Though former Malaysian prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad is fast approaching his centenary year, the Bapa Pemodenan (Father of Modernisation) won’t rule out a third term as the country’s leader.
In a political career spanning more than 70 years, he oversaw a period of major development when serving as Malaysia’s fourth prime minister from 1981 to 2003, heading the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
Then, as the 1MDB corruption scandal toppled then-prime minister Najib Razak in 2018, Mahathir returned as the country’s seventh premier, this time helming the Pakatan Harapan coalition—the first non-BN government since independence in 1957.
Though his second term ended with his shock resignation in February 2020, laying the groundwork for a political crisis that rumbles on to this day, the 96-year-old left the door open to run again in an interview with VICE News.
Speaking from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, he also discussed his resistance to what he regarded as Western notions of LGBTQ rights, the role of the U.S. in the region, preferential treatment afforded to the rich and powerful, and his thoughts on his wider legacy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE News: My first question is the one everyone is asking: Will you be running for election again?
Mahathir Mohamad: A lot of my supporters want me to stand. I don't want to run for election, but if they feel that my participation would enhance the possibility of the party [PEJUANG Party] winning, then I cannot reject their requests.
So you would consider it even being 96 years old, one of the oldest leaders in the world?
Well, it’s a last resort.
During your tenure as prime minister of Malaysia—that’s 24 years—you've been accused of being an autocrat, of being a dictator.
When people accuse me of being a dictator, where is the evidence? Why was I accused of being bad? Because the people who accused me were my enemies who wanted me to be brought down.
You do not recognise the rights for same sex marriage and the LGBTQ community in Malaysia. How would you represent this group of young voters, if you don't recognise their rights?
They have to realise that our society is different. For example, in the West now there is no respect for family or marriage, and young girls, even teengagers, sleep around. This is actually tolerated by their parents—parents give contraceptive pills to their daughters knowing full well that their daughters will be doing all kinds of things. That, in the older generation, would not be tolerated.
According to a survey, one out of five young people identify as non-cisgender, non-heterosexual. This includes Malaysians. How will you represent them?
We will not be able to represent them completely, but there are things that they care about which we can accommodate. For example, the environment, climate change, and temperatures rising around the world. All these things are of interest to the young people, and we have the same views.
The 1MDB scandal has taken the world by storm for years, leading to the downfall of former prime minister Najib Razak. What is your personal opinion about the fact that still no action has been taken against someone who has been found guilty of money laundering and embezzlement from a state fund?
There are different standards, apparently. I know people who, upon being accused, not even charged in court, were arrested and put in jail. And yet in the case of Najib, he was charged, he was tried in court, and a court found him guilty. So he is guilty. But nothing happens to him because he is appealing [his conviction].
All these things show that there is no equality in the treatment of people of different status. Just because he is the prime minister, he is almost allowed to do anything he likes.
Over the last few years, in Asia specifically, we’ve seen a shift away from democracy and towards dictatorship. We’ve seen it in Thailand. We’ve seen it in Myanmar. Do you think that democracy is the right system that should be used in Asia at this point in time?
Democracy is the best political system invented by man. It’s not perfect; there are many weaknesses, many loopholes. In the hands of good people who believe in democracy, democracy will deliver. In the hands of bad people, the powers—the authority given to a chosen leader, an elected leader—can be abused, and we have seen this happen in Malaysia.
Why do you think that America should pay attention to Asia?
America likes to be the policeman for the world. But it is not the perfect policeman. There are decisions made by America which have been bad.
[They believe] if there is a problem, send the Seventh Fleet. If there is a problem, invade the country. If there is a problem, achieve regime change. That is America—they want to make use of their authority in order to impose their will, in their own interest, on other people.
Looking back at your life, what do you think your legacy is?
Lots of people ask me about legacy. I have no interest in legacy. I’m dead and gone, so why should I bother about legacies?
I feel that I have done something for Malaysia. During the period when I was prime minister, Malaysia was classed as an Asian Tiger, and I think that to have that title given to you is satisfactory.