SHAH ALAM: Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the son of the first menteri besar of Kelantan in post-independence Malaya, is easily the most recognisable member of Malaysia’s royal households.
Malaysians pronounce his nickname with some amusement. The shortened form of his royal title and his given name, when joined together, makes the prince a “kuli”, the Malay word for coolie.
But it’s a badge he wears with pride, alongside his other distinction of being the longest serving MP in Malaysia.
“No, I’m the longest serving in the world,” said the Gua Musang MP with a hearty laugh, correcting the “title” as he sat down for an interview with FMT.
At 81, the veteran Umno member, once Malaysia’s most eligible bachelor because he took a while to bite the dust like many of his contemporaries, is a picture of calm.
His baby face allows him to smile effortlessly, even when he recalled the nail-biting events of 30 years ago, when Malaysians waited for the results of the most divisive party elections that Umno had ever seen.
In the race for the Umno presidency, Ku Li lost to Dr Mahathir Mohamad by just 43 votes. It was to be his final bid to spring back to the cabinet – indeed to the top of it – years after he was brought in by Abdul Razak Hussein, the father of the current prime minister.
He is well remembered for Semangat 46, a party he formed just before the 1990 general election and which joined hands with the major opposition parties of the time, PAS, DAP and Sabah’s PBS.
“I was not in the opposition,” said Ku Li, who rejoined Umno in 1996. “I was forced to oppose because I was denied the membership of the Umno Baru that was incepted by Dr Mahathir. He didn’t like me; so he didn’t allow me to come in. We were forced to be on the other side.”
Umno Baru, or “New Umno”, was Mahathir’s quick antidote after the original party was declared illegal following a petition by 11 members aligned to Ku Li’s so-called Team B, just a couple of months after his defeat.
Today, the table seems to have turned. Ku Li is still an Umno member and his former role of fighting it from outside is now taken by Mahathir and his PPBM, which, like Semangat 46, is also Malay-based.
Still, he is uncomfortable with the comparison. He was, after all, “forced to form Semangat 46”, unlike Mahathir who he said “left in disgust”.
Good leader, bad team
Ku Li, who is about 10 years younger than Mahathir, is not impressed by the current Team Mahathir.
“Dr Mahathir is a good leader,” he said, “but he hasn’t got the right team of people with him. It’s very difficult. It’s not well-organised because they don’t have the leadership.”
But he thinks he is not fit to advise Mahathir. “He is better than me. I don’t think he wants to listen to what I have to say. I am nothing compared to him.”
Ku Li, the founding chairman of Malaysia’s cash cow Petronas, served as finance minister from 1976 to 1984, just before the country slipped into one of its worst economic recessions.
He told FMT he had had enough of elections after winning in 11 of them. The last time he said this was before the 2013 general election.
“I want to opt out,” he said, adding that a person of his age should not hope to live for much longer.
It’s not that he conveniently forgot about Mahathir, who turns 93 this year and is criss-crossing the country to talk to people a quarter of his age.
“He’s special. If he’s not special, I wouldn’t fight him,” Ku Li said, raising his voice a little, perhaps hoping to end the interview on a high note. He failed to do so and was prodded on about his political future.
“If it is the wish of the people to save the country out of the quagmire, one should submit to it, however difficult it may be” he said, when asked if he would accept the premiership on a silver platter.
Excerpts from the interview:
On Dr Mahathir
FMT:What would your advice be to Dr Mahathir if you meet him today?
Ku Li: He is better than me. I don’t think he wants to listen to what I have to say.
FMT:Did you say Dr Mahathir is better than you?
Ku Li: He must be. He has 22 years’ experience as prime minister. He was leader of Umno for nearly the same period. He has seen the world, he has negotiated deals for the country, for the party. I am nothing compared to him.
FMT:Can Dr Mahathir make an impact?
Ku Li: My answer is, yes, he would because of his experience, vast knowledge about organising and running things. Whether he will succeed, I do not know. He doesn’t have the team like I had in Semangat 46.
FMT:How would you compare between your Team B and the current crop of Umno ministers?
Ku Li: Najib was my assistant at the time (laughs).
On retiring from politics
FMT:Are you standing for election?
Ku Li: I don’t know. I want to retire. Sincerely, I want to retire. I have done 45 years [as MP], and over 60 years in the party.
FMT:But what if they came to you in the event of a hung parliament?
Ku Li: Don’t know lah. That’s what they did in the last election. I was supposed to retire before the 13th general election. I want to opt out. I am 81. How long more do you want to live?
FMT:There’s a 93-year old man who is travelling the length and breadth of the country…
Ku Li: He’s special! If he’s not special, I wouldn’t fight him (laughs).
FMT:So what does Tengku Razaleigh do when he retires?
Ku Li: I can do a lot of things. Maybe rest or get involved in charity work. I am not in it for money. I haven’t accepted any appointment since I stopped being minister of finance. I don’t even sit on boards of companies. I don’t want to run around for tycoons from London to Japan, to see this minister and that officer. Not that I’m big. I can live with my income, no problem. I don’t steal, I don’t cheat.
FMT:You don’t get donations?
Ku Li: No, I don’t. I never ask for donations. I run for elections with my own money all the time.
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