Thursday Sep 25 2003

Transcript of interview with Mahathir Mohamad

By Victor Mallet, John Ridding and John Burton
John Ridding, editor and publisher of the Financial Times Asia; Victor Mallet, chief Asia correspondent; and John Burton, Malaysia correspondent, talked with Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia. This is an edited transcript of the interview.

FT: After 22 years in power, what do you see as your main achievements and failings?
Mahathir Mohamad:
I accepted the office of prime minister when big people were having a very negative perception of me as a Malay ultra. They were shocked when the previous prime minister announced that he was appointing me as his deputy and later on that this man is going to destroy the country with his racist policies - because of that I feel the biggest thing that I have achieved is to continue the work of the previous prime ministers to establish racial harmony in this country.
And I think now the Chinese and the Indians accept me very well, so to me that is something I consider a very great achievement - and in relation to that of course the rapid development of the country.
My objective to bring up the indigenous people, the Malays, the Kadazans and the other tribes in Sabah and Sarawak to the same level as the Chinese in terms of their capacity to acquire wealth and to manage their wealth - that I have not been able to achieve. And I also feel that the attempt to bring them up has resulted in a feeling of dependence on the government, and at times of course corruption - corruption of their privileges - instead of using the privileges in order to better themselves. They look at the easy way of just, say, getting a contract and selling the contract, rather than carrying [it] out.

FT: There is always a question about legacies enduring. Are you comfortable that the roots of what you've done have gone deep enough?
Although I'm pictured as a dictator who just orders people around, in fact it is not true. Whatever decisions we make are made collectively by members of the cabinet and the government.

FT: On race and the attempt to unify people - is there a real Malaysian identity, given how separate the communities are? Could more have been done to have a mixed Malaysian nation?
It's not the intention to create a single identity of Malaysia. We don't believe in assimilation, we believe in integration of different people who will retain their cultures, their language and their religions. And I think this is the trend in other countries, too. In America at one time you had to change your name to an English name in order to be an American but today people retain their original identities - if they are Spanish they remain very Spanish, they even speak Spanish.

FT: But political parties are racially divided too - isn't that something that should change, so you would have parties with ideologies, rather than a Malay party or a Chinese party?
We have no ideology. We are a very pragmatic people, and we recognise that people still worry about their own particular group, their own race, especially when they are a minority. So the system that we adopt is to bring them together [in a coalition] so that everyone big or small can have a say in government policy, and can ensure that their particular worries are attended to.

FT: On economic development, now that China is sucking in investment, do you think elements of the Malaysian model no longer apply?
We'll have to change our strategies. Before, we were like China, we attracted labour intensive industries. At that time China was not open and most of the other countries around us were not yet open to foreign investments and people came here. But since then other countries in the region have switched their policies to accept foreign direct investment and we are already competing with our neighbours and we are losing in that sense, but we move into areas, niches, where we think we have an advantage. We have advantages in many areas. Our people are probably better educated, better command of English and able to absorb new techniques, technologies, etc, so we're moving away from an area where others are much more competitive. We will have to find an area where we can compete with others and we think we can.

FT: Do you need to make a choice between modernising society and being an Islamic society. When you look at the Middle East -
We don't think that Islam is in the way of modernisation. In fact Islam brought modernisation to the primitive Arabs who went on to establish the Muslim empire, so relative to the period, Islam was a modernising influence. It is still a modernising influence today. What is happening of course is that people interpret religion, even the Christian religion, differently, and it so happens that some of the interpreters of religion seem to believe that this world is not for the Muslims, that we are meant for the next world. That kind of thing is really their frustration at not being able to catch up. And they preach these things. If you go to the fundamentals of Islam, you will find that you are urged to keep up with the times. For example there is a verse with regard to the Muslims' countries need to prepare to defend itself to strike fear in the hearts of the enemy. In those days of course it was all about having war steeds and swords and bows and arrows, but today you must have the capacity to provide for your own defences and that means you have to study in science and mathematics and technology etc, but since the religious people are not very knowledgeable about science and all that, they fear it.

FT: But there's a trend towards fundamentalism. What does that mean for Malaysia?
We claim we are fundamentalist. If you go back to the fundamental teachings of Islam you will not reject modernisation, because as I said Islam was a modernising force. The feuding Arab tribes, on embracing Islam, were able to unite and they were able to modernise their state, have a constitution, and they were able to expand their influence.

