Mahathir Mohamad is the former prime minister of Malaysia. He began his career as a medical doctor before entering politics, and remains the country’s longest-serving premier. From 1981 to 2003, he held office as prime minister and president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the leading party of the government coalition still in power today.
The Diplomat met with Mahathir in Putrajaya, the administrative capital created during his tenure, to discuss his legacy and Malaysia’s direction.
I wanted to begin with an issue that bookended your prime ministership: racial tensions in Malaysia. In the late 1970s, you gave a speech at the UN calling Malaysia a “multi-racial time bomb…from the colonial past.” At the end of your tenure, you warned that racial tensions were on the rise. How did your policies shape racial tensions and what is the impact today?
This country has a mixed population, and the people who live in this country are so different from each other. Different ethnically, different in terms of culture, language, and different in terms of economic achievement. The difference is very big, and normally differences cause people to confront each other or dislike each other, to fight against each other. So Malaysia is a country where the possibility of racial fights would be very common.
What I think is my greatest achievement is that during the 22 years I was prime minister there were no racial conflicts so serious that there would be clashes. There were no clashes. I had the support of all communities, which is the reason why I always got a two-thirds majority during election. There were still racial tensions, but I think it was less during the 22 years of my prime ministership.
But after, the others did not handle this problem well. They thought that by being liberal, they would ensure all races would be happy. But they did not. If you are liberal, the extremists take advantage. The extremists in each race took advantage of the liberalism to bring up racial issues. Because now you can discuss and say what you like because of the liberal attitude, freedom of speech. Therefore, they made people conscious of their differences, and they began to fall behind these extreme people. So now racial tension has come up again.
If subduing racial tensions was your greatest achievement, what was your greatest regret?
Now, my one regret is for the economic achievement of each race. I wanted them to achieve equally the same status: There would be, of course, rich Chinese, rich Indian, and rich Malay, and there would be poor Chinese, poor Indian, and poor Malay. So there will not be the impression that in Malaysia the Malays are poor and backward, while the Chinese are rich and advanced and they live in the cities. That is a really bad situation; that will create clashes. But we brought them together all to be in the city, all to be well-educated, all to perform better. And because Malays are rather weak in business, we gave them more opportunities. Affirmative action.
Does this relate to your statement last year that Malays are lazy? This caused some controversy, particularly in reference to the current administration’s decision to abolish English-language teaching of science and mathematics in 2009.
I speak the truth. Malays are lazy. We give them opportunities; they do not seize the opportunities. But what was important about the education was that I wanted to use English for the teaching of science and math. [The current administration] reversed it and went to teaching science and math in Malay. And Malay is not a language of science. Other subjects are static, but science moves.
So it seems that economic development and race relations are intrinsically tied. This brings up the question of Wawasan 2020, the guiding policy to make Malaysia a fully industrialized country by 2020, a part of your legacy.
The country was growing during my time, most of the time. There were downturns. But the country was arrested because of improper handling, because of focus not so much on economic development, but on political survival. Each prime minister wants to survive, and they thought they would survive by playing up other issues instead of concentrating on economic development. And therefore the growth slowed down. And when there was racial tension, bad administration, corruption, et cetera, the economy shrinks. So we will not achieve Vision 2020 to become a fully developed country. We will not now. You can see the currency is depreciated, stock market is in a bad shape, people are generally unhappy.
You’ve not been shy about your wish to see Prime Minister Najib Razak go. In August, you wrote on your blog that democracy is dead, a reflection of the cabinet reshuffle in late July, the crippling of the attorney-general’s investigation of missing 1MDB funds, and the co-option of members of the Public Accounts Committee. Just a few weeks later, you appeared at the Bersih 4.0 protests to advocate the prime minister’s removal. Can you expand on your decision to attend in light of your opinion that democracy is dead?
Well, that is a kind of last resort. I feel the need to express my opinion, and since I hold the same view as Bersih, with regard to the removal of the prime minister, I went. It’s not a racial thing. The people at Bersih come from all communities. It’s not a Chinese demonstration against a Malay government. It’s not racist at all. So I went to express my support for what they are demanding.
Does that include Bersih’s other demands, such as electoral reforms, the right to protest, and more transparency?
I’m not against those things, but during my time, there were no protests. There was no Bersih. People were happy to participate in elections. They didn’t dispute the results of elections. It was only after I stepped down that there was Bersih, that [its supporters] demonstrated and made all these demands. These are things that happened after I stepped down. During my time people didn’t complain about elections. There may be extraneous people who will always complain, but to have a general demonstration like that, there was none.
What is your opinion of the counter-demonstration that followed Bersih 4.0, the so-called “red-shirt rally” in September?
That was organized by the government. They turned the Bersih demonstration into a racial thing, Chinese against Malays, which it is not. But they have to divert the attention of the demands of Bersih on 1MDB to something else, and they made race an issue. This is very dangerous, but the government wants to get people to show support for them.
Malaysia’s current credit rating is still A3 at Moody’s. But, as you mentioned, the ringgit has rapidly depreciated, public and household debt are very high, and the 1MDB scandal has cast political uncertainty over the country. Do you see a credit downgrade ahead?
It might happen. The way things are going, it might happen. Because now to pay our debts, which were made in foreign currencies including the U.S. dollar, we need more ringgit. And to make more ringgit, we need to have a good economy. But we are not having a good economy. We are not growing as fast; we are not getting richer, we are actually getting poorer.
How would it be possible to raise investor confidence in Malaysia?
At the moment I think if the prime minister is not there, confidence will return.
Would it be so simple? What about legal redress if he were to step down, or the repairing of supervisory and judiciary powers to check future scandals?
All these things can be done, provided the prime minister is not there.
Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic for such an outcome?
