MALAYSIAíS firm stand against terrorism was among the matters discussed during CNNís 30-minute Q&A programme interview with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad that was aired early this morning.
Dr Mahathir, on an official four-day visit to the US that ended yesterday, was also asked questions on his meeting with US President George Bush, the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA), jailed former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and Press freedom in Malaysia.
CNN anchorwoman Zain Verjee also tapped the premierís mind on issues related to South-East Asia, China as the emerging superpower, and Malaysiaís economic and defence developments.
Zain did not pull her punches, nor did Dr Mahathir. This is a transcript of the interview:
Q (Zain): How successful has your trip to Washington been?
A (Dr Mahathir): I would say it is successful. I have been able to meet most of the government leaders and the President, senators, Congressmen, business people and the media, and they have given me a good reception.
Q: What were the things you discussed with President Bush?
A: Terrorism, of course, and how we perceive terrorism and the way to handle it.
Q: What other issues were discussed, like trade, for example?
A: Yes, trade a litle, not that much. And then there is the situation in SEA, Indonesia, Myanmar.
Q: Many people are looking at this as a visit to mend (Malaysiaís) relationship with the US. How do you see it?
A: In a way yes, but I think it has been mended after Sept 11. The perception of Malaysia has changed and people are beginning to understand why it is necessary for us to take measures to ensure that our country remains stable and peaceful.
Q: Why do you think that Sept 11 is such a turning point for Malaysia?
A: Because what has plagued Malaysia before seems to be affecting other countries as well.
Q: Like what?
A: Like the possiblity of acts of terror, disruptions, people who may be professing to exercise their rights, but in the end, they encroach on the rights or deny the rights of the majority.
Q: A lot of people say that youíve cracked down on suspected terrorists of Sept 11. The US is pleased with the kind of moves youíve made. Youíve come out as a moderate leader in the Islamic world. Again, a good perception from the US for some of the things that youíve been saying and doing particularly, since you were more or less shunned by the US of 1998 after the trial and conviction of Anwar Ibrahim. Are you bemused that the US rejected you, shunned Malaysia and now that there is an embrace of Malaysia post Sept 11?
A: We did not act against the suspected terrorists after Sept 11. It was before that. Long before that when we discovered what they were up to. When they investigated and found out who they were, we had already acted against them, arrested and interrogated them. But when Sept 11 came, of course, suddenly what we were doing in Malaysia became relevant to what was happening in other parts of the world and we were able to provide some information on the activities of these groups in Malaysia and their possible link to other groups. That, of course, helps people to understand, especially in the US, about what is happening in Malaysia and how it relates to what is happening in the US.
Q: Have you changed your perception of the US? Has your relationship altered your views?
A: When the US began to show some understanding of what is happening in Malaysia, naturally we changed our perception of the US as well.
Q: You have been fairly critical in the past of the US.
A: Yes, we were critical because the US was critical of us.
Q: How serious is the effect of terrorism in SEA and does it offer a fertile ground for terrorist?
A: It has not yet become very serious. We can still handle it but if we are lax and we donít take certain measures, I am sure that it will become a serious threat to our country and to the region.
Q: You signed an (anti-terrorism) agreement with Indonesia recently and the Philippines. How effective do you think it is going to be and in particular, are you frustrated by Indonesiaís apparent unwillingness to crack down on extremists?
A: I think the agreement between us is good because we have an inter-exchange of information to try and locate people who are involved wherever they may be in our three countries. I am not frustrated with Indonesia or the Philippines as they have their own problems and they cannot handle it in the same way we handle it in Malaysia.
Q: There is a connection between Al-Qaeda of Sept 11 and Malaysia. The suspected 20th hijacker was believed to have met two of the hijackers in Malaysia. How concerned are you that this is evidence that shows that Sept 11 or some of it was planned in Malaysia?
A: I do not think they were planned in Malaysia. From what we have discovered, they functioned as cells which do not know what the other cells are doing. I doubt whether they revealed the things they wanted to do to each other. Each one has apparently got its own mission, and those in Malaysia were mainly concerned with how to overthrow the (Malaysian) government. Of course, they might have met but I do not know whether they discussed the attack on the World Trade Centre.
Q: But the extent of operation going on in Malaysia would suggest that Malaysia appears to be some sort of terrorist hub.
A: They were in Switzerland. And I think if you want to find a hub, it is here in the US because they have been training here for a year, I am told, in the US. So it is here that they planned the action that they were taking. It is not in Malaysia, I think.
