Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad discusses his return to political power, Malaysia’s continued development, and its foreign policy within Southeast Asia and with the United States.
BUSSEY: I’m John Bussey, the associate editor of The Wall Street Journal, and I’ll be presiding today.
Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much for joining us. We’re happy to have you today. Let’s talk a little bit about China. You’ve cancelled various—(laughter)—I know that’s what you have on your mind—you’ve cancelled various Chinese investment projects in Malaysia. Are you worried about China exerting too much economic influence over your country?
MOHAMAD: Well, we cancelled the projects not because of China but because our previous government borrowed too much money and entered into contracts which were not beneficial for Malaysia. We had to put a stop to that. Of course, in the process the Chinese contractors lost out, but we have explained to them that it is not because of them. It is because of our prime minister—previous prime minister entering into contracts which was detrimental to the country’s economy. That’s the reason. And I think, as far as the relationship with China is concerned, we still find it friendly.
BUSSEY: We saw an election in the Maldives on this issue of Chinese investment, partly. We’ve seen projects canceled by Myanmar. Is there kind of an arc of resistance that’s forming in Asia to some of these investment(s) by China?
MOHAMAD: Most of these investments benefit China most, and I think once a country realizes that it’s not doing them anything good, I think they have a right to reexamine and even to cancel. In the case of Malaysia, of course, this contract to build the East Coast Rail involves borrowing from China and the condition is that it must be given to a Chinese company to construct the rail, and this—the money never entered Malaysia at all.
The payment is made in China to the Chinese contractor and the payment is made at certain times, a fixed payment for progress of work. So we have now paid about thirty percent. Well, the progress of work is only thirteen percent. That is not good for us, and Malaysian contractors have practically no role to play and, certainly, Malaysian workers have no jobs that they can do that. All the work is hired from China.
So you can see how one-sided it is. So we have to renegotiate the project, and we also feel that the project is not viable, and therefore, if we can avoid it or, rather, drop it altogether, it will be good. But that may cost us a lot of money and, therefore, we have decided to either reduce the scale or else postpone the project.
BUSSEY: You’ve talked in the past about an era of a new colonialism. What did you mean by that?
MOHAMAD: Well, it was President Sukarno who talked about new colonialism. So colonialism can take many forms. When a country is subject to pressures through economic system, then it is a way of—it is a kind of colonialism also.
BUSSEY: The—China’s passage through time has been one of a poor nation. It’s been one of a rich nation. You’ve seen both. Which one concerns you more, a poor China or a rich China?
MOHAMAD: What we notice is that when China is poor, people say it is dangerous. When China becomes rich, it seems also to be dangerous. (Laughter.) And, therefore, basically, it is the fear of China, being a very big country—1.4 billion people—and very industrious hard-working people who are very productive. And for other reasons—when you see people who are doing so well you also get worried about them.
BUSSEY: Right. We’ll switch topics to Mr. Trump. I’m curious about your assessment of our—of our president, Donald Trump. What do you think about him?
MOHAMAD: Well, I don’t know how to make any opinion about Mr. Trump because he changes his views, even in a matter of hours. He said he wanted to meet the president of Korea. Then he said he will not meet, and then he says he will meet. So it’s very difficult to make out what he wants to do. Dealing with people who is not consistent is a big problem.
BUSSEY: And his positions on Asia—are they wise ones, in the mind of Malaysians? Is it good for Malaysia or not good for Malaysia?
MOHAMAD: I don’t know. I get the impression that he doesn’t know much about Asia and therefore, he makes decisions that are not based on realities, on the facts on the ground, and he seems to be thinking about America and thinking only about how, well, make America great again—(laughter)—and that’s all that he was thinking. He wasn’t thinking about foreign (leadership ?).
BUSSEY: He’s pushing—he’s pushing back on China in a different way. You’re doing it through negotiation and canceling contracts, and he’s doing it through trade policy. Do you agree with his approach?
MOHAMAD: No, I don’t think so. I think—we have traded with China for nearly two thousand years—(laughter)—exchanging forest products with Le Ko Wei (ph) and things like that. But China never conquered us. We have relations with Europe. The Portuguese came to Malaysia in 1509. Two years later, they came and conquered us. So I always feel that I’m safer with China than with Europe. (Laughter.)
BUSSEY: And his particular approach, tell me what your—what your assessment is of the trade frictions that are forming between the U.S. and China.
