BenarNews sat down with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday for an interview in New York on the sidelines of this week’s U.N. General Assembly.
At 94, Mahathir is the world’s oldest head of state, after leading the opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) to an upset victory in Malaysia’s 2018 general election. The former strongman served as PM from 1981 to 2003, but quit the party he once led and swept to power on a promise to wipe out corruption and bring change to the multi-racial, multi-religious country.
The prime minister answered questions on topics ranging from racial polarization in the country to China’s role in the region, to the whereabouts of Low Taek Jho, a central figure in Malaysia’s 1MDB financial scandal.
He said that Malaysia, an Islamic-majority country, must take care “not to antagonize China” over issues including Beijing’s persecution of the Uyghur Muslim minority and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Mahathir also spoke about Kuala Lumpur’s efforts to broker peace talks in Thailand’s insurgency-ridden Deep South, saying that Bangkok would never allow the region independence or autonomy.
Excerpts from the interview, which was conducted in English and Malay, have been edited for clarity:
On politics at home
BenarNews: Has Pakatan Harapan fulfilled its electoral pledges, such as repealing SOSMA [the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act] and the Sedition Act? In the past you described those laws as tyrannical.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad: True. But when we made our manifesto, we didn’t have full information about the situation.
Now we understand that if we were to rush to revoke those laws, there could be a reaction which may be unfavorable for Malaysia. Police have the opinion that these laws, if they are not used for political purposes, are still useful.
BN: So they will not be repealed, because they are still useful?
MM: We are revising them. We do not want the abuse that was done by the previous government to be seen in our government.
BN: Top Muslim-based parties in Malaysia have formed an alliance and are most probably going to challenge your multi-racial coalition in the next election, in 2023. Could this new alliance worsen racial and religious polarization in Malaysia?
MM: It will, to a certain extent. But in the past we have had experience campaigning against PAS [the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party], which was trying to make use of religion in order to gain popularity, but they never made any headway.
BN: What will your government do to counter perceptions that the government is not supporting Malays and even not supporting Islam?
MM: That is opposition propaganda. They are trying to make use of the Malays and to appear to be speaking up for the Malays in order to gain support, especially in the rural areas. But they know that before, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was neglecting the Malays when it was being led by Najib Razak. So I don’t think they have that credibility.
In any case, we find that many UMNO people have left the party. The remnants are still trying to resuscitate the party, and they think that if they play the Malay card they might, but I don’t think their influence is enough for them to come back.
On regional issues
BN: In recent days, you have said the world can essentially do nothing about forest fires in Indonesia or Brazil. So there’s nothing really that can be done now, you think.
MM: At the moment, no. But I think even Indonesia is very conscious of this … I think they themselves are suffering. I’m quite sure they will make some attempt to reduce incidents of forest fires.
BN: Speaking about the Rohingya issue at Columbia University yesterday you also said some pessimistic words, essentially saying there’s practically nothing that can be done when a government is being absolutely brutal to its people. We can preach, we can pray, we can ask them “please don’t do such things,” but they can continue doing it because we don’t invade countries to remove such regimes.”
But isn’t there something, some kind of measures between invasion and mere words that can be taken, and shouldn’t ASEAN be doing those things?
MM: We are doing those things, but they look like palliative things, like trying to help people who are suffering, if they evacuate, if they migrate, we will look after them. There are 100,000 of them in Malaysia, we know their children are not going to schools, we have to solve that problem, this we can do, but outside of Myanmar.
Inside of Myanmar we can do very little. Although some people claim that they can, but as far as the Rohingya are concerned, the place is not safe and they refuse to go back.
BN: Looking at the haze problem and the Rohingya crisis, both of which have persisted for decades, should ASEAN reconsider its policy of non-interference?
MM: Well, we ourselves are not strong enough, we cannot do such things. But the big powers can. For example, in the case of Saddam Hussein, they went in, they thought they could do the job in three months, so they went in, but you know that it lasted very much longer.
