AT the end of his visit after attending a series of meetings at the 33rd Asean Summit in Singapore, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was casually asked how he managed to cope with the punishing two-day schedule.
“I don’t know how I managed. I always attend meetings. It’s my duty. If I can, I will. If I am sick, I won’t go,” he replied.
Just the day before, a Malaysian official said she counted the number of meetings the Prime Minister had to attend – a total of 17 – with leaders from other countries and separate ones with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Australia’s Scott Morrison, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and Vietnam’s Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Just before the Asean summit, Dr Mahathir made a two-day official visit to Singapore.
It’s a different story for his 73-year-old counterpart from the Philippines, who hit the headlines at the summit for the wrong reason.
Rodrigo Duterte has been napping and skipping a number of summits in Singapore and has became a subject of ridicule by the media.
They even counted the number of meetings he missed – four – as well as a gala dinner hosted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Duterte’s office said the leader took power naps, but his history of skipping meetings is nothing new.
In 2016, he didn’t attend a summit between Asean and then US president Barack Obama in Laos after the White House cancelled their bilateral talk following Duterte’s obscenity-laden rant against Obama.
But for Dr Mahathir, who is making his reappearance at the Asean summit, it was an occasion for him to get acquainted with the leaders from the region and some whom he had met when he was the fourth prime minister, like Putin.
He was much sought after by the media and some of the leaders personally walked over to greet him.
US Vice-President Mike Pence sought out Dr Mahathir to personally shake his hand after the Asean-US summit. Pence was here to represent President Donald Trump.
“He wanted to tell Dr Mahathir that he agreed with Malaysia’s assertion that to combat terrorism, there was a need to go back to the root causes,” said an aide.
It lasted for hardly a minute, but it sent a strong message that even a leader of a powerful country like the US respected someone who doesn’t mince his words when criticising another country when he feels they are wrong.
Dr Mahathir’s attendance at this summit is eagerly waited, as he is seen as someone who can bring the 10-member grouping back in focus.
“Even ministers are telling Tun that the rest of Asean are looking up to him for his leadership. He knows it, but remains humble in his reply,” said an official.
The Prime Minister described this Singapore meet as a good summit. It was long, he admitted, but he was happy with the results.
“They are quite positive and agreed on various initiatives. We can make better progress in future.
“Malaysia made some suggestions, I don’t know if they will be accepted.
“I met a number of heads (of government). Generally, they are friendly with Malaysia and this is a good sign,” he said.
It has been a long two weeks for Dr Mahathir. He was in Tokyo and was offered more Samurai bonds by the Japanese government.
A few days later, he was in Singapore for the summit.
He returned to Kuala Lumpur last night and left for Papua New Guinea yesterday for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
More meetings to attend and another set of leaders to meet, especially from Latin America.
Dr Mahathir is doing it because Malaysia believes in friendly ties with all.
Even Christine Lagarde, chief of the International Monetary Fund who asked for a meeting with Dr Mahathir, tweeted that she wanted to learn from Malaysia how to tackle corruption.
Malaysian officials accompanying him at this summit couldn’t be prouder of the Prime Minister.
“It is the frankness in his intervention (during meetings) and how he sees things and offers his views,” said an official.
“If Malaysians are proud of him, for us to see him in action is really an honour. He speaks his mind with volumes of wisdom. He gives us hope and motivation to strive for excellence,” said a young female officer.
A foreign journalist, who has been covering Dr Mahathir for many years, was full of admiration.
“The grand old statesman of Asean. Age has visibly slowed him down, but I admire him for his energy. He gives vibrancy and colour to a meeting full of dour old men who don’t even speak to the media.
“He was his usual sharp mind and acerbic tongue. Isn’t it ironic that it should take a 93-year-old man to help energise Asean?” he added.
Dr Mahathir has just started (again) on the international fora.
Many will on be their toes when the Malaysian leader presents his contrarian views that provoke debate and unreserved comments.
Welcome back, Dr Mahathir. Asean did miss you.