Q: On one hand, you say Malaysia isnít the harbour or haven for terrorists yet you keep on arresting people alleging that they are terrorists. That seems contradictory.
A: That is not contradictory at all because these are the cells that are taking action in Malaysia. From the information we gathered from them, their main concern was how to overthrow the Malaysian government. They donít seem to be concerned about other countries.
Q: But how do you know who is the terrorist and who isnít? Who is trying to overthrow the government and who isnít because a lot of instances, we have seen that you arrest people but do not come up with evidence?
A: When we arrest people we donít just detain them. We arrest people because we want to know what they were doing and we had to rehabilatate them to help them. These people, when they were arrested, not only confessed, they actually boasted about their plans to overthrow the government by arms, the force of arms, and how they were going to... (interrupted)
Q: Many of them now say that these are forced confessions when they are in jail. They are tortured, brutalised, forced to make the confession.
A: That is an assumption that is always made about these natives who do not know how to obey the rules of law. In Malaysia, we uphold the rules of law although we may not be considered among the civilised nations of the world.
Q: In your pursuit of defying terrorism or pursuing it down, you have actually used that as an excuse to silence or discredit your opponents?
A: I have no need for that. I have a three-fourths majority in Parliament. We have won elections, fair elections, all the time and we have lost elections too. Two of our states are with the opposition. So, we donít have to bother about torturing people, forcing them to confess and the likes. Of course, the sceptics, you can say anything you like, they are going to doubt it. They are going to say what they want to say because they are sceptics.
Q: Another connection that have come up in recent days between Al-Qaeda and Malaysia is the focus on websites. This is a website showing pictures of Osama bin Laden, posting documents and articles signed by Al-Qaeda. It is also a website that is showing videos of the last moments of Sept 11. Hijackers say they have 18 more videos. CNN has just traced a host of these websites and as it turns out, two were in Malaysia. Do you know anything about this and if you donít, what is your reaction.
A: I donít know but I think a lot of websites originate from America actually.
Q: Specifically this one has been traced to Malaysia.
A: Well, if you can say that about Malaysia, you can say the same thing about America.
Q: Will the Malaysian authority investigate this seriously?
A: We find that it is difficult to trace people who use the Internet to distribute a lot of filth.
Q: In more than 20 years of power, youíve had your share of supporters and critics. You have been described in a number of ways. Here are some. Mahathir Mohamad is on the blacklist of every major human rights group in the world, that the committee of the protection of journalists said that you are the worst enemy of the Press, the (US) State Department talks about the erosion of judicial independence under your leadership. A fair amount of criticism is levelled at you. Your response?
A: Well, I have criticised the Press and the media and some of these NGOs and I donít expect them to say nice things about me. And I donít care as to what they say about me. What is important is that the people in Malaysia believe in me and they vote me to power each time I face an election and I have faced five elections so far.
Q: Much of the criticisms that had provided the basis of that kind of accusation to be levelled against you is what is known as the Internal Security Act (ISA). There are questions and concerns about that. About how you use it when you are in trouble. How you use it to keep yourself in power. How you use it against your opponents that basically gives you a green card to invoke it and fence your opposition.
A: That is what they would like to say but if you look at the way the ISA was implemented when I became the PM, something like 800 people were released under my orders including some who were detained by my predecessors. If I fear these people, I wouldnít release them and I have no neccesity to do this. You can see, every election I have won with very litle difficulty. There have been attempts to push me aside and to take over the presidency of my party, they have failed.
Q: Why wasnít a single one of them (ISA detainees) charged?
A: Of course they are not charged because the law says there is no charge to be preferred because this is a detention. An act of detention, a preventive act. A preventive act is an act that is carried out before a crime is committed.
Q: The whole problem is that it allows you, they say, to be very non-democratic?
A: Of course, they will say so. But if they get into power, they are going to use the same law.
Q: The crux of the matter is youíre in power.
A: The law was there and was used by the first Prime Minister, the second Prime Minister, the third Prime Minister and they used this law much more often than I do and you can check on the records.
Q: But does it make it right?
A: Well, I have a responsibility to the country. The law is there to protect the interest of the country. Not my interest.
Q: A statement by a group representing human rights said Anwar Ibrahim, your former number two, who is in jail, is in critical condition and suffering from serious spinal injury from brutal beating.
A: And you believe that?
Q: No, I want you to respond to that. They say they want Anwar Ibrahim to go for medical treatment abroad. Will you allow that?
A: There was a doctor who came more than a year ago, who said that unless Anwar Ibrahim is released and taken out of the country for treatment in Europe, he would die. Now, it has been more than a year. He is still walking around.