In the case of Cambodia, the world did nothing. Two million people were massacred, and the world did nothing. We knew all about it, but we didn’t do anything because this is supposed to be “an internal affair.”
On southern Thai peace talks
BN: Malaysia is facilitating peace talks in the Deep South of Thailand. Should Malaysia continue in this role? Some say Malaysia cannot be neutral because of ethnic ties to the insurgents, or because it is protecting its border.
MM: We will continue our efforts to persuade Thai participants to stop actions that cause many people to die, people who are not guilty, people who are not in the military. They need to consider this, if not, the world will be angry with them.
On the other hand, as we know, we worked so many years in the Philippines, and at last we succeeded because the Duterte government agreed to give autonomy, but not Thailand. They have said from the start, no autonomy. And we also think war won’t result in autonomy or independence, so it’s better to find a safer way, to accept the reality that Thailand will not allow them freedom.
BN: An insurgent leader said they didn’t want Malaysia to be the facilitator, or maybe they wanted to have another facilitator that is more neutral, perhaps from a European country. And BRN [the National Revolutionary Front rebel group] said the same thing during its anniversary.
MM: Yes, if it’s possible and if it’s accepted by both parties, the insurgents and the government, if they agree, we have no objection to anyone who is capable of being the facilitator.
BN: The Thai government has introduced a new chief negotiator for the government side. Can you comment? Do you think this will just slow down the process?
MM: We will try to work together with this new leader, because we only want to find ways to end the unrest because, in our opinion, there is no way that Thailand will allow them to have autonomy or independence, and it could lead to Thailand becoming hardline, and many more will die.
I look highly upon people who are brave and patriotic, but what is the use if you can’t achieve your goals?
On Uyghurs, ASEAN and China
BN: Malaysian leaders, especially you, are well known for speaking out about the Palestinians and the Rohingya Muslims. But so far not the Uyghurs as much.
Our sister news agency, Radio Free Asia (RFA), has broken this story, reporting that 1 million Uyghurs are being detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, poor diet, crowded conditions. Recently a Jordanian journalist, an independent journalist, visited the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and described it as one big prison. She said, “the reports are true.”
Why are leaders of Muslim countries silent when it comes to the Uyghurs, relatively speaking, and does it have to do with China?
MM: Because China is a very powerful nation. You don’t just try and do something which would fail anyway, so it is better to find some other less violent ways not to antagonize China too much, because China is beneficial for us.
Of course it’s is a big trading partner of ours and you do not want to do something that will fail, and in the process, also, we will suffer.
BN: ASEAN and China have been talking about a code of conduct in the South China Sea for two decades, and now Malaysia and China, as we recently reported, have agreed to a bilateral mechanism to resolve sea disputes. Are ASEAN states abandoning the multilateral approach?
MM: No. We are still wanting to work together but our response depends on how much we are exposed. When we find that we ourselves singled out by China for some action, I don’t think the other ASEAN countries have the capacity to put a stop to it. So like it or not, we have to deal with China by ourselves.
The same applies to the Philippines. Because although ASEAN wants to work together, there are things that it’s not able to do. So because of that, well, even working together without any violence, that’s possible, we can have a firm stand on something, but if the Chinese take action, we are not in a position to resist or to act against them.
BN: I hear you speaking very pragmatically and fatalistically, that you cannot speak out against China if it’s a moral wrong, or if it has to do with territory; that economic matters and the sheer might of China make that impossible.
MM: Yeah, we have to accept the fact that China is a big power. You know, the Malay states have existed near China for the past 2,000 years. We have survived because we know how to conduct ourselves.
We don’t go around trying to be aggressive when we don’t have the capacity, so we use other means. In the past we use to send to China gold and silver flowers every year as a symbol of our being practically, well, subservient to them.
