Kuala Yong near Jeli, Kelantan is a laid back but picturesque place. Located some 100 kilometres west of Kota Bharu, the village was once the seat of a global controversy that is still being spoken about today – the Pergau Dam affair.
The Pergau Dam affair was about treachery – Mahathir’s style.
It involved an arms scandal as well as aid for the poor that turned into what is now the Pergau Dam.
Allegations of bribes being passed to the then-Prime Minister of Malaysia was abound. But as with the allegations of tens of billions of Ringgits squandered by Mahathir, he never challenged these allegations either.
The Pergau Dam story started with then Secretary of State for Defense George Younger’s agreement with the government of Malaysia in 1988 that the Britain would provide aid in the amount of 20 percent the value of arms sales from Britain to Malaysia. This aid would come in the form of a dam project, despite a subsequent assessment from economists and engineers of the Overseas Development Administration (ODA – the UK’s development arm at the time, which reported to the Foreign Secretary) who found that the dam would not be a cost-efficient way to increase the production of electricity.
In 1991, then Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, authorised the expenditure of £234 million from the aid budget anyway, to maintain a deal made by the defence secretary and approved by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and later John Major. The World Development Movement called for a judicial review of the funding of Pergau Dam on the grounds of a law which states that aid can only be used for “promoting the development or maintaining the economy of a country….or the welfare of its people”.
The British High Court ruled in 1994 that the project was not of economic benefit to the Malaysian people; the deal linked aid directly to commercial contracts and was unlawful.
The Sunday Times ran a story that the dam contractor, George Wimpey International, had paid an initial bribe meant for Mahathir to the tune of USD500,000 (approximately RM1.25 million then). Instead of challenging the newspaper in a court of law, Mahathir got Anwar, who was his Deputy then, to announce ‘Buy British Last II‘.
Lim Kit Siang, Mahathir’s present best friend, jumped at the opportunity to slam the latter. He openly challenged Mahathir to sue the Sunday Times in a court of law – something Mahathir never did.
Although the amount of bribe stated by Lim Kit Siang varied from what was reported by the Sunday Times the last two lines of the above screen capture of Kit Siang’s article shows that monies were transferred to ‘account numbers in Switzerland to which fees related to contract award are to be paid.‘
When the Pergau deal and alleged bribes transfers took place in 1984-85, Mahathir’s right-hand man Daim Zainuddin was the Finance Minister. Coincidentally, it was said that Daim owned, or was in control of, at least a bank in Switzerland, if not more. This was also how, according to Edmund Terence Gomez and Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Daim’s company called Baktimu Sdn Bhd was able to obtain a RM40 million loan from the Union Bank of Switzerland to buy a 33 percent stake in Sime UEP for RM75 million in CASH!
Daim only recently divested from the banking business in Switzerland through his company, ICB Financial Group AG.
Could Daim have been involved in providing the accounts into which these payments were credited?
Neither Mahathir nor Daim has come forth to explain, let alone sue especially the Sunday Times for running that story.
In the words of Lim Kit Siang when his struggle then was for the people:
In June 1969, a month after the 13 May tragedy, Mahathir wrote a letter to Tunku Abdul Rahman and began it with the following sentence:
“Patek berasa dukachita kerana tujuan patek membuat kenyataan kepada akhbar telah di-salah faham oleh Y.T.M. Tunku. Sa-benar-nya tujuan patek sama-lah juga dengan tujuan Tunku, ia-itu untok menyelamatkan negara ini daripada bahaya yang menganchamkan-nya.”
The Tunku’s popularity was at an all-time low. He had lost control over the issues that were dogging the population and had allowed that to spiral into a nationwide communal violence. Mahathir saw that as an opportunity to finally conclude a personal battle against the Tunku that had begun 27 years earlier, and end the latter’s political career.
That letter earned the Tunku’s wrath. Mahathir was expelled from UMNO. Seeing that the end is nigh, the Tunku chose to step down a day after his nephew, Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, was sworn in as the Yang DiPertuan Agong.
Mahathir was brought back into UMNO’s folds by the Tunku’s successor, Tun Abdul Razak, with the recommendation by Selangor Menteri Besar, Harun Idris. When Razak died in January 1976, his cousin Hussein moved up and Mahathir became his deputy.
