“From outside we saw the damage, but we never expected the damage to be so extensive,” Mahathir told CNN at his offices in Putrajaya, south of the capital.
“Most of the top echelons in the government are corrupt,” he said in the interview to CNN published on Thursday.
Mahathir’s predecessor and former protege Najib Razak has been charged with multiple counts of corruption for allegedly embezzling millions in public money from Malaysia’s 1MDB fund.
“I have to work with some of those people who are suspect… It’s a very difficult job, if you don’t work with people you trust, you don’t know whether what you want them to do will be done or not.”
The CNN report also touched on succession plans after Mahathir steps down as Prime Minister.
Before the 14th General Election, Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan had announced that he would be Premier for two years before handing over the reins to Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar, once considered a potential future leader, was jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy after falling out with the government. But Mahathir won the general election on a pledge of freeing him.
Anwar and Mahathir, former allies and then implacable foes, joined forces to oust the administration of Najib.
“If the condition for us working together is my serving as Prime Minister for two years or three years, for me that is not important. I will abide by the wishes of the people,” Mahathir said.
In 1998, Mahathir sacked Anwar from the Cabinet over sodomy charges which triggered the formation of People’s Justice Party and the Reformasi movement.
Despite the chequered history between the pair, Mahathir told CNN that his personal opinion about Anwar did not matter.
“I have to trust him – whether I like it or not. I can’t be here all the time,” he said, adding that if people wanted him to serve beyond the time agreed with his coalition partners, he would.
Mahathir also told CNN that the country’s relationship with China has “always been friendly”.
“There’s a saying the powerful will take what they will, the weak will yield what they must,” he said.
Mahathir added that although China-backed mega projects were welcomed in Malaysia, he cautioned against government or businesses relying on borrowing Chinese money.
Additionally, he also commented on US President Donald Trump’s economic policies, saying that trade wars would do no good for the world.
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