Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir reading

If I could change one thing, I think I would get rid of all the religious departments. Because to me, to make religion into a government institution with bureaucracy opens it up to so much abuse. We are already seeing it – ridiculous things.

Once you try to make laws out of religion then you are putting your own interpretation into it. To me, that’s wrong. It’s got nothing to do with faith. It’s only bureaucracy. Religious departments only care about what you are on paper, not what you are inside. To me this is something that’s going wrong and leading us down the wrong path. It’s one thing that truly worries me.

If you take religion out of the public sphere then everything else will just follow. You can talk about things in a reasonable way. Once you bring religion into it, it shuts people up. People are scared. It doesn’t motivate people to discuss things.

If you look at all the Arab revolutions, they don’t want more religion, they want freedoms. That’s to me is entirely compatible with religion anyway. They are complaining about the same bureaucracy and human interpretation that we are going on about. If we carry on like this, then we will have a revolution.

For a so-called religious country, we are very ignorant about religion. Terribly ignorant. That’s why we are taken advantage of by opportunists who say you have to do this, that or the other.

It’s extremely frustrating to be one of the few people speaking out. I keep telling people, you have to speak out. If there are so few of us, we are easy targets and whoever opposes us can say, there are only so few. But they don’t represent a lot of people either. There’s this tendency in Malaysia to ask people in the public eye to do things for them or speak up for them. I think that can only go so far because it’s not empowering at all.

But I think there is much more civil society these days. Even if you don’t even win everything, the process is really educational. You learn what works, doesn’t work. You learn how to equip yourself with knowledge to speak credibly. I think it’s happening.


It is very strange to share my father with a nation.


I suppose I am the most outspoken of my siblings. I’m the oldest. We’re a pretty close family. We’re one of those strange families who are close but also quite independent of each other. We all go our own way. We don’t know what every one of us does every minute of the day. But we come together once in a while.

It is very strange to share my father with a nation. In some ways it’s nice, in some ways, it’s not nice. When he was in hospital and I was writing on my blog every day, I felt this incredible response from people. They would hang on my every word and it was so emotional. I felt I was holding their hands.

I’ve known my dad for almost 56 years so I reckon I know him pretty well. I know the way he thinks. Sometimes when I see unfair statements about him, I feel like I should butt in. I don’t care about people’s opinion. People can have their own opinion. But I don’t like speculation. If it’s unfair and I know it’s really not his character, then I step in.… and what I get back is “Oh. Blood is thicker than water.” I really hate that.  It’s the most condescending thing. Yeah, so? I can’t do anything about the fact that he’s my dad. But why does that mean I can’t be my own person?

People don’t know what to make of me. “Oh, she’s his daughter, but oh, she thinks differently.” It’s very confusing for everyone, on whichever side. What do you guys have a problem with? We don’t have a problem – my dad and I don’t.

I don’t believe in overprotecting my children. I led a very normal life, growing up. So we never thought of ourselves as well off, though we were – more than most of our friends. But the environment has changed: in those days, nobody was super rich, and nobody showed off. Now you get super wealthy people. Fancy cars, fancy homes. It’s much harder to protect your kids from that. It’s hard to keep your kids grounded.

My oldest child went to a government school, at least for Primary. But my second one didn’t, because twelve years later, things had changed and I was worried about what she was picking up. But there are also issues if you send your children to a private school. It’s very elite. So I try to bring them along to see less fortunate kids so they don’t live in a bubble. I had this policy that every five years, I would have their birthday party in the children’s ward of a hospital.

You have to leave this country to your kids. If you want them to stay here, then you want them to stay in an environment that supports them and nurtures them and gives them opportunities and things like that. They won’t get those things just because they’re my children. It’s really a worry of course. It’s not just me; everyone has a stake in it.

Read Part 1 of this interview here.

Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir is Chair of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation and daughter of former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad. For the last decade, she has written a regular column for The Star titled “Musings”, covering topics such as women’s rights, education, civil society and religion in Malaysia. She is author of 50 Days: Rantings by MM (1997) and Telling It Straight (2012) and blogs at rantingsbymm.blogspot.com.

Interview by Ling Low; Photos by Stacy Liu.