PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia, July 27 (AFP) -- Three months short of retirement, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad says he believes his greatest achievement in 22 years in power has been maintaining racial harmony.
In a reflective mood in an exclusive interview with AFP, he said his greatest failure “is that I still cannot get the indigenous people, the Malays in particular, to understand the workings of a free market economy and what they must do about it.”
It is an intriguing self-assessment by a controversial and outspoken leader both loved and loathed since coming to power on July 16, 1981.
His supporters credit him with transforming a poor Southeast Asian country into one of the world’s most economically successful Muslim states.
His critics have labelled him a dictatorial human rights violator and economic maverick.
Mahathir, 77, looking tired after returning from a trip to the Ukraine, makes it clear he knows all of this, but believes his record speaks for itself.
“People say I am a dictator, but they can say what they like. I would like one day for people to stand outside the cabinet room, to hear the laughter and the jokes.
“We are very relaxed with each other, we are friends. It’s a team that is very representative of every race, culture and religion. We have Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Taoists... everybody is there and we have to reach agreement among ourselves.”
Muslim Malays like Mahathir make up some 60 percent of the population of 23 million, while 27 percent are economically-dominant ethnic Chinese and seven percent are ethnic Indians.
“The country has remained stable and there have been no racial clashes,” he said. “To me, that is an important achievement because when I first became prime minister, most of the Chinese thought that this is an extremist coming in. But I think they changed their minds.”
Mahathir, who is also finance minister, acknowledged also that “people say what I know about finance can be written on the back of a postage stamp”, but pointed to his handling of the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis in rebuttal.
“They can say what they like, but the fact remains that while I have been prime minister, we were able to tackle these things, so maybe I know something about finance.”
He said the economic crisis was the toughest period of his term in power, as he imposed capital controls and pegged the ringgit currency to the US dollar in contravention of International Monetary Fund prescriptions.
“That was tough. To go against the rest of the world, conventional wisdom, to make a decision that may break the whole country is a tough decision.
“Everybody said no it is wrong, even those who were around me said no, you cannot do this. The governor and the deputy governor of the central bank resigned.”
The IMF has recently conceded that Mahathir’s formula worked well for Malaysia.
Asked whether he had lost sleep over the issue he laughed and said: “No, fortunately for me no matter what the trouble is I can sleep.”
He likened his initiation into the world of international finance to one of his favourite pastimes -- horse riding.
“If you don’t know how to ride a horse, you will fall off. I have fallen off a horse three times. But to get the balance, to be in rhythm with the animal and all that is something that you can achieve only if you learn. I had to learn about finance.”
Mahathir, who qualified as a medical doctor, said he will still ride during his retirement, although at 77 “the bones have become friable I suppose because of my age.”
He would also continue sailing and travelling internationally, while writing his memoirs.
“I suppose I will record my experiences in case it might prove useful for other people,” he said.
“I am happy, I am looking forward to it (retirement). Three months more of this and then I am off.”