Independence means the opportunity to build the country of your dreams, says the ex-PM.
PUTRAJAYA: On August 31, 1957, thousands packed the Merdeka Stadium to hear Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaim Malaya’s independence from the British.
But in the sleepy Kedah town of Alor Setar, about 400km to the north, celebrations were much more modest. A young doctor was pushing a pram carrying his new-born daughter in a stroll through the town when the Tunku, the country’s first prime minister, was declaiming “Merdeka, Merdeka, Merdeka”.
The Kedah government did not have much money for much fanfare to mark the occasion, but still managed to decorate the town with flags and banners.
It was a happy day for all, including the 32-year-old doctor, Mahathir Mohamad.
But while he was filled with joy, Mahathir had not yet fully grasped the meaning of independence, much less imagined becoming prime minister himself three decades later.
When the nation was fighting for independence, he and many others “weren’t very convinced” Malayans could run a country, he told FMT.
Much has changed physically for the nonagenarian since that day in Alor Setar 60 years ago, but he claims that his spirit has been kept young by his determination to take the country back to its post-independence glory by ousting the Barisan Nasional government through an election.
Mahathir grew up in a time when the idea of Malaya being independent was not only inconceivable, but also forbidden.
“We were not allowed to be involved in politics,” he said. “Politics was confined to the rulers and a few elitists. It was very degrading.
“The country was not developed at all. If there was a road built, it was built in order to carry the products of British estates and mines for their export.
“So it was like living in a country owned by the British, where we had no status at all.”
His own experience of being perceived as incapable and sidelined just because of the colour of his skin might explain why he dedicated almost his entire political career to fighting for the rights of the Malays, earning the label of an “ultra Malay”.
He said the British regarded the Malays as “being very lazy and not qualified to do anything, not even qualified to rule the country”.
“So some were employed as civil servants at the lower levels. Otherwise you were either a paddy planter or a fisherman.
“And the towns had mostly Chinese and Indian-Muslim shops. There were no Malay shops in the towns.
“We were regarded as the natives, who were very backward, uneducated and poor. We all lived in villages. Only a few got to live in the towns and work for the government as clerks.”
All that began to change after August 31, 1957. The people of Malaya were no longer strangers in their own land and they were proud that they would finally have the chance to build the country they had always dreamt of, said Mahathir.
It was apparent during the interview that he believes he led Malaysians on the right track towards achieving that dream during his 22 years in power and that Najib Razak’s administration has gone off the track.