Q: The fact is that this man was also your political opponent and that you will use again any opportunity to get rid of someone you thought is a threat to you.
A: He was not a threat to me.
Q: Why not release him and allow him to say whay he wants?
A: He has been writing on the Internet all scurrilous things about the government. We have never even stopped him.
Q: The Middle-East, an issue you have come out fairly strongly. Youíve been complemented by the US for promoting a moderate voice in the region, for criticising suicide bombing. What do you feel needs to be done in the Middle-East?
A: We must attend to the cause of the why people behave there. Why these people commit or carry out suicide bombing. We have to determine the causes, remove the causes, the UN should move in and separate the combatants, and the border between Israel and Palestine must be identified and the state of Palestine as well as Israel must be recognised by everyone.
Q: Why havenít we heard from other moderate Muslim leaders? Where are those moderate voices?
A: There are but itís no good they are saying those things as they may not be supported by their people.
Q: Do you think that American support for authoritarian Muslim governments is an effort to reach out to moderate voices.
A: I have no comments to make.
Q: Do you think that the US could do a better job in reaching out to the moderate voices.
A: People can always do better than what they are doing now. Everybody...
Q: You are the leader of an Islamic country. How much does it concern you when you see other Muslim leaders not speaking out against suicide bombings as strongly as you or using the Israel-Palestine issue to deflect on their own problems at home?
A: I do not make comments about other people. They may have their own problems. I have a view (but what I express) is about Malaysia and its stand.
Q: You donít think that there is anything more they could do to lean on the situation in the Middle-East.
Q: Yes? Like what?
A: Like they can have a common stand on this issue and decide.
Q: How do you see your role as a leader in the Islamic world. Do you think you (can) bring that moderate voice (to) lead somewhere...
A: I donít consider myself as a leader in the Islamic world. I am a leader in Malaysia. I donít have ambitions...
Q: Malaysia forecasts a 3.5 per cent growth. Is that still on track?
A: I think so. Other people believe we would do better but we still maintain that a 3.5 per cent growth should be achievable.
Q: What did you learn about the Asian financial crisis? And what conclusion do you draw from the 1997 (downturn) and how developing or emerging countries should deal with situations like that?
A: I learn not to follow other peopleí advice... We had to scrutinise it very carefully. As a result, we found that the advice was defective and we had to devise our way of dealing with our problem.
Q: Recently, you have been on an arms buying spree. The scope and scale of these purchases suggest that you want to expand some kind of regional influence. They suggest that a strong military could add weight to Malaysiaís economic stregth. Why are you making these moves?
A: We are merely upgrading our armaments because now we have more money than we had before. Obviously, we are going to buy the latest and we are going to buy more. Itís a question of how much money you spend. Our budget for defence is very low. In Malaysia, 20 per cent of our Budget goes to education, which is our prirotiy, not arms.
Q: How concerned are you about the rise of China as a superpower?
A: Not at all concerned. We are very good friends of China.
Q: Do you think the US should maintain a military presnece in the region?
A: I donít believe that having military presence will help. You are merely going to make the Chinese nervous, make them feel they are the future enemy, and if you treat people as your future enemy, they will become your present enemy.
Q: The crackdown on illegal workers. Itís been in Press reports. Why are you doing that now?
A: Because there are no (more) jobs in Malaysia. They are in Malaysia illegally. And when they have no jobs, some of them resort to crimes and there is no reason why we should allow them to stay in the country when they are a burden to the community and us.
Q: Some suggest you need the workers.
A: Well, some of them, not all.
Q: There are reports that suggest that you have been rather violent in the way you threat them.
A: We go around hammering everybody as you can see. You are welcome to go and see these people being hammered. Itís open.
Q: You seem to take offence to all the criticisms levelled at you... on ISA, Anwar Ibrahim and other issues. Why do you think that criticisms are levelled at you if there is no truth in them at all.
A: Because we criticise people who tell lies about us. And because of that they get very angry. For example, there are two newspapers that keep on repeating each time they mention Malaysia that the Press is controlled by the government. And yet these newspapers, (International) Herald Tribune and the Asian Wall Street Journal are printed in Malaysia, distributed in Malaysia and in the region and we have never censored them or touched them. And yet, they say that the Press is controlled. And they refuse to see that there are so many papers in Malaysia which condemn the government.
Q: Final question. You have been the leader of your country for 21 years. Looking back on your leadership, on a personal level, is there anything that you would change or do differently.
A: Not much. I think I would have done the same all over again.