MOHAMAD: I think you can make America great in many other ways. But having a trade war is not the best way of serving America.
BUSSEY: Yeah. Who’s likely to outlast the other, in your mind? Is it China or the U.S.? Who’s going to—who’s going to outlast—I hesitate saying win the trade war because there’s probably no winner. But who’s likely to outlast the other?
MOHAMAD: I think China has been there for the past four thousand years. It’s difficult to get rid of China.
BUSSEY: U.S. is putting economic pressure through these trade tariffs on China. Its economy has been slowing. It’s got debt issues. It’s an economic leverage with China. You don’t think so?
MOHAMAD: Thirty years ago, China was a very poor country and they survived. So you can make it poor again. I think it will survive.
BUSSEY: So is the—is the U.S. less of a leader in China these days or is that being overstated because we’ve had a change in administration?
MOHAMAD: Well, I think the U.S. president is a very powerful man. Whatever he does affects the whole nation and also affects the whole world. So it is a question of personality, not so much a question of nation. I don’t think Americans are in full agreement with your president all the time. But this one, I think—I think more Americans are unhappy with the president than at other times with other presidents.
BUSSEY: So if our president were sitting here, what would—what would you advise him to do differently regarding policy in Asia? What would—what would you want him to do on Asia?
MOHAMAD: To be consistent. Be consistent. If you want to fight us, say you want to fight us. If you don’t want to fight us, you don’t have to be friends. Say you are—be a friend and be friends.
BUSSEY: Are there other things that he could be doing? Do you agree with his kind of supporting Japan’s expansion of its military? Are there other policies that you think he should pursue?
MOHAMAD: America’s response to any particular crisis is to send warships. I don’t think that is a very good idea. It creates tension. It is a kind of provocation. That is why Malaysia has expressed its foreign policy and those are not having warships stationed in that area—South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca. We don’t want warships because you put a warship there and the other side will try to counter that with more warships, and soon you build up tensions, and then somebody becomes trigger happy and you have problems.
BUSSEY: Mm hmm. So, hopefully, that trajectory doesn’t take shape. But fifteen, twenty years from now, what do you think the balance of power will look like in Asia and in the world?
MOHAMAD: Fifteen, twenty years from now would mean Mr. Trump is not going to be around. I think other Americans are quite reasonable people. And so we hope that people realize that peace is better than war.
BUSSEY: You’re counting on our election process, are you? Is that—(laughter)—you’re rolling the dice and hoping that the American election process will solve the problem?
MOHAMAD: Well, it will. We have had—I’ve gone through many presidents of the United States—
MOHAMAD: —and each one has different ideas.
BUSSEY: But what will that balance look like? Will the United States and China find a way for there to be two major political powers?
MOHAMAD: Whether we like it or not, China is there and China is going to play a bigger role in world affairs. So one has to learn how to live with China. Malaysia has lived with China for two thousand years and we know a little bit about them, and we have survived. Small little Malaysian states have survived many centuries being with neighbors which are more powerful, including China.
BUSSEY: It’s a different era now. It’s a China building aircraft carries—still talking about a peaceful rise but with an ever more powerful military. Is that relationship satisfactory for China, do you think? Is it OK with the status quo or is it seeking larger control over South China Seas?
MOHAMAD: We realize we are a weak nation and China is a powerful nation, and, you know, powerful nations will do what they like. Weak nations will have to submit, to a certain extent.
BUSSEY: Changing topics, Mr. Najib—he’s been charged with offenses in the scandal of 1MBD—MDB. How deep into UMNO—into the political party that ran the country under Mr.—the former prime minister, Najib—how deeply does this scandal go? Is it—is it something that’s going to create a fair amount of dislocation in the political structure of Malaysia and is UMNO worth saving?
MOHAMAD: Well, I was president of UMNO for twenty-two years. During that time, the people did not clamor for me to step down or to be defeated in election. In fact, I stepped down on my own free will. I resigned. And I expect that presidents of UMNO would think about the purpose of having that party to serve the nation.
But Najib is quite different. Very early on, he told me that cash is king, and when you say cash is king it means you are saying bribery—bribing is OK. That was when I decided I couldn’t stay in the party anymore. So this man actually feels that he is immune to any action against him. He’s going to be permanently the prime minister of Malaysia. He didn’t even hide the fact that he will be stealing money.
