by Patrick Lee
Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, who is 94 and was the world’s oldest leader until he quit earlier this year, has passed the country’s virus lockdown by keeping fit on a treadmill and exercise bike.
He’s also been getting to grips with video platforms like Zoom — although the political heavyweight admitted he needed help from younger relatives as he is “very primitive” when it comes to technology.
Mahathir had his first stint as Malaysian prime minister from 1981 to 2003, before launching an astonishing comeback and returning to power two years ago aged 92.
He spoke to AFP by video conference from his office in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital.
– What has been your favourite way of passing the time during the pandemic, and why? –
“I do treadmill and cycling… one day I do treadmill, one day I cycle.
“I do meet people if they want to come and see me, provided they follow the rules. They have to wear masks, they have to wash their hands and they have to stay away from me.”
Malaysian authorities introduced a strict coronavirus lockdown in mid-March but the country’s outbreak has been relatively small — with around 7,000 cases and 100 deaths — and curbs were eased in early May.
Mahathir said he had been using online platforms like Zoom to keep in touch with people but admitted: “I’m not very savvy, I don’t understand how to use these things — I’m very primitive in that sense.
“Of course, my children, my grandchildren, they’re very well-versed in this. (If) I have a problem, I ask them.”
But he also warned that new technologies could be dangerous in the wrong hands.
“A knife is a weapon. You can use the knife to carve beautiful things, but you can use the knife also to murder people.”
– What do you feel are the main lessons learned from the crisis? – “We should be much more ready in dealing with viruses. We must learn how to deal with this, not only in trying to produce vaccines but in the actions we have to take, as we are doing now, like lockdowns.
“This situation is going to take a long time… Even if you discover a vaccine now, it takes about six months to test.”
Even when it is ready, producing enough for those who need it “would take a long time”, said Mahathir, who trained as a medical doctor before going into politics.
He also said countries should stop spending “trillions of dollars” on developing weapons.
“If the trillions of dollars are spent on research and medicine, we would be in a much safer world.”
– How has it changed you or the world around you? –
Mahathir, who was known for launching scathing verbal attacks on the West throughout his career, suggested the pandemic had humbled developed nations.
“There is a little bit of ego and arrogance here — ‘Because we are developed, we are not going to suffer like these poor countries. You know their health standards are very poor’ and all that.
“But at this moment, the poor countries are doing better than the rich countries.”
“They thought that this was going to affect underdeveloped countries or undeveloped countries. But now they find that the epidemic is centred around developed countries.”
– How will Malaysia be impacted by the virus? –
Mahathir’s government collapsed after he quit in February amid intense infighting. He predicted difficult times ahead as the country was already struggling with massive debts before the virus hit.
“Even as we deal with the pandemic, we still have to pay our debts. We cannot escape that, we borrowed billions of dollars.
“We have less money but this is when we have the need to spend more money, to help people in trouble. There are people who are not earning a single cent.”
© Agence France-Presse