BN: Another question about China. Chinese survey ships that reportedly conduct research related to oil and gas exploration have been sighted in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone north of Borneo. Do they have your government’s permission to operate in Malaysian waters?
MM: No. They don’t have. And well, we watch what they are doing, we report what they are doing, but we do not chase them away or try to be aggressive.
BN: Where is Jho Low? Which country is sheltering him? Did you discuss this with Xi Jinping during your visit to China?
MM: I didn’t discuss it. There are people who say Jho Low is in China. I didn’t raise that question, but police, they are looking for evidence on his whereabouts, as some say he is in China. I am confident that the IGP [Inspector General of Police] will contact his counterpart in China to obtain acknowledgement, if he can, and evidence that he [Jho Low] is in China.
On North Korea
BN: How did the chemical weapons used in the murder of Kim Jong Nam get into Malaysia?
MM: A lot of things enter Malaysia. Recently we found five tons of cocaine. There’s a certain route by which many forbidden things can get into Malaysia. We don’t know how it came in, and that thing is not big, it’s small, whereas large quantities of drugs can enter Malaysia, sometimes we manage to seize them and sometimes we are unable to.
BN: The two young women who had been charged with killing Kim Jong Nam have gone home to their countries. The murder case has been closed. Looking back, was Malaysia right to allow North Korean diplomats to leave the country with the body of Kim Jong Nam? Would you have done something different had you been in government then?
MM: Well, I don’t know what the thinking of the previous government was, but I think they too would like to avoid having confrontation with other countries. Malaysia’s main policy is to be friendly with all countries. We do not like to have any problem with them, any conflict with them.
So I suppose on that basis they allowed the body to be taken back. Even if I were already the prime minister, I would have to think very carefully about not sending the body back. We would have a problem on our hands.
BN: What is the future of relations with North Korea? Will you be reopening the Malaysian embassy in Pyongyang?
MM: I think we will.
BN: There are some who could say that Malaysia is not taking a very firm stance against a country that’s widely considered a rogue nation.
MM: Yes, it is a rogue nation in the eyes of a lot of other countries. We have had diplomatic relations with North Korea over a long period of time. I myself visited North Korea when I was deputy prime minister.
It is part of our policy of having good relations with all countries regardless of their ideology, unless of course there is something very violent happening. If they go to war, we may have to decide whom to side with. But at the moment, they seem to be under pressure, and we don’t think that we should confront them or take sides in their dispute with mainly the United States.
On plans to step down as PM
BN: Are you comfortable to be handing over the reins in 2020? Are you confident in Anwar Ibrahim as the next leader, or are you perhaps a bit heavy-hearted about this transition?
MM: What I feel doesn’t count. The fact is that I made a promise that I would step down and he will take over. I will keep that promise.
BN: What are your hopes for Malaysia in 2023 and GE [General Election]-15? What do you see as the most important part of your legacy?
MM: I’m confident we still can win, that Pakatan Harapan will win the election, even though not as strongly. We got support in GE-14 because many people do not like Datuk Seri Najib [former Prime Minister Najib Razak].
If he is no longer involved in leading the party that is now in the opposition, if he is not involved, they may regain some support back, but not enough for them to win the general election, because UMNO has become a small party. Many of their members have already left UMNO and many of them have joined government-component parties.
I’m not too concerned about my legacy. I just want to work as hard as I can to bring Malaysia back to the right path.
BN: On the social media front, there appears to be some confusion as Najib counters government positions.
MM: Najib is still a free man. He is not detained. He is free to do whatever. We find that he has money and so he can have cyber troopers who will respond through social media.
With the existence of social media, we cannot control it, and that is why we listen to his opinion even though he tries to blame the government, but most of his allegations against Pakatan Harapan are a result of his doing.
For example, he ordered four patrol ships during his time so now we are bound by a contract, we have to buy. He chided us, saying it was not right to buy the ships from China, but the contract was made by him, so it is as if he forgot about what he has done, and we can counter that.