The whole world knows that he stole money. But he—if you tell him that you steal money, he smiles. He believes. But we have proven that cash is not king. The will of the people will prevail over cash.
BUSSEY: So how deep into the party does the corruption go?
BUSSEY: How deep into the—
MOHAMAD: Oh, it’s very deep. He has undermined the leadership of the party, even the rank and file, because he gives them money—all of them. Everybody gets some money or other for free. So they support him because some of them feel comfortable with more money, and the administrative machinery has also been undermined. He made administrators serve his party—campaign for his party. That is not what they’re supposed to do. They are supposed to take all this from the elected government, of course, but not to campaign for the party. That is not their job. And now I have a problem trying to weed out some of these people who are still loyal to him, in a way.
BUSSEY: Malaysia has fractious political structure. Can it withstand a long-term examination and investigation of Umno at some point doesn’t that doesn’t political instability in the country?
MOHAMAD: Well, many people, now that they don’t fear Najib anymore, they are leaving Umno. Umno is fragmented, now is going to collapse. There is no future for Umno anymore because the people as a whole detest Umno. That is why they supported those positions so strongly.
BUSSEY: Jho Low, the mastermind of the—of the 1MDB crisis—he’s in China. Have you talked to China about giving him back for prosecution?
MOHAMAD: Well, we have no extradition treaty with them. It is quite tricky for us to sort of accuse China of hiding him. So we’re trying to work out some with our private efforts to get back Jho Low from China.
BUSSEY: He’s said publicly that he sees himself as a Chinese intelligence asset. Is it possible China views him the same way?
MOHAMAD: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I don’t think China has a good—any respect for him at all.
BUSSEY: Then why not put him on a boat? Not his yacht, but put him on a boat back to Malaysia? Why not send him back to Malaysia? Why hasn’t China?
MOHAMAD: Well, we don’t really know what the Chinese are thinking.
BUSSEY: What’s your best guess?
MOHAMAD: Well—(laughter)—maybe he’s a bargaining chip or something like that.
BUSSEY: Anwar Ibrahim. You’ve indicated that you’re going to hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim in the two years after you became prime minister again. Is that still on track? What’s that process going to look like, getting Anwar Ibrahim into the next prime ministership?
MOHAMAD: That was the promise that we made when we formed our coalition, that he should succeed me after a period of time. And I keep to my promise.
BUSSEY: So what will happen? Is there a date or is there a schedule?
MOHAMAD: Well, the people are getting used to the idea that prime ministers do change.
BUSSEY: And so what—
MOHAMAD: I think therefore twenty-two years, to the point that people thought that prime ministers—
BUSSEY: They never change.
MOHAMAD: Never change. But now they are seeing a number of prime ministers changing. So if he takes over, it’s lesser change.
BUSSEY: So your schedule is still, in your mind, two years after your having become prime minister again, you’ll hand over the office to Anwar Ibrahim.
MOHAMAD: Yeah. That’s my promise.
BUSSEY: You’ve talked in the past about the rise of Islamist politics in the region, and some concern about that. You’re seeing more of that in Indonesia now, the Islamic Party in Malaysia, one in the northern state of Terengganu. Can you give us your sense of your level of concern about this? Is this something that is going to agitate the region or not?
MOHAMAD: Well, in Malaysia the Islamic Party has never made any progress in terms of getting to be a part of the central government. They have been able to win in states, but not in the center, until they tried working with the other parties. Very soon, the other parties were not happy with them. So they have left the other parties. This time, they have fought on their own, but with some collaboration with Umno. But the performance not good. It’s true that they managed to capture the governments of two states, but the total number of federal representatives they get is quite small. At one time, they—when they working with other parties—they had as many as twenty-seven members of parliament. Now they get only about eighteen members. So they’re not doing well, and they’re not going to do well.
BUSSEY: And in Indonesia.
BUSSEY: Indonesia, yes.
MOHAMAD: Indonesia, yes. Like all countries, there will be extremists. They will create a lot of problem. But I think, by and large, the Indonesians are not extreme in their views of their religion. They are not likely to support this extremist group.
BUSSEY: I want to get to questions from the audience in just a minute, but one more—one more question for you. Nationalism under the guise of populism is reasserting itself around the world. You see that in the United States. You’ve seen that widespread in Europe. You’re seeing it in Asia. What do you—what do you make of—how would you characterize this era of kind of global politics? Is this as new as we think it is, or has it always been an undercurrent in global politics?
