A Conversation With Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia

Thursday, September 21, 2023
Lim Huey Teng/Reuters

Prime Minister, Malaysia


President and Chief Executive Officer, Henry Luce Foundation; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

Introductory Remarks

Chairman Emeritus, Council on Foreign Relations; Former U.S. Treasury Secretary (1995–99)

RUBIN: OK. (Laughs.) Good afternoon. I’m Bob Rubin. I’m co-chair emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. And it is my enormous privilege to welcome an old personal friend to the Council today, Prime Minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim.

The discussion will be held—or, rather, will be moderated by Mariko Silver, President and CEO of Luce Foundation, and a new member of the Council’s board. In accordance with the practices of the Council, I’m not going to read from his resume, but I think you have it in your materials. In any event, it is an enormously distinguished and highly respected resume, and enormously distinguished and highly respected individual.

I want to make a few personal comments. I first met Anwar Ibrahim roughly the mid-’90s, I would say it was. And that was a time, as you may remember, of the Asian—well, it was the time leading into the Asian financial crisis. And Anwar became a friend, and a colleague. We, at the Treasury, had enormous respect for Anwar Ibrahim. And, as I said a moment ago, we really viewed him—even though he was a finance minister of another country, as a colleague of ours. And he was enormously helpful to us as we tried to think our way through the difficulties of the Asian financial crisis. So when Mike Froman, the president of the Council, asked me if I would introduce Anwar Ibrahim, I was really deeply, deeply honored to do so. And we just chatted for a little while and reminisced about those days, now thirty years ago, I guess, Anwar.

As all of you know, he has courageously stood for pluralism, for democracy, and reform in Malaysia at immense personal cost. And his wife and daughter carried on while he was falsely incarcerated. Today, as prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim continues to be a powerful force in Malaysia for democracy and pluralism, the values to which he has dedicated his life. The prime minister is a longstanding and greatly valued friend of the Council. He’s spoken here many times. And so we are enormously grateful to welcome back the Prime Minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim. And Mariko will conduct the discussion.

SILVER: Thank you, Secretary Rubin, for that introduction, and welcome, Prime Minister. Well now have, as is the Council tradition, about twenty-five minutes of conversation before opening up to questions from CFR members both in the room and online.

Prime Minister, you recently described your dream for Malaysia. And I’m sure you could do it better than I, but I’ll quote you if you’ll forgive me. You said, I want Malaysia to evolve as an example of a free society, a just, multiracial society, to preach humanity and compassion. That would depend largely on our ability to govern fairly and justly. I believe that with a strong sense of conviction and tenacity of purpose, we’ll able to bring Malaysia to the fore. Now, just last week you announced a new five-year development agenda. What in this new plan is going to help Malaysia turn the corner and realize that dream?

IBRAHIM: Thank you, Ms. Silver. I mean, since Bob Rubin is here, I must recognize his presence as a dear friend, dear colleague, who showed so much compassion and care in those difficult years. He was an outstanding Secretary of Treasury from, you know, a major economy. But he was so considerate, kind, and even for relatively small economies like Malaysia, he took us as a friend, listened quite a bit. The only problem with America, you know, everybody hectors, nobody listens. (Laughter.) But I see there’s an exception. Bob Rubin listened very well, tried understand our predicament. Thank you, Bob. In all those years when I was assigned to the—teaching at Georgetown University, he knew my background, my predicament. And he, with friends like Jim Wolfensohn, would take an extra effort to contact CFR and to make sure that I’m quite involved and with the support he gave. Thank you very much.

Now, I was here at the time of the—prior to the financial crisis, or at the beginning. Malaysia was not affected, but it was mainly Thailand, the Thai Baht Crisis, and Indonesia. And I think Maurice Greenberg moderated the session. And I got in a lot of trouble because of that speech in ’97. I started by saying—quoting Schumpeter, a gale of creative destruction. Why can’t we, in Asia, use that period to rebuild, to correct the flaws and weaknesses in the system? Particularly issue of governance, you have corruption, issue of faulty policies. And then I told a story. My colleague, well, he was then minister of finance of Indonesia. And that was the time of the Titanic. So I said—I met him. I said, Marie, why don’t you spend time, relax, and watch the Titanic? He said, Anwar, why do I need to watch the Titanic? I am in the Titanic! (Laughter.) So I asked him, what’s the problem? He said: I told the captain, slow down, sir! You’re going to crash. The captain says no, our fundamentals are strong, we go full steam ahead. And that was the disaster for Indonesia. So I said then—this was related to then-boss of mine, prime minister. And he said, Anwar, use (this saber ?) to attack the prime minister. And the rest is history. I was incarcerated for some years, and CFR was partly responsible. (Laughter.)

