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Dr M: A man of a hundred contradictions

IN part two of an exclusive interview with The Nut Graph, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim responds to attacks against him by former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on his blog. Expressing disappointment at Mahathir’s attacks, Zaid says the former prime minister has done more in his political career to damage Umno and the nation than Zaid himself has or can possibly do.

Zaid resigned as minister in the prime minister’s department because he was principally opposed to the use of the Internal Security Act by Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s administration. Known to publicly support the principles of democracy and rule of law, Zaid also talks about the development of political Islam in Malaysia.

TNG: You have come under attack by former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on his blog. He claims that you helped PAS win the elections in Kota Baru, and that you somehow acted unprofessionally when you were the de facto law minister. Would you like to respond?

Zaid: Yes, of course. I seldom get annoyed and angry. But I am quite upset with him now. Firstly, I’ve always given him due respect. I’ve disagreed with him on many issues in the past, but I’ve never attacked him. I’ve never said bad things about him. Maybe because of his age, his achievements and all that.

But, unfortunately, he did not accord me that same respect. You know, when I was made a minister and he wanted to comment on me, he said: “That lawyer.” He never mentioned my name. It’s as if my name brings a bitter taste to his mouth. He would say: “That lawyer, that lawyer.”

And now, of course, he mentions me in his blog. He attacked me. I ask myself, “Why?” Because I have never attacked him. But when I asked this question to my friends, some people think it’s because when I was a minister, I tried to make amends for the 1988 sacking of the judges. And I proposed that, as you know, we should make some payment, a kind of ex-gratia payment as compensation to show our gratitude, and also, in a way, to say sorry for the mess.

But I did not go as far as to open an inquiry of any kind to blame anyone. I was just trying to help five old men and their families — two of them passed away — [to let them know] that their place in history is recognised. I wasn’t trying to undermine Mahathir or blame anyone. But, I think, he must have felt that my doing all those things was calculated to embarrass him. I think that must be the reason for [the attacks].

Mahathir during Merdeka celebrations in 2007 (© amrufm @ flickr)
So, it’s not surprising that on this occasion, I must have hurt him. But I’m a nobody. I’m not a threat to him. His rendition of history is not going to be rewritten just because of me. He should be worried about (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim, for example. Because Anwar may be prime minister, or (Tengku) Razaleigh (Hamzah) may be prime minister. But, me? There’s no need to attack me. So, I don’t know.

But I want to respond to specific points.


As for the allegation that I was helping PAS because I was sore that I lost the divisional elections and I was not selected — it’s not true at all. In the first place, I didn’t lose the party elections. I was suspended (Zaid, the former Kota Baru Umno division chief, was suspended for 18 months from June 2005 to January 2007 for an open statement that was deemed insulting of the party’s disciplinary board). That’s number one.

Number two, I was suspended three years before the [party] elections. So, I knew I would not be a candidate. It’s not something that surprised me. It’s not something that got me suddenly angry.

And number three, PAS is so strong. There’s no need to help them (chuckles). Thanks to him (Mahathir), we lost Kelantan for 18 years now. So, he cannot blame me.

And as for helping the opposition, why should I? Unlike him — he openly asked people to vote opposition in the last elections because he was spiteful of Pak Lah (Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi). He thinks everybody is like him! That’s the problem.

And about Australia. I didn’t go to Perth, as alleged. It is true that when my name was not [in the list of Umno candidates for the elections], after nomination day, I went to see my daughter in Melbourne. But I came back about a week after that.

He wants me to look bad. But he will not succeed. Because people know I’m nicer than him.

You’re nicer than him?

Oh, 10 times! (chuckles) You must quote that.

Portrait of Tun Hussein Onn (Source:
And then, in his blog he said Pak Lah made a huge mistake by appointing me. But, it’s okaylah. Maybe, Pak Lah made a mistake, I don’t know. But, one thing I do know, though: Tun Hussein Onn, I remember, said his greatest mistake, the worst decision he ever made, was making Mahathir the prime minister. So, this is what history must remember also.

He questioned your Judicial Appointments Commission proposal, saying it is a conflict of interest to appoint members of the Bar Council to sit on the panel.  