I’m very pessimistic.
It seems that there is a political stalemate, and further public protests are unlikely.
There should be a vote of non-confidence. But that all depends on the members of parliament being conscious about their duties. The members of parliament are indebted or obliged or owe something to the prime minister, so they are not going to do it.
Then what recourse is left to citizens?
The next election. Three years for the next election. Even then there is no certainty because money goes a long way toward changing peoples’ minds. And the people who are close to the prime minister don’t have money; the prime minister has a lot of money. He admitted so.
Do you feel personally invested in the outcome of these events? Tracing your career and your writings, it seems that the progress of the country, the progress of Malays and Malaysia, has been a lifelong project.
Every citizen would like to see his country prosper so that he can enjoy his life. Some are able to do something; some are not able to do anything. But I found myself in a position to do something, so I have become prominent. And since then, people seem to have accepted some of the things that I say. So I have a better chance to do something than most ordinary people. I am an ordinary citizen, but with better possibility of doing something.
Do you have a vision for what sort of leadership you would like to see?
A leader must be concerned about the country, not about himself. You have to, to a certain extent, preserve your position, but the preservation is possibly because it enables you to do things that are good for the country.
Do you have anybody in mind as the next leader?
Well, I think normally it would be the former deputy president of UMNO. But now, of course, things are very free.
So no comment on specific names?
Maybe the former deputy prime minister.
If you were to reprint your 1986 treatise The Challenge this year with a new chapter posing the modern challenge to Malaysia, what would that chapter say?
I have always thought that leadership would be concerned with getting on with the tasks of a leader. But I now find that being a leader alone is not enough. The kind of leadership we have should be one that has the capacity to focus not on himself, but on what is good for the country. Now I find that not anybody can be a leader. You need somebody that is dedicated to the cause of doing something for the country.
I wanted to ask about the major international frameworks facing Malaysia, including the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. What are your thoughts on these agreements, and in particular, Malaysia’s balance between the U.S. and China?
During my time, the concentration in foreign policy was to be friendly with all countries. But in particular we paid attention to the smaller countries, developing countries. We initiated South-South organization. I have always been critical of the U.S. because of U.S. policy. The U.S. tends to have a finger in every country, and when they come in, there will be trouble. You see this in the Middle East and elsewhere. They wanted to come to Malaysia also, but during my time I rejected their approach.
Now they have proposed TPP, as you know. And TPP is a device for them; obviously it is for their own good. And what they want to do is open up markets everywhere so that they can come in. The opposite is that “you can come into our country,” but we don’t have the strength to go there. We don’t have the products to sell there, whereas they have everything. They have the capital, they have the knowhow, they can buyout small or big companies here. And eventually, they will rule all the businesses. And that means also political control.
Many think that Najib’s administration will pass the TPP. Do you agree?
He doesn’t study the implications enough. Even if he does study, his policy is to be friendly with Americans. So he is prepared to disregard the national interest in favor of being friendly with America and complying with American ideas.
Regarding China, what I thought was very interesting was your proposal of the East Asian Economic Caucus in December 1990. This pioneered an identity of East Asia, moving away from the Cold War-era concepts of Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. Now, ideas of Asia are dominated by China. How should Malaysia posture itself toward China?
Well, the EAEC, or East Asian Economic Caucus or Community, was suggested because of the failure of GATT, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Because of that failure, we found ourselves having to confront other countries, economies of the West. But they enhanced their strength by Europe coming together, North America coming together. If Malaysia is to counter their moves, we need to strengthen ourselves. We need a bigger bloc. And that bigger bloc should be East Asia. Not just Southeast Asia because it’s too small, too weak. Southeast Asia plus East Asia will be very powerful. Then we can go to any meeting and speak with a powerful voice, with one voice. But of course the Americans shot down that plan to Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Indonesia – “they must not do this” – because America does not want anybody contesting them. So we couldn’t go ahead with that.
Then China emerged as a very powerful economy. Our policy is to be friendly with all countries, but we think China is the counterbalance to America. So we developed a policy of being friendly to China. China and Malaysia have very good relations.
What about South China Sea issues?
Well, that is a problem, and we will try to deal with that.
Are you worried about competition from other Southeast Asian countries, like Indonesia, Thailand, and now Vietnam as a new “tiger economy”?
No, we had a policy that says “prosper thy neighbor.” We believe that if the neighbors are prosperous, they give you less trouble. If they are poor, they tend to migrate to our country, create a lot of problems and confrontations, et cetera. But if they are prosperous, we can benefit by exporting to them, trading with them. I think we had an edge because we started earlier. Despite everything, we were better industrialized than Indonesia or Philippines or Vietnam.
But now, because the administration does not focus on economic development, we are falling back. We are not growing as fast as Indonesia, as fast as Philippines, as fast as Vietnam. That was the government’s mistake. Because they either don’t know or they don’t care whether the country grows or not. So our neighbors, when they have become prosperous, they will benefit from our lack of ability to compete.
It seems your mood today is overall quite pessimistic on Malaysia’s reputation, its state of democracy, and economic prospects. Is there something to give Malaysians hope?
The people are very good people. Malaysians are very tolerant. In other countries, with the kind of divisions in terms of race and culture and economic wellbeing, there would be confrontations, there would be violence. But here, they may have tensions between races, but it doesn’t escalate to the point of violence.
So you have faith that, even with racial tensions rising, there will not be violence?
Unless of course somebody does something very wrong. One has to remember that, way back, there was a communist uprising in this country to overthrow the government by violence. It has happened before. In 1969, there was race violence. But generally, people in Malaysia here are quite peaceful.
Joyce Lee is currently a master’s student at the London School of Economics, completing a dual degree in international affairs between PKU and LSE.