Malaysia’s Mahathir denies corruption, says most of his money ‘now gone’

Elder statesman challenges Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to prove that he used time in office for personal enrichment.

Prime Minister Mahathir
Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has denied engaging in corrupt practices [Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

Putrajaya, Malaysia – Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has denied engaging in corruption, saying he earned his money from his salary during his decades-long political career and most of it is “now gone”.

In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, Mahathir, who is under investigation by the country’s anticorruption agency, hit out at current Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim over remarks that implied that he had used his time in office to enrich himself and his family.

“I am curious as I have not seen this money and don’t know where they are. If I had taken the money, tell the court how you [Anwar] conclude that I had taken the money,” said Mahathir, 98, who is pursuing a 150 million ringgit ($32m) defamation action against his protégé-turned-rival.

Mahathir, who led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 and again from 2018 to 2020, said he was willing to go to Switzerland with Anwar to look for banks where he could have stashed away his money.

“If we can find such a bank, I will withdraw 100 percent of the money and give it to the Malays,” Mahathir said.

Mahathir also accused Anwar of targeting his two eldest sons, Mirzan Mahathir and Mokhzani Mahathir.

Anwar, who served as Mahathir’s deputy during the 1990s, has denied targeting political rivals and said he does not intervene in the legal process.

“As he [Anwar] stated, he had files, boxes, documents which shows I have taken money. Well show, if you have the boxes, show them. But until now, he has not shown [the boxes]. Instead, he has tried to bypass [that] and now, he is going after my children Mokhzani and Mirzan,” Mahathir said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim served as Mahathir’s deputy during the 1990s [Franck Robichon/pool via AFP]

In January, the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) ordered Mirzan Mahathir and Mokhzani Mahathir to declare their assets as part of inquiries prompted by the Pandora and Panama Papers leaks.

The anticorruption agency in April confirmed that it was investigating Mahathir as part of the probe.

Mahathir said he does not benefit from his sons’ business activities.

“They don’t give me money from their business,” he said.

Malaysia’s long-serving leader said he forbade his sons from doing business in the country while he was in office as he did not want to be accused of nepotism.

“Mokhzani only succeeded in business after I stepped down. During the time I was prime minister, he was not well-known for being a successful businessman. He was employed by petroleum companies as he was trained in that field,” Mahathir said.

Addressing the source of his wealth, Mahathir said that he earned a monthly salary of 8,000 ringgit ($1,700) when he first became prime minister, rising to 20,000 ringgit ($4,240) by the time he stepped down in 2020.

“For me, that was a fantastic sum… a very big sum of money,” said Mahathir, adding that he was paid 2,000 ringgit ($420) a month when he started out as a medical doctor in private practice in the 1950s.

Mahathir said that he was also provided with benefits, including a house and a car, which helped him to spend little while in office.

“They paid for my electricity, water bill… government gives me transportation, cars and drivers. I don’t have to pay anything,” Mahathir said.

“Even flying, the planes were at my disposal. So what I needed in terms of doing my work as a prime minister were all provided for by the government and the salary I got. I saved it for over 29 years – from being a minister of education to retiring as a prime minister.”

In 2018, Mahathir declared assets worth 32.35 million ringgit ($6.9m).

Mahathir said that when he first stepped down as prime minister in 2003, he rejected an offer from the government for a free piece of land in Putrajaya, a city about 25km (15.5 miles) south of Kuala Lumpur.

“I said no, I don’t take free land. So I bought the land. I paid 1 million ringgit [$212,000] for 5 acres [2 hectares] of land. It is on record that I did not take a single cent from the government,” Mahathir said.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission in April confirmed that it was investigating former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad [Reuters]

Mahathir said he spent most of his money coming out of retirement in a bid to remove then-Prime Minister Najib Razak from power as the multibillion dollar 1MDB financial scandal unfolded.

The elder statesman contested the 2018 general elections under the banner of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, which he founded after leaving his longtime political vehicle UMNO, the largest party in the then-governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

At the age of 92, Mahathir went on to lead the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition to a stunning victory over BN, which had governed the Southeast Asian country without interruption since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1957.

Mahathir resigned in 2020 amid internal tensions within his PH government.

In 2022, Anwar was elected prime minister following two short-lived premierships under the banner of Perikatan Nasional (PN).

“Unfortunately, when I was out of the government and I was involved in politics, I don’t have any other source of money except my own… I spent most of the money on politics,” he said.

“My party had no money. People don’t donate to the opposition party.”

On Najib, who is seeking to serve the remainder of a six-year prison sentence under house arrest after being convicted for his role in the 1MDB scandal, Mahathir said the former prime minister should not receive special treatment.

“Staying at home means you are free. You don’t come out of your house, but you are free. When you steal billions and you are very well-treated, it is a bad example for future leaders,” Mahathir said.

In February, Malaysia’s pardons board halved Najib’s jail sentence to six years and reduced his 210 million ringgit ($60m) fine to 50 million ringgit ($10.7m).

“They are going to reduce the sentence until it becomes meaningless,” Mahathir said.

“When you give this kind of concession, pardon, reduce the sentence by half and you talk about house arrest, you are not punishing. You are treating this man who has stolen billions of dollars differently.”

Source: Al Jazeera