MOHMAD: Well, nationalism is not something bad. It is good. But it must be moderate. When we were under British rule, we decided that we should be—we should be independent. And to be independent, we need to have a nationalist spirit. And we—based on that, we were able to gather people who would go against the British. And we succeeded. But if we didn’t have any sense of nationalism, we would be quite happy to be under the British for eternity.
BUSSEY: And now with this supposed nationalism tilting right, particularly in Europe, what do you make of that? Is that a danger sign? Or is that something that the global political system can metabolize and move through?
MOHAMAD: I think nationalism has always been there, in Europe and in all the other countries. It needs to be tested. What happens today is that you have a huge number of migrants coming to their country, and suddenly they became conscious that they do not want their country to be populated by people of a different race. And then they become very nationalistic in that sense. Otherwise they will tell people, oh, this is wrong. You mustn’t be like that. You should be open and all that. It doesn’t happen to them, but when it happens to them—you see, when we were under the British, the British brought in Chinese and Indians and all that. We didn’t protest because we thought that these people were not going to be permanent. They were not going to be citizens. But when we wanted independence we were told that unless you give citizenship to all these people from other countries, you will not be independent. See? So we had to make adjustment of course.
But in the case of Europe at this moment, millions of migrants coming to Europe would change the color of Europe. And that is not something the Europeans want. So their feeling of nationalism becomes more heated, perhaps. And they suddenly feel that this is their country, and nobody should come.
BUSSEY: Mmm hmm. But that leads to what, in your mind? Eventual absorption of the migrants, or more hostile politics?
MOHAMAD: My belief is that in fifty years’ time all the countries of the world will be like Malaysia, with a multiracial population. (Laughter.) Now borders are very porous. People can move around. And you cannot stop people from settling wherever they want to settle. So, as in the United States, you see policemen who are Indians—East Indians. But Malaysia has always had Malays, Chinese, and Indians, and different types living together. In the future, there will be invasion from the poor countries into the rich countries. And the rich countries will have a mixed population, just like Malaysia. It’s a matter of time.
BUSSEY: Let’s get to the members of the Council for some questions. And just a bit of housekeeping, this is all on the record. (Laughs.) Just a reminder of that. Wait for a microphone to come find you. State your name and affiliation, please. And limit yourself to just one question. We have a slightly truncated time today. So if you could limit yourself to one question, and be concise, so that we can get to as many members as possible. Yes, right here in the second row, right there.
Q: I’m Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist.
It’s about you and Anwar Ibrahim. Things were so bad between you two that he several times was put in jail on charges of sodomy that many people thought were trumped-up charges. And then you’ve made a reconciliation, which seems to me quite amazing. Can you tell me why and how you achieved that?
MOHAMAD: It’s a question of priority. Najib is so bad that we must get rid of him. And to get rid of him, the opposition must work together. So we all decided that we should forget the past, work together, and get rid of this mess. And that’s what happened.
BUSSEY: It was a practical decision. Any thought to maybe getting rid of the sodomy laws that he was put in prison under? Is there any consideration now, in reflecting on Anwar Ibrahim, of getting rid of the sodomy laws under which he was imprisoned?
MOHMAD: Our sodomy laws are sodomy laws. We have a different sets of values. Most of us are Muslims. And we still feel very strong. And, well, this, of course, happens without the knowledge of people at that time. But now to have them made public as something legal is something that cannot be accepted by the majority of the people in Malaysia.
BUSSEY: Right here. We had a—microphone? OK.
Q: I have a very simple question. How do you define success, and do you believe you have achieved it?
MOHAMAD: What is that?
Q: How do you define success, and do you believe you have achieved it? Have you been successful.
MOHAMAD: I don’t know. It’s for others to judge me. (Laughter.) I—if I were to judge myself, then I am a greatly successful man. (Laughter.) I don’t think there are many people in history who came back after fifteen years at ninety-three. (Laughter.)
BUSSEY: Anything over here, for geographic diversity? Yes, right here. And then, Minky, I’m going to come to—OK.
Q: I’m Hani Findakly of the Clinton Group.
On the issue of 1MDB, there are reports that there are prominent figures and institutions that were involved in the money laundering issues in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. And a number of investigative agencies around the world, including here in New York, have been investigating that. Have you reached out to those institutions and individuals in the Middle East? And where do you think this is going to impact the relationship with these countries?
