Dr Mahathir says sorry for past mistakes as he promises bold steps to remake Malaysia

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance would take bold steps to improve the economy if it won the general election. PHOTO: REUTERS

SHAH ALAM - Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, an opposition leader whose party is pushing for him to lead Malaysia again, on Saturday (Dec 30) apologised "for whatever wrongdoing" he had done during his time in politics.

Tun Mahathir's apology, delivered at the end of a speech at his year-old party's first annual general meeting (AGM), came about as his leadership of the four-party opposition alliance has received mixed voter reviews due to his political baggage as prime minister for 22 years.

He said that should the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance win in the general election, it would take bold steps to improve the economy.

These include considering re-pegging the ringgit to the US dollar again, sharply reducing foreign labour from "7 million" to 2 million, and encouraging industries to employ Malaysians first.

"Before I conclude my speech, I would like to apologise if I was rude or had offended anyone," said the 92-year old.

"I, just like other humans, am not alone in making mistakes, not just today but during the time I had dabbled in politics".

"I apologise for whatever wrongdoing throughout that time," said the chairman of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) who is also chairman of PH.

With the general election expected in the first half of next year, the PH coalition has been mired in debate over who should become Malaysia's next premier. The country, though, has always been ruled by the 13-party Barisan Nasional coalition.

BN is led by Prime Minister Najib Razak who had faced allegations of graft, and there is also voter unhappiness over cost of living issues.

Other than Dr Mahathir's pro-Malay party PPBM, the other members of PH are Parti Keadilan Rakyat with its multi-racial outlook and is led by Anwar Ibrahim; Chinese-led Democratic Action Party; and Parti Amanah Negara, a moderate Islamic party.

While many in the opposition prefer Anwar as its candidate for prime ministership, he is behind bars and is only expected to be released in June next year. Even after his release, he cannot run for political office for five years, unless he is pardoned by the Malaysian King.

Hence PPBM's push for Dr Mahathir to become "interim" prime minister in the event of a PH win.

Mukhriz Mahathir, son of the former premier and PPBM's deputy president told the audience that, "PPBM is asking for the role of Prime Minister because Tun Mahathir is the most worthy and most experienced".

PPBM's president Muhyiddin Yassin, in a speech at the AGM declared that the party is giving "undivided support" to Dr Mahathir to "play a main role in Pakatan Harapan government's leadership lineup".

In response to questions if Dr Mahathir would contest the next election, the former premier said: "I may contest in any one of three different constituencies. They are telling me I got a good chance of winning in Langkawi, Kubang Pasu and Putrajaya. So be ready for that". Langkawi and Kubang Pasu are both in Kedah states while the ward of Putrajaya covers Malaysia's administrative capital.

Dr Mahathir in his speech made bold promises on how if elected into government, the coalition would move the country in a new direction.

The supremacy of law, freedom of speech and independence of the police - all throttled during Dr Mahathir's prime ministership between 1981 and 2003 - would be restored, he said.

He promised to revamp governance by separating powers between the judiciary, legislative and the executive, and even eliminate the practice of cronyism - matters his critics would say were missing when he was previously in power.

With voters complaining about the weak ringgit that had pushed up the cost of imported goods and educating children overseas, he said: "The Pakatan Harapan government will attempt to improve the national economy. The first thing is to restore the value of the ringgit.

"(We) will consider whether exchange control would be adopted again if necessary, and the management of the national finances will be made more transparent".

Dr Mahathir introduced the ringgit peg to the US dollar in 1998 at height of the Asian financial crisis that battered regional currencies. The peg was scrapped seven years later in 2005.

On the country's dependence on foreign labour, he said Malaysia will sharply reduce the intake of migrant workers, and introduce incentives to industries to employ Malaysians first.

It's unclear where his figure of 7 million foreigners living in Malaysia came from.

In June, the Home Affairs Ministry said there were 1.78 million migrant workers with valid work permits, most of them from Indonesia. There are also labour estimates of one to two million more who are without valid travel and work permits in the country.

Dr Mahathir said foreign direct investment should bring in capital for making high technology products.

"The buying of land to build a city for immigrants is not included as foreign investment," Dr Mahathir said, in an apparent swipe at Forest City in Johor where a China developer is building a huge residential project aimed at foreign buyers.

The opposition pact, Tan Sri Muhyiddin said, would offer a "New Deal" for Sarawak and Sabah states which have been pushing for more autonomy from the federal government.

Mr Muhyiddin said PPBM, at just a-year-old, has 158 divisions nationwide - just 33 shy of Malaysia's ruling party Umno's 191 divisions.

The party's AGM was attended by over 900 delegates. PPBM convened the meeting after its legality was questioned by the Registrar of Societies, with the party told to have its AGM by the year-end to avoid deregistration.

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