On numerous occasions, when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad makes a public appearance, one of the favourite questions raised during the Q&A would be:
“What is your secret of keeping young?”
It is actually amazing to see Dr Mahathir, at 88 and today exactly a decade since retirement, is still travelling wide and far, domestically and abroad, participating in speaking and lecture engagements.
When abroad, the invitations centred on how he turned Malaysia around, from an agrarian society into what is formerly described as the newly industrialised country and now, merely steps away from a full-fledged developed nation status.
The adulations he received abroad border on idolisation – so much so that when he went to Egypt in 2011, after Hosni Mubarak was deposed, during a live television interview, he was asked if he would consider becoming the interim Prime Minister and help the country get out of its political and economic quagmire – a consequence suffered by a divided nation, post-uprising.
While Dr Mahathir dismissed such suggestions on grounds that he was a foreigner, one of the Egyptian newspapers, taking up from the television interview, ran a story/poll the next day on whether it was all right for a foreigner, specifically Dr Mahathir, to be the leader of Egypt in the interim.
Responses to the write-up were mixed though many favouring the suggestion of Dr Mahathir leading, and according to a local Malaysian embassy staff, one response even argued that Egypt had at one time been under the leadership of a foreigner and as such, there was nothing wrong to have Dr Mahathir as one.
While such views are moot, the fact remains that Dr Mahathir continues to receive high regards abroad.
These accolades, unsolicited, are actually a reflection of what outsiders think of Malaysia.
Much as some Malaysians may not have many regards for Dr Mahathir, his stature and reputation had actually made foreigners extend their high regards for the rest of the nation as well.
Surely, by now, numerous tales about how Malaysians get special treatment abroad because of Dr Mahathir had been widely shared.
In 2003, several Malaysian journalists covering the US invasion of Iraq discovered the “magic” of the name Mahathir.
They were, alongside other international media personnel, trying to get into Karbala where, for the first time after more than two decades, the Shi’as were allowed to perform their pilgrimage following the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The Shi’a militias were controlling the road leading to the centre of the complex and had stopped all the media trucks and four-wheel drives from entering Karbala and parked along the road included the big names such as the CNN, BBC etc…
When a couple of jeeps carrying Malaysian journalists and cameramen rolled in and went up to the militia guards, they were asked where they were from.
When the militiaman was told that they were from Malaysia, the response was: “Dr Mahatheer…OK”.
One of the militias then jumped on top of the Malaysian vehicle and directed the driver to take a route that led the Malaysian team all the way to the tomb of the venerated Imam Hussein, the martyred grandson of Prophet Muhammad while other media teams including the international ones, could only cover the event from outside the shrine.
That was when Dr Mahathir was still the Prime Minister of Malaysia.
Another tale was one told by a well-travelled senior civil servant who went to Bosnia for a holiday in 2010.
“The café owner asked me where I was from and when I told him I’m a Malaysian, his response was…aha, Dr Mahathir and went on to narrate to me how Dr Mahathir had saved the Bosnians and how much he had helped them (against the atrocities of the Serbs).
“The café owner refused to accept payment for what I had eaten and drank, telling me that money from a Malaysian is no good in his outlet.”
Such tales are actually quite common. Go to the Middle East or even some of the far out places in the African continent, Dr Mahathir is a Malaysian “brand” that sells and much revered.
Even in neighbouring South East Asian nations, Dr Mahathir continues to be sought after for his views and thoughts on almost anything under the sun, despite attempts by his Malaysian detractors to undermine and blemish his reputation.
And locally, he remains an enigma.
His fans adore him and some literally worship him. His detractors blame him for everything but everything that went wrong in the country.
And such is the dislike they feel for him that they even see wrong in everything that went right in Malaysia.
Without doubt, his shadow looms, long and far over everything in Malaysia. His 22 years as the Prime Minister had indeed left an indelible mark on the nation.
His detractors kept on saying that his influence has waned and he is fast becoming the past.
However, numerous comments, when made about Malaysian politics and its economy, the detractors and supporters alike, will, without fail, mention him whether in positive light or otherwise.
There have been views suggesting that he should just retire and stop meddling in the affairs of the nation.
Ironically, these views come from the very people who have self-styled themselves as advocates of freedom of expression and also the pundits that kept saying that Dr Mahathir’s influence had waned.
If his influence had waned, why worry about his interference.
Actually, while strutting in their sense of self-importance, they had overlooked the fact that they are dealing with an extraordinary politician who is different from the average ones that they are more comfortable to be associated with.
Dr Mahathir is an intellectual without pretending to be one. He is driven, disciplined and hardworking to a fault, even post retirement – and all these are something which most of his detractors, from either side of the political divide, cannot emulate – and something most do not want to be reminded of.
Indeed, his qualities have left his detractors wanting.