FT: In Malaysia, there are people with a profoundly different interpretation of Islam. How can you construct a modern state, and should it be non-religious or "Islamic"?
The people who are opposed to our views, oppose them for political reasons. They are political parties who want to latch on to Islam in order to gain support for themselves, and in the process they misinterpreted Islam to suit their purpose. They are not Islamic at all, and we dared to tell them they are not Islamic; we are Islamic because we adhere to the fundamental teachings of Islam, not their interpretation of Islam.

FT: What's their purpose?
Their purpose is to win elections. It's a very worldly struggle for them, although they make it out as though they are struggling for Islam and for the next world. To them, the most important thing is to gain power.

FT: Are you saying PAS [the opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia] is not Islamic?
PAS is not Islamic. If I tell you what the party says, you will understand why I say it is not Islamic. It describes God as a hooligan, a rogue and a gangster. The other thing is that one of their leaders wrote a book describing me with all kinds of obscene words, words which we don't pronounce in public because it's so obscene, referring to the female genitals, and the explanation they give for writing that book is that God uses obscenities. And that's how far they can go. They are very rough. During elections they beat people, they go into the police stations and intimidate the police, that's the kind of thing that they do. The fact is that if you invoke Islam, there are people ignorant enough about Islam to believe them, the people in the villages for example. These are their electorate. They cannot make headway in the city, of course. Now they suddenly find, by declaring, that they want to create their kind of Islamic state. The non-Muslims are against them.

FT: How concerned are you about terrorism, or that events in the Middle East will fuel tensions in the region, and where does the US fit in?
We are quite capable of managing the situation in our country, as you know we have this ISA, the Internal Security Act, which initially was formulated by the British in order to control the spread of communism. We have been able to defeat that after a very long period, 48 years, but this ISA is about security and before the 11th of September we had already discovered the activities of these people and we had already arrested a number of them and detained them under the ISA. Of course we were soundly condemned for this being not democratic etc and not going according to the rule of law. But now other people realise you cannot wait until bombs are exploded before you take action. You can say that well, you have now blown up people so I can hang you, but it's too late for the man who's been blown up.

FT: Does that mean you sympathise with the US detaining people in Guantanamo Bay?
I don't think that is the proper thing to do. The thing is, it should be more open. We are open, we have independent people seeing to the welfare of these people - every six months they make a report. But of course, finally we have to decide: are these people posing a danger to the country or not. In the case of Guantanamo, I don't know what are the evidence against them.

FT: That's the problem with any law where people are detained without trial.
What I'm saying is that they have no right to criticise us when they know that in the same situation they will do the same thing.

FT: But you do cooperate with the US on terrorism.
Yes, we provide them with information. We feel this is a duty because this is a worldwide thing. The only thing is that we don't think the US is handling it in the right way.

FT: You were a fierce critic of the war on Iraq. Are you tempted to say, I told you so?
I wrote a letter to President Bush to tell him, please don't attack Iraq, because it's only going to aggravate matters, it's not going to help in the fight against terrorism, but I suppose they have their reasons for wanting to attack. And I think they have done the wrong thing. They have aggravated matters. There is a great deal more anger today in the Muslim world than after the 11th of September. After the 11th of September there was quite a lot of sympathy for what happened to the US, but now it's all vanished.

FT: What specifically are you doing to control Islamic extremism in Malaysia? We've heard about controls on what can be said in the mosques.
The roots still lie elsewhere, not in Malaysia. But Malaysians, especially the young members of this so-called Islamic party, feel frustrated, because through the democratic process they are not ever going to be able to do this kind of thing. So they think that the best way is to use violence. So they went to Pakistan ostensibly to study religion but actually they got in touch in Pakistan with al-Qaeda. They went to Afghanistan and some of them fought in Afghanistan. They were trained there how to make bombs, how to rob banks and how to kill people and they came back here thinking that they can use violent methods to overthrow the government. They have this funny idea that they can build an Islamic state out of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, but of course they are a very tiny minority and they cannot achieve their objective, but they can do a lot of harm exploding bombs, and some of them are very well educated and they are experts in bombs and explosives, and things like that. They are very dangerous people. Their numbers are not big but their capacity to do harm is quite big.

FT: Do you see the rise of China as a source of stability or instability in the region?
Well we have lived near China for ages. China has never tried to conquer us. The Chinese have come here and stayed here and they have accepted our laws. If they are punished for anything, China does not take offence and send an army or a gunboat to this country. So we know China. We have lived with China for hundreds of years, and we think China has got no ambition to conquer the world. So we're not afraid of China. We will have to compete with them in terms of business and trade and the economy but we don't think of them as a military threat. Containing China is not something we subscribe to.

