Uncommon life of a commoner

  • Nation
  • Thursday, 10 Mar 2011

PETALING JAYA: Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad never thought he would ever become prime minister.

While he harboured dreams of becoming so, he felt that the odds were stacked against him: he was nothing like the previous PMs, who were all lawyers and were either of royal blood, like Tunku Abdul Rahman, or from elite families, like Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Hussein Onn.

“I, on the other hand, was a commoner, the son of a former schoolteacher ...” he writes in A Doctor in the House, his long-awaited autobiography which was launched yesterday.

In his preface, Dr Mahathir states: “This is the story of Malaysia as I see it. This is also my story.”

And what a story it is.

It is vintage Dr Mahathir, written in a simple, straightforward style with deprecating, yet occasionally sly humour.

At the launch, he was asked about the title and he quipped:

“Well, I considered calling it ‘Mahathir the Napoleon’ or ‘Mahathir the Great” or ‘Mahathir the Magnificent’ – like Suleiman the Great (the longest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire, from 1520 to 1566).

“But I decided against hyperbole as that was not the right way to go.” To him, he was first and foremost a doctor, whether he was caring for his patients or the country, hence the title.

Below are excerpts from the early chapters of A Doctor in the House.

MEDICINE was not considered the best qualification for a Prime Minister.

I was also a rebel and a troublemaker. I had no protector. I was expelled from Umno in 1969 for daring to criticise the Tunku.

This alone should have ended my political career.

My political salvation came from Tun Razak, who overlooked my behaviour with the Tunku and smoothed my way up by making me a full Minister after I won a seat in the 1974 General Election.

When he died in 1976, my only protector was gone.

I have often wondered why he (Tun Hussein 0nn) chose me to be his deputy.

He knew very little about me personally.

I believe he did not have much of a choice when picking his deputy, and perhaps Tun Razak’s views still exerted some influence.

As he once told me, Tun Razak advised him to call me if he ever needed help.

My own relationship with Tun Hussein, however, was sometimes strained.

He rejected a number of my suggestions and was not pleased that I had ventured to offer them.

Increasingly frustrated, I stopped putting forward ideas, I did not want to annoy him and jeopardise my chances of becoming Prime Minister.

Then in 1981, Tun Hussein suddenly informed the Cabinet that he was going to the United Kingdom for treatment for his heart condition.

The operation was successful but Tun Hussein remained unwell when he returned home.

One day in mid-1981, he told me that he could not carry on and wanted to step down.

I was to take over from him. – from “Becoming Prime Minister”

WHILE my father stressed general education, my mother insisted that her children learn the teachings of Islam early in life.

I was closer to my mother than to my father and as a result, she shaped my personality more. She taught me the values that I have upheld throughout my life, especially to be modest and not boastful about what I have done.

Through teaching me to be modest, my mother also handed down the values of tolerance and respect.

My parents were very close.

They did not demonstrate their affection for each other as it was unbecoming to do so, but I knew they loved each other very much.

I cannot imagine what growing up in a polygamous family would have been like. Surely, in such a situation, bitterness would eat at the heart of the household. I would never dream of taking another wife and causing (Tun Dr Siti) Hasmah and my children anguish and pain.

Just as I drew moral instruction from my father and mother, my children have also drawn moral guidance from me. Or so I hope. – from “Family Values”

I HAD set my heart on studying law because I enjoyed debating.

But when I finally received a scholarship, it was to study medicine in Singapore.

At college, I found myself among mostly Chinese and Indian students as Malays made up only 10 per cent of the 70-odd students.

The non-Malay students were brilliant, each having entered with a minimum of 6 As. I believe that, with my 3 As, I gained entry partly due to the fact that the Government of the Malayan Union wanted some Malay students to take up medicine.

Once, in Physics class, I tried to help a Chinese student by explaining how to carry out a particular experiment. He ignored what I said and turned to another student, probably because he did not trust my grasp of the subject.

That semester was my first, and I topped the class in Physics. The snooty student failed the first-year examinations and had to leave.

College was not only about examinations and student issues. Of the seven Malay students in our batch, one was a girl named Hasmah, who wore her hair in two pigtails.

Eventually, she asked whether I could help her with some of her lessons. This would prove near-fatal to our friendship. I was a very impatient young man, and I simply could not understand why she was unable to follow my explanations.

There were times when she and I would lose our tempers, but it was very nice when we made up.

We grew very close, Hasmah and I.

We were only able to get married nine years after we met. One of the dresses that Hasmah wore (at the wedding) was a traditional Chinese dress fashioned after those worn by the Chinese concubines of the Sultan of Malacca.

I teased Hasmah mercilessly after that about being my own concubine. – from “Going to Medical College”

I WAS quite a popular doctor and the number of my patients - Chinese, Malays and Indians - kept increasing.

As the years passed, I found myself stuck in my clinic the whole day and long after other people had gone home.

My world seemed to only consist of nights.

One unattractive aspect of a doctor’s career is obvious but rarely mentioned - most of the people I came into contact with were sick.

Some were dying, and some died in front of me during treatment.

A close friend died one day of a heart attack and I was called in to certify his death.

I was so affected by his death that I wept silently. I generally feel very strongly about things. Even today when something affects me, I get a tight feeling in my chest and my voice breaks. This happens frequently when I talk or even think of the Malays and their failures.

I get emotional and my tears well up.

Ironically, I have a reputation for being tough, even ruthless. Maybe I am. If one wants to get things done one must be single-minded and determined. When I was Prime Minister, I wanted to redeem the honour of the Malays, Malaysians and Malaysia.

From the beginning I knew that it would require a great sense of purpose and a willingness to fend off all challenges.

It must have been those qualities that made me seem hard and uncompromising when I was Prime Minister, for nobody can succeed in politics if they do not have a tough skin.

What I did not want to show was how easily touched I was by tragedy and human suffering. – from “An Alliance is Born”

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