In 1981, Hussein had had to go for a coronary bypass surgery at the Harley Street Clinic in London. Mahathir saw this as an opportunity to have Hussein out of the way. In a post taken from Tian Chua’s Malaysia Chronicles, it is said that the DAP mysteriously received documents alleging that Hussein’s wife, Suhaila, was running Petronas from their residence in Sri Taman (now Memorial Tun Razak). There were also documents alleging that Exxon was stealing oil from Malaysian oilfields without Petronas’s knowledge.
In the same article, it was reported that it was Mahathir himself who started a rumour when Hussein was seeking treatment in London saying that the latter had a “terrible heart condition” and would be stepping down as Prime Minister upon his return from London “for health reasons”.
Purging of Cabinet Members and Interference in the Judiciary
After Hussein was gone, Mahathir had to remove other obstacles. The biggest obstacle was in the form of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. The ‘Team A’ versus ‘Team B’ rivalry saw Mahathir being returned after beating Razaleigh 761 votes to 718, Mahathir took further steps to eradicate Razaleigh’s influence by purging all Team B members from his cabinet.
This led to 12 Team B members to bring the matter to the High Court alleging that 78 of the delegates had been selected by branches not registered with the Registrar of Societies, and as a result were not eligible to vote. They also claimed that certain documents related to the election had been “tampered with”. Although Razaleigh was not among the twelve plaintiffs, he was widely believed to be funding and co-ordinating the suit
As a result, Justice Harun Hashim declared UMNO “an unlawful society” in 1987, but it took Mahathir, who was also the Home Minister then, just two weeks to have UMNO (Baru) registered – a process that would have taken months, if not years. The Registrar of Societies come under the Home Minister’s purview after all.
Mahathir did not take Harun Hashim’s judgment lightly. In an attack on the judiciary, he had several judges, including Harun Hashim, reassigned to other divisions. Salleh Abas, who was the Lord President of the Supreme Court, was pressured to convene a meeting with 20 Supreme Court and High Court judges where they agreed that the Lord President should write to the Yang DiPertuan Agong and the Malay Rulers expressing their grievances against Mahathir’s interference in the Judiciary.
Being the opportunist that he is, Mahathir knew that the then-Yang DiPertuan Agong was not in favour with Salleh Abas, over an issue about the noises that came from the construction of His Majesty’s private house which was in Salleh Abas’s neighbourhood, took advantage of the situation to agree with the Yang DiPertuan Agong that Salleh be removed.
A tribunal was set up. Five Supreme Court judges were removed – Tan Sri Azmi Kamaruddin, Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader, Tan Sri Wan Hamzah Mohamed Salleh, Tan Sri Wan Suleiman Pawanteh and Datuk George Seah. With the Supreme Court suspended, the challenge toward the legality of the tribunal could not be heard.
Salleh Abas was removed as the Lord President. Soon after, two other Supreme Court judges were also removed. They were Tan Sri Wan Sulaiman and Datuk George Seah.
Removal of Dissent via Ops Lalang
In 1987, tensions between the Malays and Chinese were high, partly as a result of Anwar Ibrahim’s education policies in particular the replacing of Chinese-educated assistant headmasters of Chinese schools with those unversed in Chinese language (Mandarin) On 5 September 1987, Lim Kit Siang had to send a wire to Anwar Ibrahim asking him to stop all transfers until the issue had been resolved. What did Mahathir do? Absolutely nothing to appease both sides.
Within a month, the tensions turned ugly and the threat of another 13 May loomed. The police had to take drastic action by executing Ops Lalang. A list of troublemakers and potential trouble makers were drawn up in a meeting between senior police officers in Fraser’s Hills, away from the eyes of the public, and when the danger of a racial clash was imminent, the police arrested those shortlisted.
The police did not have to seek the blessing from the Home Minister (who was Mahathir then) to conduct the arrests. However, the police would have to brief the Home Minister on the person(s) arrested. According to the now defunct Internal Security Act, 1960, only the Home Minister could sign a detention order to put a person behind bars without trial for a period not exceeding two years, IF THE HOME MINISTER IS SATISFIED WITH THE REASONS FOR ARREST. If not, they should be released.
