KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, back in power after a 15-year hiatus, says his first 20 years in office were “fairly easy” compared to what is confronting him now — massive debt in a country with an international reputation for corruption.
Mahathir returned to power on May 9 in a spectacular election upset that saw him unite with his former opposition foes to overthrow a prime minister — Najib Razak — who is accused of helping to steal billions from his country in one of the biggest corporate frauds in history. Najib denies all the charges.
“Well my first 20 years as prime minister was fairly easy. I inherited a system that is already there. All I had to do is to introduce new ideas so that we can expedite the growth and development of Malaysia,” the 92-year-old Mahathir told VOA in an exclusive interview.
“But here I am dealing with a country that has been actually destroyed. Its finances have been destroyed. The system of government has been ignored and not used and a new system, or rather an authoritarian system has been introduced,” he said.
Najib, a one-time ally of Mahathir, served as prime minister from 2009 to 2018 and has been battling corruption charges since 2015 when billions of dollars were reported missing from a state investment fund under his control. This week, police wheeled scores of suitcases — which they said were filled with jewels, cash and hundreds of luxury handbags — out of Najib's residences.
No longer protected by his office, Najib has spent hours this week testifying before an anti-corruption commission.
"I have answered all their questions to the best of my abilities,” he said as he emerged from a six-hour session on Thursday.
The alleged corruption has hit the country particularly hard because much of the missing money was borrowed. But Mahathir said he is working with his party to decide out how to mitigate the damage and that he believes he has found ways to wipe about $50 billion off the more than $250 billion debt.
“The previous government has accumulated huge amounts of borrowings from other countries, from foreign banks, and even from local sources, so the first thing that we need to do of course is to ensure that we are able to service the loans, at least, and to try to reduce the principle that has been borrowed,” Mahathir said.
He also quashed any suggestion he was having second thoughts about abolishing a deeply unpopular fake news law introduced by Najib in the lead-up to the election. But he added that some controls needed to remain on the media to prevent the incitement of racial tensions.
On the heels of a meeting with Chinese ambassador Bai Tian, Mahathir remained firm on his pledge to renegotiate infrastructure deals Najib signed with Beijing that involved heavy borrowing with little local benefit.
But he said he was confident this could be done without jeopardizing the two countries’ important relationship.