I don’t think he understands why I suggested that. I mean, we need lawyers to be able to identify good lawyers who can be selected to become judges.

He also questioned why you did not disclose the amount of the ex-gratia payments to Tun Salleh Abbas and the other judges.

I did not announce [the amount paid] at the request of the judges [who asked that] we should not disclose the amount. They didn’t want people to focus on the money aspect. If you disclose the amount, there will be polemic and there will be argument. Too little, too much. See, the money becomes the issue. So they suggested, why not we just keep quiet? And I thought it was a fair request. So I’m keeping to that word, that we should keep it secret.

Now, if he (Dr Mahathir) wants to open it up, that’s OK by me. But are we going to open up a lot of other things as well? I mean, I’m all for openness in the system of government.

A lot of them are just snide remarks. You know, things like, oh so who paid the judges? Zaidlah, orang kaya, you know…

This is another thing. He said I orang kaya. He wants to make fun of my resigning on the so-called basis of principle. He says it’s easy to resign…

Mahathir’s image on the Telekom Tower in Kuala Lumpur,
2004 (© Bruce Tan)
That’s right, when you can afford it, apparently.

Firstly, I want to tell him, I’m not wealthy. I’m not rich. I’m just a professional man. I don’t live in The Mines.

But you live in Tropicana.

This is different. The price is different.

Oh, is it? More upmarket at The Mines?

I don’t live in The Mines. My children are not millionaires. I don’t have friends where I can use their private jets when I travel. I don’t.

But I resigned on a matter which I thought was important, about our commitment to law and rule of law, that we should not abuse our power in the way that we did. So I resigned. But obviously, he could not understand this. That’s why he made fun of my resignation.

On Mahathir’s blog, he doesn’t just attack you personally, he attacks the process, you know, your judicial review attempts, and he says you are taking away the Agong’s prerogative to appoint judges.

With respect, he does not understand the process. My proposal doesn’t take away the powers of the King at all. At the present, the prime minister gives the names to the King, so the King normally acts on the advice, so he agrees to the names given by the prime minister.

But my proposal is that the Judicial Appointments Commission acts as a body that independently selects the candidates, and passes this to the prime minister. The prime minister agrees with it, takes it to the King. So it doesn’t involve taking anything away from the King at all. He doesn’t understand my proposal.

On another matter, you have consistently opposed the use of Islam as a tool to curtail civil liberties. What direction do you think political Islam is going to take in Malaysia?

You see, there are always people who will use anything for politics. Some people use race, some people use religion, some people use Islam, some people use Christianity. It’s a phenomenon everywhere. So, that’s the first point. That it’s not surprising that [Islam is being used in Malaysia the way it is].

Nik Aziz

But in my several meetings with (PAS spiritual adviser) Tok Guru (Datuk) Nik Aziz (Nik Mat), I feel assured because he told me Islam is not about abuse of power; it’s not about corruption; it’s about your soul, your commitment to the integrity and dignity of the human being, it’s about kalbu, it’s about your heart. And Islam is the controller. That’s the word he used. He said it limits your excesses. So, he was more talking about transforming the culture, as opposed to a specific form of government.

So, if you listen to Nik Aziz or to his lectures, of course he makes a reference to syariah and all that. But I think he puts a lot of importance on the substantive, positive values of religion in the system. He’s not particularly interested in exactly what form. I mean, he’s not rigid about the form.

So, that, to me, is consistent with what we have today. I mean, we have a constitution that, if you provide justice, if you don’t detain people, then that is Islamic in that sense. If you care about the economy of the poor, that’s also Islamic… so I don’t worry too much about political Islam in Malaysia. I don’t want to be a sort of alarmist.

You know, we talk about political Islam here. Some people talk about the Bush administration as right-wing Christian groups running the White House. But at the end of the day, it is the policies that matter.

But that line, I think, is taken by people in PAS like Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, Dr Hatta Ramli, the PAS progressives. In the past week, I think their own president (Datuk Seri Abdul) Hadi Awang came out and said in Harakah that it’s better to have a Muslim leader who is zalim than a non-Muslim leader who is fair.

