP with that many members in the parliament, they had six ministers. Bersatu also has six, including the two very powerful positions - which are the PM and Home Minister.
"PKR had seven cabinet members, and Warisan which was not part of Harapan, we gave them three.
"And all these cabinet members, they were not mute. They took part in the cabinet. As the chair of the cabinet meetings, I gave everyone the opportunity to speak.
"If we agreed to a proposal, then we would adopt it. If not, and it's a pressing matter, then we will continue to discuss (until a decision is reached). Sometimes we even held cabinet meetings on the weekends for important matters," he said.
'DAP had to think about the Malays too'
Among the issues played up by Mahathir's opponents was that DAP was given one of the most important ministries in the country, namely the Finance Ministry.
Then helmed by DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, the ministry had allegedly been abused by the party to sideline Malays in the allocation of government budgets.
On this, Mahathir said that while Lim was tasked with leading the ministry, the latter did not have the full control of how the government allocated its money.
"I was the one who had control. Before this, the prime minister had no role in drafting budgets. Only the finance minister.
"But during Harapan's time, when he did the budget, I asked him to show me the draft first. Only after I was satisfied, then we took it to the parliament.
"He also performed many other actions, but he only implemented them after discussing with. Lim could not simply bring matters into the cabinet without me looking into whether it is appropriate or not," he said.
Mahathir said that even when a suggestion from Lim was taken up to the cabinet, they were not necessarily accepted.
The former PM among the proposals rejected was to make all tolls free for the public, as well as other proposals concerning highway concessionaire issues, including the takeover of Plus Malaysia Bhd.
"So, how come he is said to be the one with the power? He had no power," Mahathir said.
While DAP was involved in discussions concerning the country's economy and finances, Mahathir added, the party had to take into consideration the Malays too.
An example, the 95-year-old said that it was Lim who proposed for the federal government to give a one-off payment of RM400 million to Kelantan, which was facing financial trouble.
Terengganu and Kedah, two other Malay-majority states, were also given RM200 million each, he added.
"These two states were not even Harapan's states. They were the opposition, and they were Malay states. But he (Lim) knew that there were many financial problems there," he pointed out.
On Lim's involvement in Tabung Haji, which was another issue that was raised by Harapan opponents, he said the then finance minister had to be involved because he was responsible for allocating the budget for the pilgrim fund.
'DAP accepted policy proposed by Malay intellectuals'
Mahathir, who formed a new Malay-based party after being kicked out of Bersatu in May, told Malaysiakini that DAP leaders also accepted a new government policy that was slanted towards helping the Malays.
Called 'Dasar Kemakmuran Bersama', or Shared Prosperity Vision, the policy was drafted by a group of Malay intellectuals instead of civil servants.
"This came from the people outside, proposed to me. I took the proposal and tabled it in the cabinet because I believe it was good.
"And the cabinet, after deliberating on the proposal, they accepted it. This was despite the proposal being drafted by Malay intellectuals who wanted to help the Malays.
"We wanted to make right what the New Economic Policy (first introduced in 1970) had failed. DAP did not reject this. Yes, they shared their opinion, but they accepted the policy," Mahathir said.
He said that the government, at the same time, could not give everything to the Malays and neglect the other races.
"We still have to give them, but what we gave to them was very small (compared to what the Malays get). But we could not say it then, because then the Chinese would be angry.
"That's why we didn't talk about that. But now we have to because I have to explain this thing," he added.
'Peaceful transition, reforming gov't part of Harapan's legacy'
Mahathir was also asked what he would consider as his and Harapan's legacy from their 22 months as the federal government.
This is his take.
"Firstly, we should think about this - whenever there is a change of government in other parts of the world, there is violence. There will be a lot of instability.
"But we changed from a government in power for 60 years to a new government without any problems," Mahathir said.
"If we look at other places, some had even gone to the extent of having a civil war, killing each other. But in Malaysia, we did not have this.
"We had a transfer of power done nicely. (Because) we were not out to abuse others, or to persecute others. We just wanted to have a transfer of power.
"That is one success," he said.
Mahathir regarded the Pakatan Harapan government's second success was that it managed to form a cabinet consisting of five political parties.
The Harapan cabinet, he said, was able to run the government for 22 months and worked to clean it up from corrupt officers.
"The government, when it was under Najib (Razak), many of the officers were corrupt. We got rid of them. And for many companies, we got rid of politicians and put in professionals.
"Because the people who stole money, mismanaged the companies, lost the funds, were people who lacked capability. Yet, they were appointed because of political patronage," Mahathir said.
"It was not easy to find new people who were non-politicians. Those chosen were not even people we know. We decided based on their abilities.
"This is something that we did which no other government has done," he said.
According to Mahathir, Harapan also managed to retain the stability of the country despite facing many racial and religious issues.
The country had also started to regain respect and confidence from others, he claimed.
Najib's conviction in court over corruption and abuse of power was another example the nonagenarian said was a success.
"We didn't go hunting for people just because they were in the opposition. But we still had to take action against wrongdoings.
"Can you imagine the amount of time and money the government had to spend, to take up these cases? They took so much time and effort that many other cases had to be put on hold.
"It has not been easy for us, but we were patient. There was a conviction only two years after the case went to court. We did not put pressure for it to be expedited. We did not interfere with the judiciary," the former PM said.
Mahathir said the Harapan government also managed to tackle the country's financial problem, which he claimed was as bad as Greece.
"We were in a position like Greece. Because if you don't pay your interest, then you become bankrupt," he said, referring to 1MDB, where the sovereign wealth fund's debt and interests had to be shouldered by the government.
"But we didn't become bankrupt. We managed to ensure the finances of the country remains healthy," he added.