The struggle to win was tough; rebuilding Malaysia will be even tougher

SINGAPORE (Jan 14): I had never been as tense as I was on the night of May 9, which stretched into the morning of May 10. I had led five general elections quite calmly. But not the 14th general election of Malaysia.

The results came slowly. Somehow, the victories of the then government party came first. It seemed to be winning.

It was not until midnight that our party’s victories appeared on the screens. Very quickly, it became clear that we would win. And we won by a bigger majority than we had expected.

I was sworn in as Prime Minister a day later. As I sat down for my first briefing, I was alarmed at the enormity of the task we had to face and resolve.

The previous administration had inflicted massive damage on government finan­ces and institutions. On the top of this, we had to work with administrative machinery that had been corrupted by the previous prime minister.

We soon realised that the issues we had raised to gain the support of the voters were nothing compared with the reality. We only knew the tip of the iceberg. The reality was far worse.

We shuddered at the thought of the damage that a victory for the previous government party would have wrought. For sure, the country would have become bankrupt.

The enormity of the task before us almost broke our spirit and determination to bring about national recovery.

But we had won. Against all odds, we had won. And we had won handsomely. The stunned former government party must have been more shocked than we were. The expected rejection of a small defeat by the government party and the possible declaration of a state of emergency did not take place.

Certainly, they could have engineered riots and disorder to justify a suspension of the laws and the setting up of a new government, ruling by decree. Almost meekly, the party admitted defeat and recognised the right of the victors, their former opposition, to form the government.

For our part, we were ready to accuse the former government party of fraud and other wrongdoings and demand that the election results be rejected and a new election held. But as it turned out, we had won with a good majority.

It was better to accept the results than complain about the wrongdoings of the previous government. True, in some constituencies, the fraud was glaring. We should have won. We lost in these constituencies because of fraud. But we could complain later. We could go to court and demand a reversal of the results.

The delight of the majority of the people over the defeat of the former government party was obvious. Everywhere, big crowds gathered, blowing whistles and trumpets, firing crackers and fireworks and cheering the winners with great enthusiasm. But there was no violence.

Everyone saw a New Malaysia. For 61 years, since Independence, the country had been ruled by one party; the party that won independence from the British. No one ­really believed that this party, so popular before, could lose. It was too powerful. Ruling parties have the machinery of government to give them strength.

And the long-time Malaysian ruling party knew all the tricks and had the use of government personnel and institutions to back it. Old and established, it had money aplenty. As we suspected, the money was looted by a prime minister who also headed the government coalition.

But that was its undoing. Believing that “cash is king”, it neglected campaigning to defend and explain its policies. Instead, it depended on bribing the electorate. Believing that the police and anti-corruption agency would close their eyes to the blatant buying of votes and lavish gift-giving, they lost the respect of the electorate.

They failed to counter the opposition party’s campaign and the dislike of the people for the financial and other scandals linked to the leaders of the then government party. They totally failed to understand the hardships of the people caused by the new taxes, high cost of living and high rate of unemployment.

The desire for a change in government among the people was far stronger than we had been led to believe. Hence, the unexpectedly good majority achieved by the then opposition.

And this was achieved despite the officers of the Election Commission not adhering to proper procedures. For example, even when an opposition candidate scored a clear majority and a recount was not needed, a recount was ordered. In several cases, the recounts resulted in the winners losing.

Putting in the reforms

But all these are matters of the past. Now our task is to rebuild our government. We have to restore democracy and the rule of law. These are our top priorities as the new government. The governing system, which we had held dear since Independence, had mutated into a self-serving machinery to save only one man. Hence, our efforts from now on must concentrate on returning Malaysia to the people.

One of my earliest decisions made right after the general election was the establishment of the Council of Eminent Persons. It was established to advise the government on not only strengthening the checks and balances within the system but also improving the measures to fight corruption and restore our economic well-being.

In addition, we intend to ensure that the power of the prime minister is limited and less open to abuse. Parliament will play a bigger role in the governance of the country. Senior officials will be vetted by parliament before their appointment. Hence, they will no longer be obliged to the prime minister for their appointment or promotion.

The current Cabinet is smaller than that of the previous government, yet it is filled with able politicians out to prove themselves worthy of being chosen as leaders by the voters. I put my faith in all of them, even though only a handful have the experience of being full-fledged ministers.

On top of everything else, the country is facing debts of more than RM1 trillion ($329.7 billion) — a sum unheard of less than a decade ago. These huge debts, which were incurred by the previous government, must be dealt with as quickly as possible. A few of the projects with China had to be halted for us to renegotiate better terms for the loans incurred by the previous government.

We have had to defer or cancel some of these grandiose projects. When these problems have been alleviated, then we can return the country to normal.

Draconian laws, which limit the freedom of the people and the media and are against human rights, will be repealed. Debates in parliament will not be restricted while the powerful Public Accounts Committee is now headed by a member of the opposition.

We want to ensure the transparency of our government. We will not hide behind the Official Secrets Act.

Over the last several years, the judiciary has been hit by accusations of abuse in the appointments of the Chief Justice and the Attorney-General. We have addressed that by replacing them with more neutral candidates. We are serious in bringing about a more independent judiciary.

We also aim to separate the office of the Public Prosecutor from that of the Attorney-General. This will minimise any conflicts of interest when it comes to cases involving the wrongdoing of the government.

Malaysians from all walks of life want closure on the 1MDB scandal. It is imperative that we do our level best to bring back all the money stolen by the perpetrators. We have confiscated a few assets bought using the stolen money and initiated mutual legal assistance with other countries and international bodies.

We want those who had failed in their duty to safeguard the nation’s interests to be accountable for their actions and be brought to justice. Our nation’s credibility is at stake and its integrity held to ransom by a select few.

The struggle to overthrow the kleptocratic government was tough. But it is nothing compared with the struggle to rebuild Malaysia. Once upon a time, Malaysia was described as an Asian Tiger. Now we not only have to restore this image but are expected to surpass it.

Governments do not stay popular for long. Governments must act and they just cannot please everyone. Soon, the honeymoon will be over. But God willing, before the glamour is lost, we will have succeeded in setting the nation on the path to be a developed country as envisioned in our Vision 2020. — The Edge Malaysia

Dr Mahathir Mohamad is the prime minister of Malaysia

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 864, week of Jan 14) which is on sale now. Subscribe here