On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Something to talk about

IF there’s one job that requires no experience, qualification, and certainly no age limit, it’s that of a politician.

You can be an elected Member of Parliament, Senator, Congressman, Prime Minister or President in a democracy and none of these prerequisites are even necessary.

Isn’t that amazing? The rest of us ordinary folks must write lengthy resumes and show proof of our education qualifications when we apply for a job, only to be told, in no uncertain terms, that our contract may also be terminated – we don’t have to wait five years!

And of course, under the Malaysian employment law, we will have to retire gracefully when we hit 60. However, it’s common knowledge that some older workers find themselves re-designated and moved on to what is regarded non-essential positions before they even reach retirement age.

But there appears to be a different set of rules (or rather, no rules) for politicians. We know that women in general get offended when asked their age. This seems to also affect some male politicians. So, it came as no surprise when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad gatecrashed a forum held to discuss if he was “too old” to become Prime Minister.

To the shock of those present, the Pakatan Harapan chairman challenged his detractors to call him “old” in person.

“I’m here, guys. Say it to my face,” the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia chairman posted on Twitter, along with a picture of himself sitting while facing the forum’s panellists and moderator.

Sinar Harian, which organised the forum, quoted the former prime minister of 22 years as saying he was still active physically and mentally.

“There are two types of ages – one in terms of years and another in terms of the body. The age of the body does not necessarily equate to the age in years.

“There are those who are only 50 but have ageing-associated diseases such as dementia, and those who are old but can still think innovatively,” he said when handed the microphone to speak.

To be fair, most Malaysians envy Dr Mahathir’s state of health. For one his age, his mind is active and healthy, no doubt. He is sharp.

And as University of Chicago academician Harold Pollack wrote, “blanket judgments about older politicians are, of course, indefensible. Many of our older leaders have more skill and intellectual firepower than most of us will ever have.”

Dr Mahathir puts many of us, younger people, to shame. But it cannot be denied that he has also consistently been absent from many political events that he was supposed to attend. Perhaps his health isn’t what it was anymore.

In December, Pribumi deputy president Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir said his father was “advised to cut back on his working hours” following a bout of flu and high fever.

Dr Mahathir was unavailable during the party’s Jelajah Semarak ceramah held in Ipoh, Perak, having taken ill for a week.

“I would like to send my father’s regards. He apologises for not being able to join us due to his poor health,” Mukhriz said.

In February, following his doctors’ advice to rest, he postponed a Pribumi programme scheduled to be held in Bentong.

According to programme coordinator Mohd Ashraf Mustaqim Badrul Munir, Dr Mahathir was told to take it easy due to unspecified health reasons.

He was also admitted to the National Heart Institute (IJN) for a chest infection.In a statement, IJN said he was being treated in the general ward for the infection following a bad bout of cough. Last year, the Pakatan Harapan chairman had to call off two fundraising dinners in Temerloh and Kluang due to the flu.

Unfortunately, no one can counter the ageing process. It is not just Dr Mahathir. It affects all of us. The records of his series of illnesses are there for all to see.

Hitting the campaign trail is punishing for anyone, regardless of their age. Any candidate can vouch for this and it will surely not be easy for someone who is 93 years old – and Parliament has not even been dissolved!

Yes, we envy Dr Mahathir for his amazing feat, but we should also worry for him because he is no superman. Like the rest of us, he is just a human being.

The problem with many politicians is that they can’t seem to let go. They tend to have a narcissistic streak. They think they are indispensable and that the country, or even the world, cannot move without their touch of brilliance.

Last year, it was reported that in the United States, Senator Dianne Feinstein – the oldest member of the US Senate – said she would seek re-election this year, and if she wins, Feinstein would be eligible to serve till she is 91 years old.

Feinstein isn’t the Senate’s only octogenarian. Seven current members are also reportedly past 80.

“This week, a pharmacist who provides medicine for members of Congress said he fills Alzheimer’s prescriptions for some,” the Kansas City Star reported.

It has also been reported that the prevalence of real dementia is far lower than the propensity for mild cognitive impairment, but annual risks among the healthy roughly double every five years after 70. By 85, almost a third of adults experience some form of dementia.

No one offering themselves to be PM or President should feel offended that the public is discussing their age and health since they want to assume the heaviest job in Malaysia, or elsewhere. As Pollack wrote: “We should address these matters without rancour or cruelty, but also without euphemism or undue reticence.

“These matters are hard to talk about in American politics because they are hard to talk about in our own lives. I see my mortality etched on my father’s face, as my daughters see it in mine.

“Mortality and bodily fragility are two great constants of human life. How we handle those constraints provides a small but important test of American democracy.”

Malaysians have every right to discuss the age of our political candidates, especially their physical and mental conditions. And such discourse should be handled in a rational and civil manner, without the need to go down the mud-slinging route. After all, we Asians have been taught to respect our elders.