Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has revealed that the appointment of Lim Guan Eng as finance minister after he became the prime minister for the second time was purely because he was confident in the latter’s ability to perform well.
Dr Mahathir said he initially did not expect any trouble over the appointment but the Opposition at that time seized on it to accuse him of being controlled by DAP.
In his latest book titled Capturing Hope: The Struggle Continues for a New Malaysia, Dr Mahathir told his version of the events that led to the abrupt collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government he led in the aftermath of the landmark 14th General Election in 2018.
“I had confidence in Guan Eng’s ability to perform well — after all, he strengthened the finances of the state of Penang when he was chief minister, and this was a skill we badly needed in order to deal with the financial problems created by Najib’s government.
“The allegation that I was being controlled by DAP was played up by Umno so relentlessly that I was unable to counter them,” he wrote.
He said that despite his arguments, Umno, which was the Opposition at the time, latched on to the idea that the government had somehow come under “Chinese” control.
“It’s a deeply racist and insecure idea but it was a key part of their strategy to undermine the government. No matter how we explained ourselves, they would repeat that Malaysia needed a Malay-Muslim government, and that the DAP was anti-Muslim and intended to destroy the Malays, and so forth.
“This was all propaganda, and it came from the side that lost the general election, but Malaysians who are not very knowledgeable about politics tend to swallow this hook, line, and sinker,” he wrote.
He said Umno “cybertroopers” worked hard at encouraging the idea that DAP was becoming too powerful.
He said within months of his first year as the eighth prime minister, rumours were being circulated that Lim was dominating the government and controlling him.
“This was patently untrue. Like everyone else, Guan Eng listened to the views of others, and there was no way to impose his will on the Cabinet.
“Guan Eng was a very senior minister, but he was also a member of a five-party Cabinet. The DAP won 42 seats at the general election, and they had six Cabinet portfolios. Bersatu won 13 seats and we also had six ministers, one of whom was the prime minister, and another was minister of home affairs.
“DAP never questioned me on this division, and to say that I was under the control of the DAP was a complete lie. For the most part, Guan Eng always referred to me and sought my approval on almost all his initiatives. In fact, even in Cabinet meetings, every time he proposed something, he would end it by saying ‘if the prime minister agrees,’” he said.
Dr Mahathir said when Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Umno started playing up the fear that DAP would somehow “destroy the Malays”, it resonated with the community as, for many years, people in Umno had claimed that DAP was the enemy.
“DAP members were communists, pro-Chinese chauvinists, and so forth, and now they were in the Government: of course, they were planning to destroy the Malays — so it was claimed.
“This kind of thinking is credible where the Malays are concerned, but the DAP was never in control of the Pakatan Harapan government and was never out to destroy anyone.
“The DAP could not do anything without the consent of the Cabinet. They would put up a paper in the Cabinet, and we would debate. The Cabinet rejected many of their suggestions, which is the usual business of government,” he wrote.
Dr Mahathir said it is common and normal in Malaysia for each race to look after itself.
For example, he said the Chinese community will continue to demand that Chinese schools be maintained and that the Chinese language be used, and even to the point of inviting only Chinese-speaking people to apply for jobs.
“All this is viewed as discriminatory, but it is the stand taken by the Chinese community for reasons of their own. Education and cultural transmission are very important to each community, and it’s often the case that businesses serving Chinese-speaking clients need Chinese-educated people to work for them.
“This doesn’t prevent a Chinese-speaking Malay person from applying, but generally speaking, everybody talks about his or her own race; his or her own community.
“We’re a multicultural country, not a homogenous one where everyone is the same; and it simply isn’t true to claim that we are non-racial,” he said.
Dr Mahathir also said having been in Opposition for over six decades, many PH leaders needed time to make mindset adjustments after they were appointed as Cabinet members.
He revealed that even after becoming ministers, PH leaders continued to behave as if they were still in the Opposition, and that caused problems.
“This was problematic, to put it simply, the government has to do things, and when you do things, you open yourself to criticism.
“When you’re outside the Government, you can criticise as much as you like, and your actions don’t come under as much intense scrutiny.
“I needed to help the new Ministers get used to this,” he wrote.
Dr Mahathir said his minister’s attitude towards investors was not friendly as they found it difficult to be on good terms with the business community.
“When they were in the Opposition, they thought that the business community was stealing money from the Government and making a lot of money for itself.
“For example, they thought that they could abolish tolled roads. But, I said, “You can’t do that.
“The government has legally binding obligations to allow private highway operators to collect tolls.
“If we were to renege on these obligations, we would have to compensate the operators or even buy them over. We didn’t have the money to do that or to take over the maintenance of the highways,” he wrote.
Dr Mahathir said his new Cabinet colleagues were unable to handle being opposed at all times.
He said it was a big change for them and it took time for them to understand that they could no longer do what they did before, which was criticising the government.
“Often at the beginning of a Cabinet meeting, I would give them a long talk — until somebody pointed out that the talks took longer than the meeting. But I had to explain and clarify many issues to the Cabinet.
He wrote that when his newly appointed ministers discovered that the previous administration under Datuk Seri Najib Razak had awarded a contract that was very costly to the government, they wanted to terminate it.
“I had to point out that if we terminated the project without grounds, we would be in breach of contract. If we wanted to legally end a contract, we would have to compensate the other party,” he said.
“If you seek to ‘punish’ the corrupt politicians of the previous Government by cancelling contracts, it’s not the politicians who suffer — they have already taken the money. It’s the contractor who suffers, as well as all those involved in doing the actual work: staff and workers, suppliers, subcontractors — there are a lot of entirely innocent parties depending on the contract.” he pointed out.
He said a lot of the “Opposition mindset” came from zeal to right the wrongs of Najib’s government.
Dr Mahathir’s new book was released yesterday.