Political leaders always have to cater to their respective followers. But I don’t worry too much about what a leader says, but more about what he does. The Muslims and the Malays in this country are moderate and reasonable people. They will not impose anything that will cause division, that will cause injustice; they will not.

You see, I have absolute faith in the people of this country and their sense of fairness.

You can have leaders from any party making some political pronouncements for political posturing. Because they think that’s going to win them votes. But there are credible, moderate leaders in PAS also led by Nik Aziz. To me, he encapsulates the message of what we call political Islam. To him, justice is key, fairness is key, essential. And Islam is, to him, the heart.

Except that we are focusing on PAS as if they are the only people responsible for political Islam taking a particular shape in Malaysia. Increasingly, Umno is also in this race, right?

Umno is equally guilty of politicising religious issues. Just read Utusan Malaysia.

But the Federal Constitution, the position of the Malay rulers, the political weightage held by Sabah and Sarawak makes it safe for us to continue the way we are.

So you have to test all of this rhetoric with the realities on the ground. And the realities are reflected in the election results. These people can say whatever they want. Come elections, then they will have to assess, and they will have to adjust. So, for so long as the people of this country — and I believe in their good sense, I believe in their good judgment — they will decide what sort of country we will have.

You see, politicians sometimes think they know everything. They are the final arbiters, you know. But, no, I think the people will decide.

I think we have reached that stage and we cannot regress. The people of Sabah will decide what they want, the people of Sarawak will decide, the people of Kuala Lumpur will decide what they want. And politicians shouldn’t underestimate the importance of people’s ability to decide and to shape things.

You know, it’s no longer the days of old where people cannot think, people cannot read or write. You have your own opinion. Everybody does. Of course, it’s a very dynamic process, change is. But I believe that the young people of this country will determine the outcome of elections. I believe the young people of this country know the world better than some of these leaders. They have a more positive worldview.

See also Part I: Malaysian politics according to Zaid

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4 Responses to “Dr M: A man of a hundred contradictions”

  1. Deramae Lleh says:

    Hundred percent agree…Che Det destroyed Umno Kelantan as well as the judiciary.

  2. will says:

    No matter what, we need to stick to principles of democracy and rule of law.

  3. khairi ali says:

    1. Well, I’m not pro-Mahathir nor anti-Zaid. But the story related by Zaid should be backed by facts, and the facts I have shown are that Zaid gave the wrong facts.
    2. On Islam, Zaid should also hear from others beside Tok Guru.
    3. On political Islam…there’s nothing political about Islam, it’s about a human way of live as propounded by Allah. Only politicians call it political Islam… and this is of course a form of corrupting or hijacking Islam.

  4. Siva Thanenthiran says:

    I like what he said about ‘people power’ and that should have been the lesson for ALL Malaysian politicians – that they and their work on a daily basis need to be relevant to citizens whom they claim to represent. I’m glad he understands that fully.

    I also like the fact that he tried to ‘heal’ the judiciary mess although I have reservations that handing out monetary compensation with an apology was the best way to do that (or whether it did any reparation at all in the long run)!

    By the way (although Malaysia does not practise it) in many other parliamentary democracies, if a member of the cabinet does not agree with the views of the Prime Minister, they step down in order to allow the PM to execute his/her plan without internal opposition. It is the gentlemanly thing to do, rather than stay in the cabinet and air their views which will reduce the PM’s credibility and the credibility of his/her plan of action. This is also applicable in cases of political scandals. It is good to see that recently both Zaid and Chua Soi Lek stepped down in order to enable the PM to do his job without any impediments.

    Of course, it is also my opinion that this was exactly what Anwar Ibrahim should have also done in 1998. That is, if you disagree with the PM on the direction of the finance portfolio, then you should step down and allow the PM to continue in his course of action. Both time and the international financial institutions (in hindsight) have applauded that course of action.

    But perhaps, the closer you are to the throne, the harder it is to be a gentleman. The Malaysian public has been witness again and again to those who cling onto their power at all costs but make no mistake, citizens nowadays can easily distinguish these politicians.

    Was Zaid sincere? That’s not my business to judge, that’s his personal business with his conscience.

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