KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Leaders must be in touch with the sufferings of the ordinary folk on the ground and not be detached from them, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said.
The ability to feel for the ordinary people is an aspect of leadership sometimes overlooked by leaders, Tun Dr Mahathir said in his speech at the One Voice One Nation programme at Axiata Arena on Wednesday (June 26) night.
"Sometimes, when leaders are aristocratic and of royal lineage, the tendency of not understanding the sufferings of the ordinary people is prevalent.
"It is akin to the oft-repeated saying attributed to Mary Antoinette who, when told that the peasants were hungry for bread, she said, 'Let them eat cake.'"
"Whether Marie Antoinette said it or not, the crux of the matter is that leaders have been known to be so detached that sufferings that could be resolved are allowed to perpetuate," Dr Mahathir noted.
"It can be argued that ordinary men who went on to become leaders have been known to ignore the sufferings of the ordinary citizens, but that is not due to ignorance but due to apathy," he said.
Dr Mahathir urged leaders to help the needy, but stressed that the principle of "giving them the (fishing) rod instead of the fish" should be practised.
"I also believe in working hard to take ourselves out of poverty and difficulties.
"When I was a teenager, when the Japanese occupied us and we stopped schooling temporarily, I was selling goreng pisang (banana fritters) in Alor Setar's Pekan Rabu, and it was quite a thriving business and I discovered that there's always opportunities if we look around hard enough," he said.
"When I got into the position of power, I realised that not everyone is capable of finding the opportunity, and sometimes those with power should assist them in finding their footing.
"But the principle of giving them the rod instead of the fish stands," he added.
Dr Mahathir, a firm believer in "leadership by example", also said that whatever he expected of his subordinates and civil servants, he would have observed it first.
"On my part, all I did was to only expect others to do what I do. If I want others to work hard, I must work as hard, if not more," he said.
"Similarly, if I want people to turn up on time, then I must be punctual," said Dr Mahathir, who introduced the punch card system for civil servants after becoming prime minister for the first time in 1981.
Known as a stickler for punctuality, Dr Mahathir said there was no excuse for tardiness and that time was of the essence.
"Some people who had failed to be on time when turning up for appointments with me in the past had probably got upset with me for not being a bit more flexible," he said.
However, he admitted that he was somewhat more flexible nowadays. This, he said, was due to the amount of work that needed to be done, and not because he did not care about punctuality.
Dr Mahathir also paid a tribute to his wife of 63 years, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, describing himself as lucky to always have her, "when the chips are down or up".
"It is said that behind every successful man, there is a woman. I do not know if I fall into the category of being successful because my job, until today, is still work in progress and it is being judged all the time.
"Regardless, I am however lucky to have Hasmah with me throughout these 63 years... And she being a doctor as well is definitely a bonus, as I am assured, especially at this stage in life, that I have a doctor by my side at almost all times.
"I don't know how she had put up with me all these times. But she did and my life is so much the better," he said.