PUTRAJAYA, June 22 ― Succeeding the seemingly wealthy Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad comes off as a prudent leader with his seemingly modest lifestyle ― from donning RM12 Bata sandals to shopping in budget chain Brands Outlet.
But the Pakatan Harapan (PH) chairman insisted that he was not merely “acting” frugal to shake off any allegations of excess ― but that was how he truly was in real life.
“It's not a case of portraying; I'm naturally like that,” he told Malay Mail in an exclusive interview yesterday.
“You see, I'm one person who has no debts. I don’t borrow money,” Dr Mahathir said, relating that he only took a loan to build his home, which was promptly paid off.
“If I borrow, I feel burdened that I have to repay it. I don’t want that burden,” he added.
Dr Mahathir also said he does not dabble in the stock market, except for a stint before joining the Cabinet in the 1970s.
“I don’t buy any shares. You can check. I don’t have, except for 200 shares of Malayan Tobacco which I bought before I became minister,” he said.
Malayan Tobacco Company is now defunct, after its successor Malaysian Tobacco Company Bhd merged with Rothmans of Pall Mall (Malaysia) Bhd in 1999 to form British American Tobacco Malaysia.
The Langkawi MP said he did not invest in the stock market since he became a minister, and later prime minister, as he would then have insider knowledge.
Dr Mahathir explained he had ever only invested in pilgrims’ fund Tabung Haji and in asset manager Permodalan Nasional Bhd, the latter since he was obliged to chip in every time it launched a unit trust.
He related his decision to declare Langkawi a duty-free island in 1987, which he said he could have massively profited from, but chose not to.
“I could have bought land. Those days, one relung which is about less than half an acre, would cost only RM200,” he said. A relung is an archaic measurement unit, equals to roughly 0.7 acres or 0.3 hectares.
“I could have bought and declared Langkawi tax-free, and land price as you know, one acre would fetch more than RM5 million now.”
Dr M has his piggy bank too
The wealth of Dr Mahathir and his family has frequently been scrutinised. Last month, Malay group Jaringan Melayu Malaysia delivered a memorandum to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission that accused the prime minister of abuse of power.
His entrepreneur sons Tan Sri Mokhzani and Mirzan are also well-known for their wealth, with the former constantly appearing in Forbes’ top 40 richest Malaysians list from 2004 until last year.
Former ally-turned-critic Anina Saadudin also claimed last month that Dr Mahathir’s children had received special exemptions from government-linked companies and federal ministries when their father was previously prime minister under Barisan Nasional from 1981 to 2003.
Dr Mahathir has previously been quoted saying his children’s wealth was due to their own initiatives. As for his own wealth, Dr Mahathir attributed it to his habit of saving.
“I don’t think about enriching myself because I find that I am already rich,” he said.
The Langkawi MP said as prime minister for 22 years then, he did not have to spend a sen, since many facilities, from housing to utility to transport, were provided for by the federal government.
He said when he first became prime minister, his wage was RM8,000 a month, compared to RM20,000 a month currently ― a quantum he said was still meagre compared to company executives.
As a result, over the decades, his savings have now snowballed, he claimed.
“So the money I have ever since I became minister of education, I saved,” he related.
“That’s the money I have now, which I invest rather foolishly in many things. I have not made a single sen.”
In April, premium Japanese-inspired bakery The Loaf that he co-founded abruptly closed its business for good after 12 years.
The Loaf was set up with a 51:49 share joint venture between M&M Consolidated Resources Sdn Bhd and Motoko Resources Sdn Bhd with its first RM3 million outlet in Telaga Harbour Park, Langkawi, when Dr Mahathir was adviser of the Langkawi Development Authority.
Dr Mahathir also brushed off public perception of his relatively austere living, attributing it to his previously low profile before returning to office.
“The thing is, people don’t know the kind of lifestyle I live. I'm very frugal. I don’t waste money. I don’t buy things I don’t need.
“I’m very careful about how I spend my money,” said Dr Mahathir.