And only the Home Minister was given the power to review the detention of a person, and extend the detention period for a period not exceeding two years each time. Not the police.
Turning the Brits into Suckers
The UK economy was in a bad shape back in the 1980s. Mahathir took the opportunity to strike at the UK by starting the ‘Buy British Last’ campaign in order to launch the infamous “Dawn Raid”. It was a time when Thatcher was trying to tackle high inflation. She tightened up her fiscal policy and aimed at reducing inflation by increasing taxes and interest rates, and cut spendings. As a result, the British government decided to increase foreign students’ fees by threefolds, from around £300 to £900. That was one of the reasons for the “Dawn Raid”.
In the end, it was an excuse to get the already weakened British government to provide financial aid to Malaysia in what is now known as the ‘Pergau Dam Affair‘. According to UK’s The Independent, Thatcher’s determination ‘to bat for Britain’ led her to agree to a huge development aid package as part of an arms deal which she negotiated during a visit to Kuala Lumpur in September 1988. The deal, at that time involving the sale of Tornado jet fighters, artillery, radar, submarines and Rapier missiles, was so sensitive that civil servants were banished from the room during the final stages of the negotiation.
The original Tornado jets deal, worth more than £1 billion, was cancelled when Mahathir decided to buy instead 18 MiG-29N fighters from Russia and eight F/A-18 Hornet fighters from the US. The deal with Britain was reduced to a mere £400 million sale of 28 BAe Hawk 108s and 208s.
More Treacheries In The 1990s
In 1986, Mahathir persuaded the docile Ghafar Baba to become his deputy. This move was to appease those who were against him in UMNO, and was made of want to be seen to welcome some form of neutrality. But really Anwar was his choice for a deputy. But Anwar was still “too young” then in political terms. Furthermore, Ghafar pledged his loyalty to Mahathir – a weakness that Mahathir exploited very well.
In 1993, Anwar was ready to take on the seasoned Ghafar Baba. When asked why did he not fight back, Ghafar had this to say:
“I had no means to fight, no money. Also, I did not want to attack Anwar then. How could I? We were in the same party. It would have only benefited the Opposition. My mistake was I did not see that politics had changed. In the past, they supported you based on your track record. Now it’s something else –this money politics.”
What did Mahathir do to stop Anwar from attacking Ghafar? As usual, nothing.
Anwar Ibrahim’s meteoric rise to the No.2 spot made him a very popular man especially with the youth. Many were already disenfranchised with Mahathir who not only by then had been in power for 12 years, but had two deputies removed before Anwar.
Soon, Anwar’s popularity became a threat to Mahathir. When the Asian Economic Crisis caused a financial meltdown, Mahathir allowed it to go on. On 3 December 1997, a cabinet meeting was held in Langkawi. Mahathir got a shock when, upon arrival, seeing that the meeting had been chaired by Anwar and had already been concluded. The cabinet members had decided to adopt an austerity plan similar to those imposed on neighbouring Thailand and Indonesia by the International Monetary Fund. The plan would cut public spending and halt infrastructure projects championed by Mahathir.
Mahathir agreed to go along with the cabinet’s decision. However, the very next day he announced that he would proceed with a controversial USD2.7 billion rail and pipeline project, effectively shooting down the cabinet decision. That sent alarms to investors and caused the Malaysian Ringgit to tumble to a new low.
As Prime Minister, Mahathir did nothing to arrest the fall of the Ringgit. At one point in January 1988, the Ringgit was traded at RM4.88 to the USD. Anwar being the impatient Anwar, launched a veiled attack on Mahathir with his “cronyism, nepotism” war-cry. Mahathir was then handed on a silver platter two reasons to get rid of Anwar.
The Opportunistic Hyena Now
Observers commented that Mahathir now spits at the sky. When his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi made errors of political judgment and received salvoes of fire from the Opposition, Mahathir saw that his successor may not win the 12th general elections – an event that would not augur well with Mahathir. Furthermore, Abdullah refused to interfere in the Federal Court’s decision to quash the sodomy conviction against Anwar. Anwar would then be released and was free to launch attacks on his former boss.
