Shy and retiring

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 October, 2003, 12:00am

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has been called many things - authoritarian, autocratic and recalcitrant, to name but three in an almost endless list. Interestingly, this name-calling has been mostly from western leaders and commentators - and some political opponents at home.

It all started in the late 1960s when, struggling to be noticed, he was somehow portrayed as a Malay extremist. In one of his last interviews before he retires, Dr Mahathir gave me his views on this name-calling. Labelling, he said, is a political gimmick.

'When you label a person, everything he does is linked to that label. If you are called an 'ultra', which I was called, then even if I say the simplest thing [like]: 'Well, let's go and eat', it sounds [as if] this fellow is very extreme. That's the effect of labelling and branding.'

Dr Mahathir, who is retiring at the end of this month, has taken it all in his stride, while taking on his detractors at their own game. Calling a spade a spade has earned him the wrath of many and again, he has sparked a howl of protest with his critical remarks on Jews on Thursday.

But beneath those nerves of steel, there is a shy man, according to those close to Dr Mahathir, which is far removed from the general perception of Asia's longest-serving leader.

So, how did he overcome this handicap? Dr Mahathir recalls that as a boy, he was afraid of dogs and often ran away from them. 'Of course when you run away, dogs will chase you,' he said. 'But when I stopped and looked back at the dog, the dog stopped. So [from that day], I realised I had to overcome some of my fears and some of my shyness if I wanted to do something.'

Dr Mahathir said the anger he felt over the oppression of Malaysians by the British colonialists had spurred him into teaching himself to write and speak well, in order to reach out to as many people as possible. 'After time, when we do things repeatedly, we become better and better,' he said.

Clearly, that is his secret.