MOHAMAD: The number of people involved in money laundering is so big that it is not possible to get at them all at this time. It has to be in stages. We go for the big ones first. And it seems to me, dedicate ourselves to the rule of law. That process takes a longer time. We just can’t grab a person and throw him in jail, which was what was done before. But nowadays, no such law. So we want to give—provide proper evidence acceptable to the courts. And for that, we need a lot if investigations and documents. So slowly we will get at all the others.
BUSSEY: But to this question—the question was, are you engaging with outside authorities, like the Department of Justice, like the Swiss authorities?
MOHAMAD: Oh, yes. Yes. We are working closely with them. Before they did ask for cooperation from the Malaysian attorney general, but he was unwilling. But now it is different. We are working very closely with the Department of Justice, with the Swiss AG, and with other people.
BUSSEY: How is this affecting your relationship with the Saudis, given that they were used by Najib as an excuse for where the money came from?
MOHAMAD: Well, we haven’t made any direct accusation against them. What we have done, of course, is something that—like pulling back our troops and all that. That is not connected. Of course, the—we don’t know really what the Saudis think. But we—if they are really—if they did give the money to Najib, just show us evidence. So far, no evidence.
BUSSEY: Yeah. Over here. Yes.
Q: Akshaya Kumar with Human Rights Watch.
My question is about the Rohingya crisis, which Malaysia has been quite engaged in over the years. At Human Rights Watch we’ve documented ethnic cleansing by Myanmar military against the Rohingya, which has forced hundreds of thousands to flee across the border. We’ve used satellite images to count over three hundred villages burned. I, myself, went to the camps and spoke to rape victims who have suffered greatly. What we want to know, and what the victims consistently ask us, is where is our prospect for justice? The U.N. has a fact-finding mission which has said some senior Myanmar generals should be tried or considered to be tried for genocide. What is Malaysia willing to do at this General Assembly and going forward in the U.N. in the third committee to support this cry for justice and attempt to document what happened against the Rohingya?
MOHAMAD: In the ASEAN group of countries, we decided that we should not interfere in the internal affairs of members states. We would like to stick to that. But what happened was that in Cambodia, they murdered two million people and they did nothing. I think that was wrong. We had to do something. Now it is happening again with the Rohingya. And I think not just Malaysia, but the world should draw a line about not interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. Actually, there is interference. For example, some foreign countries do meddle with the elections of another country. It happens sometimes.
BUSSEY: Oh, really? (Laughter.)
BUSSEY: I’m sorry.
MOHAMAD: So if you can go that far, I think it is far more important that something very, very strong should be—some strong action should be taken to stop this kind of massacre of their own population. It should not be allowed.
BUSSEY: What form would that strong action take? (Background noise.) We’ll get maybe one of our techs to reapply the microphone here.
MOHAMAD: Sometimes I thought that some form of military action may be taken. It’s not something that we like to talk about. We want to be independent. We don’t want to be—we have people interfering in the affairs of our own countries. But on the other hand, when countries go for genocide, I think there is enough reason for them to go in. We saw this happening in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Cambodia, and now in Myanmar. So I think the world needs to sit down and think about the limits of non-interference.
BUSSEY: But it’s before the General Assembly. Are you saying that it should be a U.N. troop engagement in Myanmar?
MOHAMAD: I’m not saying it publicly. I’m saying it privately. (Laughter.)
MOHAMAD: Although, this is not quite private. I know you will talk about it. You will publish about it. (Laughter.)
BUSSEY: So that’s a yes, some kind of a U.N. force to put down the genocide.
MOHAMAD: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. If in Indonesia we massacre all the Chinese and Indians, I think you have a right to move in. (Laughter.)
BUSSEY: Interesting. OK, yes, right here. Second row. And then we’ll move back. Right here in the red, please.
Q: Jean Herskovits, State University of New York.
Mr. Prime Minister, you have been critical not only of Chinese investment, but also of their—the loans that they make at supposedly low interest. What advice would you give to African leaders who see the urgent need to build their infrastructure and really no alternative to Chinese involvement to do that relatively rapidly?