When Najib Razak was being attacked over the 1MDB issue, Mahathir thought that there was no way that the former would be able to explain himself. Naturally, the Barisan Nasional could even lose the next general elections. In the run up to the 13th General Elections, the Opposition promised that they would bring Mahathir to trial for his sins as the 4th Prime Minister. If BN loses, Mahathir would be sitting duck.
Being the opportunistic political hyena, Mahathir launched an all-out attack on Najib. At one point, political observers were very sure that Najib was going to crumble. However, when Najib fought back and started to gain grounds, Mahathir was left with no choice but to align himself with the very people he sent to prison without trial.
Mahathir’s fear has always been of being prosecuted in a court of law for corrupt practices during his tenure as the Prime Minister. He needs a strong Prime Minister who could protect him. By getting on the wrong side of Najib, he had lost all the protection he could get from the BN government. His solution was to form an alliance with his enemies, form a political party and join the Pakatan coalition. At least if Pakatan wins the next elections, he would be protected.
But at the back of his mind he knew that someone in Pakatan might turn his or her back on him and decide that he should stand trial for corruption – and that the billions his family owns would be frozen and confiscated. Therefore, he made his other move – be Pakatan’s Prime Minister-designate. All he needs is about two years if he lives that long, to escape the law.
As for now, Mahathir would say just about anything to show his relevancy, and to plead to the voters to accept him as their Prime Minister again – just as how his long-time friend Robert Mugabe has decided to form his own political party. It does not matter how damaging his words may be to the country, as long as he gets to fullfil his personal mission.
This brings me to remember the time when the Tunku launched attacks on Mahathir. Anwar Ibrahim was interviewed on the matter by foreign journalists. Anwar said the Tunku is a voice of the past, speaking for a style of politics that no longer exists. ”A grand old man who has done his bit,” he said to the journalists ”But I don’t know if he’s even conscious of what he is saying.”
We don’t know what Mahathir the Hyena is saying either.
“Was this an inadvertent snub to Mahathir? After all, the British are known to have a wicked sense of humour.
Thatcher and Mahathir had little in common. Their acquaintance started by air-craft landing rights disputes, the dawn raid on Guthrie companies in the London stock exchange, the tin corner scandal and university fee increases for Malaysian students to the UK. Despite Mahathir’s “Buy British Last” call, he conducted secret deals with Thatcher which culminated in the Pergau Dam scandal.
Thatcher, despite her unpopularity, was quick to defend those territories under British control. Her decision to send troops to defend the Falkland Islands in 1982 against an Argentinian invasion, and the subsequent British victory, made her a hero and instilled patriotism.
The same cannot be said of a prime minister who gave out several hundred thousand identity cards to foreigners, in Sabah, in exchange for votes.
British prime ministers like Thatcher, rarely interfere in politics once they have retired from public office. Mahathir has remained active in politics to the detriment of the caretaker prime minister.
Both Thatcher and Mahathir had humble origins with fathers who told them to work hard to succeed. On her resignation, Thatcher made millions, legitimately, from giving public lectures on both the local and international circuits.
Mahathir is allegedly a multi-billionaire and his children have benefited from allegedly dodgy deals emanating from his time as prime minister.
During Thatcher’s funeral, the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, gave a sermon in which he related the story of a nine-year-old boy, David Liddelow, who had written to Thatcher about Jesus. David asked Thatcher, “Last night when we were saying prayers, my daddy said everyone has done wrong things except Jesus. I said I don’t think you have done bad things because you are the prime minister. Am I right or is my daddy?”
Thatcher was known for her ability to reach out to the young and she replied to say that David had posed a “difficult question” but that she would “try to answer it”.
In a handwritten letter she said, “However good we try to be, we can never be as kind, gentle and wise as Jesus. There will be times when we do or say something we wish we hadn’t done and we shall be sorry and try not to do it again…
“As prime Minister, I try very hard to do things right and because Jesus gave us a perfect example I try even harder. But your father is right in saying that we can never be as perfect as He was.”
Contrast this with a letter written by another 10-year-old English boy, Darrel Abercrombie, to Mahathir in 1987. The letter has been mentioned in articles in “The Star” and “Sin Chew Jit Poh”. Darrel had requested Mahathir to stop logging activities in Malaysia because he wanted to study animals in the tropical rainforests when he grew up.
