Mahathir’s interview with website raises a few eyebrows

By Yu Ji

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaks to the audience during the Inspire Series 2 talk on Evolusi Identiti Anak Muda Malaysia organised by Akademi Belia at the Perdana Leadership Foundation building in Putrajaya on August 16, 2014.

ASIDE from the most unfortunate floods hitting our shores, the other big news of the week is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s interview with Sarawak Report.

Last weekend, the website published a teaser featuring several photographs showing editor Clare Rewcastle Brown together with the still influential former prime minister.

It sent shock waves through Sarawak Barisan Nasional. More than a few senior politicians in the state expressed surprise and were careful in not wanting to comment straight away when I asked them about it on Monday.

For now, the Sarawak Report editor had not made clear what exactly Dr Mahathir divulged during the interview. In the article, which mainly featured comments on 1Malaysia Development Berhad, there were just a few lines about Sarawak.

At the start of article, Brown claimed it was Dr Mahathir who made the first move.

“Dr Mahathir... had invited the editor of Sarawak Report to the Perdana Leadership Foundation in Putrajaya to discuss issues relating to Sarawak’s environmental and human rights record.”

The article concluded tantalisingly: “More from the exclusive interview with Sarawak Report later.”

Since Sarawak Report began in 2010, it has consistently placed high-level VIPs under scrutiny. Much of the allegations have gone unanswered in Sarawak, just as the state Barisan has gone on to win convincingly in two elections. I will not comment further on those issues.

The website itself has gone through ups and downs. When it started, the allegations were sensational. Personal photographs of VIPs and their families were published. It caused a minor sensation, especially among the urban middle class.

But Sarawak Report has been through lulls as well. In the past year, one gets the impression sometimes the same allegations are being repeated, while those in power in Sarawak Barisan have learnt to not fret too much. After all, the same state government remains in power, and will win the next Sarawak election, unless sometimes goes terribly wrong.

Now, enters Dr Mahathir. The interview has put Sarawak Report firmly back in the minds of many. Any media organisation or news website that gets an interview with a former PM will get the people’s attention.

Here is what State Assistant Minister Datuk Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah told me when I asked him for comments. Karim is a PBB supreme council member and the former state Barisan Backbenchers Club chairman.

“Yes, I am surprised by Dr Mahathir giving his interview to Sarawak Report. Being the former Prime Minister, who is well versed with dealing with the media, his choosing of Sarawak Report does raise eyebrows,” he said.

Karim described the website as “very critical” of the state sovernment, and at times, operating in a “clandestine” manner. “What Dr Mahathir did would definitely give added legitimacy to it.”

PRS president Tan Sri James Masing, a state minister, said more or less the same. “I’m surprised Dr Mahathir agreed to be interviewed by Sarawak Report,” Masing said, but was quick to addthat Dr Mahathir’s involvement with the website did not turn all allegations into facts.

Both Karim and Masing said Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem had had a positive impact on the state’s reputation and grassroots support.

Karim said: “I really do think the Sarawak government’s reputation has improved nationally and internationally with the new leadership. The new CM’s policies on timber and land, as well as his moderate views on religion and race should lead to less criticism.”

Masing added: “Adenan’s policies has painted the state government as a more transparent government. It’s a refreshing way of administering the state. I hope those who wish for a clean and people centric government – irregardless of political divide – will give Adenan a chance to implement his policies. I hope the cynics and critics do not just oppose things just for the sake of opposing.”

Of course no one should expect state Barisan officials to say anything that is not along those lines.

For a more balanced view, I asked Assoc Prof Dr Andrew Aeria, a political scientist at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, for his views. The academic said state Barisan politicians had by and large not clarified Sarawak Report’s allegations.

For as long as that is not done, Sarawak Report is in the minds of its readers exposing real stories.

“Those named by Sarawak Report have a duty to clarify to the public. They can categorically refute all allegations once and for all by responding to Sarawak Report with facts,” Aeria said. Dr Mahathir’s interview would be perceived as him giving a vote of confidence to Sarawak Report, he added.

But my gut feeling tells me the state Barisan will proceed as normal, which is to say it will continue to ignore Sarawak Report.

At the same time, I suspect whatever Dr Mahathir had told Sarawak Report had more to do with national politics, and that his comments on Sarawak might be more general in nature.

On top of that, Dr Mahathir is to give the keynote address at the International Energy Week 2015, which is hosted by the Sarawak government, starting Tuesday.

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