BUSSEY: Well, before the last government of Malaysia, the Najib government, we only build—develop Malaysia based on whatever money we have. We didn’t borrow very much. Talks about billions of dollars in borrowing is not on. And yet, we were able to develop our country quite well. I think governments must always be very conservative with regard to borrowing. You must remember that when you borrow, you must pay. And now we find difficulty to pay back the loans that were raised by Najib. It’s bad, because then you have—you know, whoever lends you money, in a way, has some power over you.
BUSSEY: Yes, right in the middle here, please.
Q: Thank you. Jamie Metzl, Atlantic Council.
Mr. Prime Minister, can you please talk a little bit more about the reopening of the case of the murder in 2006 of the Mongolian translator in Malaysia?
MOHAMAD: Well, the parents of Altantuya has requested that we reopen the case. At the moment, we have not really made an official decision on that. But if we find evidence that there is a need for another hearing by the courts, we will consider opening the case.
BUSSEY: Yes, right here in the white, please.
Q: Joan Spero, Columbia University.
Prime Minister, could—the United States has pulled out of the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Do you—could you give us your view about the future of that organization?
And it was originally to be sort of a centerpiece of U.S. relations with Asia. Where is it going?
MOHAMAD: Well, the new government has not really considered that. We will have to think about what kind of policy we will have on that issue.
BUSSEY: But that was a major step back from Asia by the United States, and it was also meant as something of a bulwark against China, or not—or ultimately with China. The expectation was that at some point in the future China would come into the TPP, and therefore the elements of the TPP like restricting state-owned enterprises and arbitration clauses were really meant with China in mind. Isn’t that—isn’t that ultimately—I mean, you talk about free and open trade. Isn’t that ultimately where this—relations between countries need to go, is in the direction of—that was supplied by the TPP?
MOHAMAD: Well, the negotiation on the TPP was done by the previous government. I was not involved. I express—(inaudible)—opposition to it because it was not a fair kind of trade agreement because it will give companies the power to sue governments for future—loss of future profits and things like that. I thought that that was too dangerous for small countries to be associated with.
Of course, then the U.S. withdrew. But although the U.S. withdrew, there seemed to be less fear of the TPP. But we find that the TPP tends to take a stand that is almost anti-Chinese.
BUSSEY: Anti-? I’m sorry.
BUSSEY: Uh-huh. Yeah.
MOHAMAD: So I think any trade agreement in that area must include all the countries, not—no discrimination against any country. So that is why we have not made any final decision on that. We are still looking at the pros and cons. And Malaysia has a peculiar problem because we are in the process of reshaping our economy so that the distribution of wealth is more equitable among the different races in Malaysia.
BUSSEY: Did that answer your question? OK.
Over here in the middle. We’ll go to the back and we’ll come back to the front.
Q: Tobias Harris, Teneo Intelligence.
I actually want to follow up to the TPP question and talk about Japan’s role in Asia. You’ve spoken well of Japan in the past and have viewed it as a model in some ways for development in Asia, and it played an important role of reviving TPP. What role do you think Japan should play as Asia evolves, as China gets stronger?
MOHAMAD: Well, that’s a very difficult question to answer because I can’t predict what China will do. Although, of course, when it becomes strong, it tends to exert its strength and impose on others its will. But so far it has not been too bad. We still could maintain friendship with China.
BUSSEY: He’s talking, though, about Japan, what is the role that Japan is—Japan is going to play in Asia.
MOHAMAD: Japan, I think, would be sort of counterbalance for China, in a way. But, of course, Japan is very close to the U.S., and sometimes we felt it is too close, it is not healthy. (Laughter.)
BUSSEY: In the back, please.
Q: Hi, Prime Minister. I’m Anvin Phan (ph) from Walmart.
I heard at the end of your talk your mentioning that other countries will be like Malaysia, and that as the country becomes wealthier there will be migrants from poorer countries entering your country. I was actually in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year and began to talk to different citizens and different sectors. And as your citizen grows, there will be natural sectors in your economy that are less favorable to work in—construction, manufacturing—that people, as they have economic growth, will not want to work in janitorial services, and there will be a natural influx of migrant workers into your countries. I am curious about your government’s approach to these migrant workers and sort of best practices that you hope to foster, especially as you’re sort of one of the first cases where these migrant workers are flowing, how you will approach the issue. Thank you.
MOHAMAD: Well, when people of other races come into a country, sometimes they come in to do the dirty work that the locals do not want to do, and other times they come in because they see opportunities which the locals do not see and they do very well. And when there is too much difference in terms of performance between the indigenous people and the immigrants, there is bound to be tension and conflict, and it may even result in violence.
