In his first public comments on India’s move to restrict palm oil imports after top exporter Malaysia criticized Indian policies toward Muslims, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said countries could not allow economic considerations to overrule speaking out against “wrong.”
He justified his criticisms against India regarding its conflict with Pakistan over insurgency-stricken Kashmir and new amendments to its citizenship law that allegedly discriminate against Muslims, saying money should not be the only thing that matters.
“We are concerned because we sell a lot of palm oil to India. But on the other hand, we need to be frank and when something is wrong you have to say it,” he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.
“If you allow things to go wrong and think only about the money involved, then I think a lot of wrong things will be done by us and others.”
On Jan. 8, the Indian government, through its Ministry of Commerce and Industry, amended its import policy on refined palm oil and palmolein – a liquid form of palm oil – from free to restricted.
Although Malaysia was not named specifically, the new restriction is expected to hurt the country because India is its biggest importer of palm oil. Malaysia and Indonesia supplied about 60 million metric tons of palm oil annually, or about 85 percent of the world’s output, according to government data.
Mahathir told reporters that while Malaysia needed to resolve its differences with India regarding palm oil, he was not backing down from his comments.
“That is something we have to find a solution for, but the fact is what happens in India today has caused a lot of unhappiness among the people there and the whole world. We feel that it is wrong to discriminate against anybody intended,” he added.
Last month, Mahathir criticized India over its amended citizenship law that allegedly discriminates against Muslims.
The Indian parliament adopted the amendment granting citizenship to members of religious minority groups from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who seek refuge in India and who entered the country before September 2014. It excludes Muslims from those countries from applying for Indian citizenship.
Mahathir, in an address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, spoke about the Kashmir conflict, saying Pakistan and India should sit down to resolve their differences.
“Now, despite U.N. resolution[s] on Jammu and Kashmir, the country has been invaded and occupied. There may be reasons for this action but it is still wrong. The problem must be solved by peaceful means,” he said in his speech.
“India should work with Pakistan to resolve this problem. Ignoring the U.N. would lead to other forms of disregard for the U.N. and the Rule of Law,” he added.
On Jan. 8, when it reported that India was imposing restrictions on palm-oil imports, the Reuters news service quoted Indian officials and industry sources as saying that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government “was seeking to target Malaysia after recent criticism of India by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.”
On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced he had sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing concerns about India’s amended citizenship law.
“The [Indian] government’s efforts in Assam has left effectively 1.9 million persons, primarily Bengali-speaking Muslims, stateless. The government appears to now be extending this effort across the country,” Menendez wrote in his letter dated Jan. 13.
“Despite the government’s claims that the citizenship bill seeks to protect religious minorities, its failure to include Muslim groups facing persecution in neighboring countries, such as Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya and Burma’s Rohingya, signal an anti-Muslim intent,” he wrote.
Menendez also wrote about the situation in Kashmir, saying the ongoing internet shutdown there had “left people’s lives, jobs, and the economy in a more dire situation.”
Expanding the market
Palm oil which is refined for use as cooking oil and used in cosmetics and biofuels, is Malaysia’s biggest agricultural export.
India was Malaysia’s top importer of palm oil, taking in more than 4.4 million metric tons in 2019, a 75 percent increase over 2018’s total of 2.5 million metric tons, according to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board.
While monthly exports to India totaled from 318,000 to 550,000 metric tons early in 2019, those figures dropped to 219,956 in October, 142,696 in November and 138,647 in December, the board reported.
On Monday, Teresa Kok Suh Sim, Malaysia’s minister of Primary Industries, said the country might need to find new markets for its palm oil exports. She named Pakistan and African countries as possible locations.
“Pakistan is a good market. They have about a 220 million population with a birth rate of 2.7 percent. So in average they have 5 million babies every year,” she said.
“With the growth of population they need palm oil because it is the cheapest oil. So we foresee Pakistan is a new market and some of the African countries also could be new markets,” she told reporters after visiting a palm oil refiner near Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia exported slightly less than 1.1 million metric tons to Pakistan – a slight decrease from 2018 – and smaller amounts to African countries in 2019, according to board figures.
Meanwhile, Indonesia will be the winner if Malaysia cannot settle its dispute with India and loses palm oil exports to its neighbor, according to a professor with the Universiti Tun Abdul Razak.
Barjoyai Bardai said Malaysia could be forced to cut its selling price to appeal to new customers. While palm oil exports account for only 2.8 percent of the total gross domestic product, more than 1 million people are involved in growing, processing and selling it across the globe.
“The statement from Mahathir has made things worse. We cannot afford to allow the palm oil price to come down,” he told BenarNews.
India’s action followed a decision by the European Union last year to phase out the use palm oil as a source of renewable fuels by 2030 because of deforestation concerns.
Palm oil expansion is a major driver of deforestation and degradation of natural habitats in parts of tropical Asia and Central and South America, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a Swiss-based group of governments, conservation organizations and scientists.
Mahathir called the findings baseless, unfair and unjustified.