Tun M on Working with Others

What it's like to be Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Friday 28 June 2019
The doctor's in. Photo: UNRESERVED

Someone who met Tun Dr Mahathir once said of meeting the man, that as he presented the issues at hand, Tun Dr Mahathir simply looked on intently and listened very carefully before jotting down his suggestions on a piece of paper and sending the person on his way. This is, after all, Tun Dr Mahathir. A doctor at heart, through and through.

The unique thing about Tun Dr Mahathir is that despite being known as irascible and tough, he manages to get people to work together. In most countries, coalitions are usually formed after an election. But this is not the case in Malaysia.

When asked what his “secret sauce” was when it came to forming coalitions now and in the past, he said, “Tolerance. You have to be tolerant because no two people are the same. I don’t expect people to be exactly like me, there are people who have ideas which are quite different, or even backgrounds which are different. But I tolerate all those because I focus on the purpose of the coalition. Why should we have a coalition? That is important. Once we determine that we should have a coalition because then the only other coalition can be the BN (Barisan Nasional), then other things will be pushed to the background.”

Over the past year, the coalition seemed to make for uncomfortable bedfellows, and some disagreements were played out in social media. When asked how conflicts are managed, he said, “You have to accept people doing or saying things which are different from what you would like to hear. I put up with a lot of very unpalatable comments made against me, but it hasn’t hurt me at all. I’ve been called all kinds of names, but I can still work with those very people who used to run me down.”

Tun M1 (in) - Tun Dr Mahathir

This was perhaps an oblique reference to Anwar, who upon forming Pakatan Harapan, was together with his party, quite instrumental in swaying public opinion against the UMNO machine that Tun Dr Mahathir was leading twenty years ago. If Tun Dr Mahathir was ever hurt or sensitive to any of the comments in the past, it is not something he shows today. And they were not soft diplomatic criticisms either.

Anwar commented to CNN in 1999, “This is an absolute disgrace. An interpretation of corruption which is ridiculous, nauseating in fact when one considers how in Malaysia billions of ringgit of the people’s money are being squandered by its leaders to save their children and cronies…The charges are part of a political conspiracy to destroy me and ensure (Prime Minister) Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s continued hold on power at whatever cost, even if it means sacrificing whatever little is left of the judiciary’s integrity,” he said.

Even today, Nurul Izzah recently said in an interview with Singapore daily, The Straits Times, “I mean having to work with a former dictator who wrecked so much damage, not just on our lives but the system. It was not easy.”

It isn’t because Tun Dr Mahathir forgives easily necessarily, as I ask him this, and he says rather determinedly, “I don’t know whether it is forgiveness or not, it’s practicality. If you want to work with people, you have to accept that they are not like you. They have traits which you may not like, but in order to work, you have to overlook such things.”

This article is an excerpt from UNRESERVED’s June 2019 issue from the article PATRIOT ACT: TUN M’S AUDACITY OF HOPE.

Related: Mahathir, Then And Now: A Writer’s Impressions