So in Malaysia we tried to reduce the disparities between the different races. We did what is called affirmative action. But somehow or other, when we tried to reduce the difference between the rich and the poor, and the indigenous people and the immigrants, people accuse us of being unfair to the immigrants who were doing extremely well. Well, we think that it is not fair to let immigrant races become extremely rich and the indigenous people become very, very extremely poor.
So in Malaysia somehow or other we have managed to make certain corrections which has resulted in the country becoming stable, and the people still live and work together. And they even form political parties which does not differentiate within the immigrants and the indigenous people. It is a question of management and will.
I think in Burma, for example, in Myanmar, when it became independent, the first thing that it did was to expel the Indians because the Indians controlled the economy of Myanmar. And as you know, in African states also and in Fiji, that thing happened.
It is not wise to allow any particular group to be too far ahead as to cause extreme disparities. Even in a single ethnic country, if the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor, there is going to be conflict. There will be tension. But when the rich are of one race and the poor of another race, that amplifies the difference, and that invariably leads to tension and maybe violence and wars.
BUSSEY: Right here. Yes. Right in the second row here.
Q: Good morning, Mr. Prime Minister. Nehad Chowdhury with Citigroup.
In two years’ time you intend to hand over the reins to Mr. Anwar Ibrahim. Aside from the corruption issues of the prior government, what is the other major policy goal or priority that you would like to have established in the next two years and which you’d like to see Mr. Anwar Ibrahim continue with?
MOHAMAD: Well, basically, it is just a return to democratic practices, rule of law, human rights, and all that. That we will have to promote.
But other than that, we still see problems of differences between the different races in terms of economic wealth. That, too, will have to be attended with.
As far as foreign relations is concerned, we just continue with our policy of being friendly with all countries of the world irrespective of our ideologies.
BUSSEY: Right here in the middle of the—
Q: Rick Niu from C.V. Starr.
Good morning, Mr. Prime Minister. You mentioned India a couple of times. With the U.S. and China in the backdrop, do you see that India is going to play a very important economic and political influential role in Asia over the next ten years? Thank you.
MOHAMAD: India, whether it’s rich or poor, is too big to swallow, is too big. So I think people will have to look to take into consideration the situation in India.
It is a democratic country, which means of course that there will be a lot of breakup or division in the country. But I think by and large India has done very well, despite the fact that they are people of different races, different language, and all that. So I think the presence of India in itself provides a balance in Asia.
BUSSEY: Over here. Did I see a—yes, right here.
Q: Lester Wigler, Morgan Stanley.
Prime Minister, we’ve had a statement from senior American military leadership that, short of war, China has complete control of the South China Sea. Do you think if there was any kind of a pushback in the international community that would serve Malaysia’s interests? Thank you.
MOHAMAD: I don’t think China has complete control in the sense that they forbid other shipping and other warships from going into the South China Sea. We have always emphasized and spoken to China that it is all right for them to have their One Road, One—One Belt, One Road policy, so long as they allow ships to pass through the Straits of Malacca and also the South China Sea. And so far, that has—there is no evidence that they are stopping even warships from going into this area. Our belief is that you shouldn’t station warships in the area because you are bound to create tension.
BUSSEY: To this question, though, as China gets more active in the South China Sea, is it in the interest of Malaysia for countries like the United States to also become more visible, at a minimum, in the South China Sea?
MOHAMAD: For us, the most important thing is whether we can pass through. So long as they don’t stop ships, damage ships, or blockade the area, it’s fine with us because we are a trading nation. We need the seas for ourselves. And so far there has been no indication that they will stop ships from passing through.
BUSSEY: We have time for one more. Minky?
Q: Thank you. Minky Worden from Human Rights Watch.
You’ve talked about putting Malaysia back on a path to transparency, democracy, and accountability. I’d also—because Malaysia and you have done such a—you’ve played such an instrumental role in shaping ASEAN from the beginning. Would you be prepared also to work to put ASEAN itself on a track to democracy, human rights, and transparency?
MOHAMAD: We believe in leadership by example. If you can show that our system works very well for Malaysia, I think others might want to copy. No question of our preaching to them. We are not in a position to preach to our neighbors.
BUSSEY: We’ve reached the end of our time. Prime Minister Mahathir, thank you very much for joining us. (Applause.)