In a lengthy three-page typed document, Mahathir said: “It is disgraceful that you should be used by adults for the purpose of trying to shame us because of our extraction of timber from our forests.
“The timber industry helps hundreds of thousands of poor people in Malaysia. Are they supposed to remain poor because you want to study tropical animals? Is your study more important than filling the stomachs of poor people? Are Malaysians expected to lose millions of pounds so that you can study animals?
“If you don’t want us to cut down our forests tell your father to tell the rich countries like Britain to pay more for the timber they buy from us… I hope you will tell the adults who made use of you to learn all the facts. They should not be too arrogant and know how best to run a country…”
At the mention of the phrase Britannia Rules The Waves my mind pictures Margaret Thatcher and the cover of the Newsweek magazine depicting the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes steaming south to liberate the Falkland Islands and the island of South Georgia, invaded by Argentinian forces.
I first knew of Margaret Thatcher when I was 13, so much fanfare was made of her appointment as Britain’s first female Prime Minister. I remember inside a London cab from Heathrow airport on Christmas day of 1980 my father asking the cab driver, “So how’s the Iron Lady?”
The Maggie I remember has always been one tough and no nonsense person. She was nicknamed The Iron Lady by a Soviet journalist when she became leader of the Conservative party. Both in her domestic as well as her foreign policy she was firm and nothing short of that, never to change her mind once a decision has been made.
“To those waiting with bated breath for that favorite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning,'” she once told delegates at a Tory conference.
If there is a difference between the meaning of the words “leader” and “leading”, both would define her. Despite violent objections and reservations within her own camp, Maggie ordered for the Royal Navy task force to assemble and steam south to liberate the Falklands this month 31 years ago, and the leader lead her nation to war and victory. It was therefore difficult for me to not to compare the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and what we had when we faced the armed insurgents from Sulu, as history is riddled with many failed leadership as a result of perilous indecisiveness. Maggie not only grabbed the bull by its horns and saw that liberating the two-thousand odd inhabitants of the Falklands as being the right thing to do, but most importantly she recognised that it was her responsibility as the leader of the United Kingdom to see the mission through.
When I returned to England in 1983 to further my studies, my respect for her waned at the onset of the infamous Miners’ Strike that came about in March of 1984 as a result of the Conservative government’s decision to close inefficient coal mines in northern England, Scotland and Wales at the cost of over 20,000 jobs. Almost every day our Economics class would see a debate on this subject. Scenes of mounted police charging at picket lines virtually every day clouded my thoughts, and being a young adult and having a dislike for Dr Mahathir, I myself became somewhat anti-establishment. The British economy was hit so bad that the Pound was only at RM2.50 or thereabouts in 1984.
It was at this juncture that my views on politics changed when I had a discourse on this matter with one Adam Bachek, then a police officer who was reading law at the University of Buckingham who said, “It is always easy to make popular promises and become a popular leader, but no democratically-elected good leader would make an unpopular decision if it isn’t good for the nation.”
As with other Empires that had existed before the British, the great Margaret Thatcher was fell not by the voters, but by people in the Conservative party that she led. It started off with the dissenting move by long-time lieutenant, Michael Heseltine, over the Westland affair, and ended with her resignation over the Community Charge (also known as the Poll Tax); but she went down as a true fighter, fighting.
A true fighter to the end, after suffering from countless bouts of stroke beginning in 2002, the Iron Lady was never seen attending public functions in a wheelchair. True to her character, she walked aided as she left her private home for the last time to take up residence in the Ritz Hotel as she found it getting increasingly difficult to walk up and down the stairs at home.
As the international media show an image of her on a recent visit to 10 Downing Street, waving at pressmen while she wore blue as in the picture above by Alan Davidson, I cannot help but remember the image of her waving outside the same door 34 years ago, also in blue and thought to myself, “Her presence there surely have made 10 Downing Street great again.”
And as a part of me struggles to understand visiting a Thatcher-less Great Britain again next month for the first time in 33 years, I remember what she told naysayers after winning the Falklands War:
“We knew what we had to do and we went about it and did it. Great Britain is great again.”
Farewell, Margaret Thatcher. Farewell, Great Briton.