FT: But you have a dispute with them in the South China Sea?
Yah, but they still haven't sent the gunboats to conquer Malaysia to solve that problem. We are still negotiating with them

FT: Will there be, and should there be a more integrated Asian economic space?
Almost 12 years ago we proposed the East Asian Economic Group, but we were told that we are not allowed to do this. Countries were told not to participate, Japan was told, South Korea was told - by the US - and they told me that they cannot do this because America objects. Why? Why can't Asians come together just to talk about common problems, when Europeans can come together and form the European Union, North Americans can come together to form NAFTA, why not EAEG?

FT: On another subject, the trial of Anwar Ibrahim raised concerns about the judicial system in Malaysia and the rule of law. What's your perspective on that?
If you come with a preconceived idea, it's going to be very difficult because you are going to reject anything I say. I had no reason to fear politically from Anwar because at that time I was very strong, and I know if he were to challenge me - I had been challenged by others and they all lost. So it's not politics. But he was involved in activities which are morally reprehensible. In our society we do not accept that. Other societies, maybe, but we don't accept that and as a result he was charged in a court of law. He was not detained under the ISA, he was charged in a court of law, he had nine lawyers defending him. The trial went on for months and months and months and it was conducted in English so that everybody can understand, foreigners can understand what went on. And it was the court which decided to jail him, it's not us. I didn't - there are some ideas that I have control over the courts -

FT: He was initially detained under the ISA, wasn't he?
No. He was just detained before being charged, yah, but that was because he was stirring up a lot of trouble, demonstrating and all that, but he was tried in a court of law. That is a fact, and it was an open trial. We cannot convince anybody, because you have already made up your mind that 'these bloody people cannot do anything right.' I wanted him [Anwar] to be my successor. In fact I left most of my work to him. He became extremely popular because he went to all the states. I didn't go. I concentrated on government. He was gathering support for himself and to a certain extent, he succeeded. But I wasn't worried because he's going to succeed me anyway, but when I discovered that he's involved in these filthy activities I don't think he's suitable to become the prime minister of Malaysia.

FT: On the succession, what will your role be afterwards?
I want to retreat into the background, but I will still continue to give support to the party. I owe it to the party - my being here today - and I think I should repay my debts to the party by campaigning for the party, working for the party. I'm not going to question what policies they follow.

FT: Will you be a sort of senior minister?
No, no, no.

FT: There's speculation that you might be the next secretary-general of the OIC [Organization of the Islamic Conference].
I don't want to escape from the frying pan into the fire. I've had enough of boiling, cooking for the last 23 years, and I'm not going to involve myself in that. I want to be free, I want to be free to move around, to say what I want to say.

FT: You seem a bit gloomy about the world. You're normally quite cheery.
Well I'm gloomy today about the state of the world, I think we have regressed in the last few years, from 1997 when these currency traders start undermining poor countries, I think the world has gone down and down. In terms of caring, they don't care any more. This is capitalism unlimited. You cannot stop capitalism, where once monopolies were not allowed. Today they may not be monopolies, there are oligopolies, three of four companies want to control the world. In the automotive industry there should be only five companies. We are discounted of course, we should not be making motor cars, 'why can't you just buy cars?' And in other businesses there should be two or three companies, all of which come from the developed countries. We have no place in this world and it's going that way. Following the terrorist attack, instead of attending to the terrorists, you invade Afghanistan, you invade Iraq and you now even sanction assassination, so the world is sliding down. I think the world has lost its way. The US is threatening everybody, big and small.

FT: But despite all this, almost all Asians are becoming more prosperous.
We would have done better had we not had the 1997 crisis. Malaysia would be performing at 8 per cent growth every year and we would reach our 2020 target before that time and all the other Asian countries, too, would have done better. But because of all this, countries become indebted. They spend all their time trying to make money in order to pay debts.

FT: But now they have huge surpluses.
But we want to trade with the rest of the world. But you have WTO. You say, 'no you should be doing this, you are not transparent enough, we must supervise you, you must do this this way and not that way, you are not democratic enough, Malaysia is not democratic enough, you do not know anything about the rule of law, you jail your deputies', and that's all. Why can't you leave us alone?

FT: What will be emotions you feel when you leave this office?
I've done my part. Obviously there is a lot more to be done. I don't think I'm going to be a permanent establishment here. I know I have to go some day, I would rather go now. I have put the party back in order, the country is back in order. It's time to leave. I don't have to leave this country in shambles and run away from it.