But, back to your question, Ms. Silver. I think what is important, particularly for those who have undergone some tribulations and triumphs in life, obviously my experience with Madiba, with Mandela. Soon after I was released—many times I was released, but particularly it was 2004. He invited me and the family to visit him in Joburg. And he was relaxed, cheerful. Then he started looking at my children, immediately changed. He was—he looked very disturbed. He was sad. He was teary. And he said, Anwar, we must be crazy, and no wonder some people consider us mad. So I tried to get him to relax a bit. I said, look, Madiba, yours was a long walk to freedom. Mine is a short walk to freedom. And we are certainly not mad, but I agree with you. We must be really crazy to do what we had to do. I think that should suffice as the answer.

SILVER: But you didn’t talk about Madani and you didn’t talk about an economic development plan. (Laughter.) So let’s spend a little time on that.

IBRAHIM: Yeah. Now, of course, we are in a position—I mean, I waited some years, worked hard. And, interestingly enough, we had a coalition of committed colleagues who understands that Malaysia can evolve, can emerge as a great economic working model for a pluralistic society, through peace, compassion, and harmony. Of course, with a clear vision for the country. So we call it the Madani Framework. Well, what’s different in the Madani Economic Framework? Of course, you talk about sustainability, you talk about the changes, and now digital transformation, renewable energy, and green—(inaudible).

But what is lacking, to my mind, particularly for humanity now, is that when people are so engrossed and obsess about development, there’s little concern about issues affecting humanity which requires compassion. I mean, religion and race are being used to create mischief, and enmity. To my mind, the relevance of religion for the matters of state and governance is to create a better understanding and tolerance. Not necessarily divorcing—I remain a Muslim, a practicing Muslim. But there’s nothing in religion which should be exploited to sow the seed of hatred, as you have seen with growing fascism in the Europe, the far-right here, which of course it’s concerning for countries like us.

So that is why we have crafted policy, but also tied to the dictates of the time, the zeitgeist, with the digital technology and green renewable energy. We have to address this, because they are the new realities we did not discuss the 1990s. It was not the central focus in the 1990s.

SILVER: So you talked about green transition, energy transition. The plan also talks about AI and smart tech industrial sectors. Talk to me a little bit about the role of foreign investment that you see in all of this, and particularly how you’re going to weigh partnerships with the U.S., partnerships with China. I’m sure you anticipated this question, and I’m sure you have an answer.

IBRAHIM: No, let’s say in ’90s—the ’90s did relatively well because we are a trading nation. We work through FTAs. And we were able to attract investments between the United States. The United States was the leading investor in the country. Even today, when we have improved trade and more investment from China, but the total investments into Malaysia today is still from the United States. And we have benefited immensely because United States companies, though tough negotiations, but in terms of training, in terms of transfer technology, we—I mentioned Dell this morning, for example. In terms of research center, other than in California, it is in Malaysia, the largest training and research outfit outside of the United States.

So we cannot affect change and propel the economy without attracting investments. Of course by attracting investments, it means that we have to make the necessary adjustments, the incentives, and the ease of doing business. And facing fierce competition from our neighbors, we need to do—surpass that. And I think, reasonably, we are rather successful, in many ways more successful, because when Tesla decided to move in, and AWS, Amazon, has come in with huge investments. You know, and even in Europe, Infineon with 5 billion euros. All are recent decisions which is required for this country.

Now, how do you balance this is China? To us, it is not—it’s not a zero-sum game, as far as we see it, from the perspective of a small, developing country. China happens to be a neighbor, a close neighbor, the largest investor in Malaysia, and huge trading within Malaysia. United States have been very loyal, traditional friend. We share many common values—democracy, human rights. And me personally, as I’ve said similar this morning, all administrations, from Clinton to Bush, they’ve been very supportive and outspoken to defend my—defending the period of my tribulations. So I, of course—and I have so many friends in the Senate, in the Congress, administration, and of course, in the various think tanks. And of course, CFR. So we need to then utilize this to benefit our country.

Now, the exchanges that I have had with China, of course, with Xi Jinping it was quite formal. But with Premier Li Qiang, it’s been three times since I took over office as prime minister. I mean, and that means—a lot of very serious, candid, frank discussion sessions. And that has helped immensely. Kamala Harris was in Jakarta. And during dinner, of course, these questions were raised. And I said contrary to general perception, we need China as a neighbor and as a trading partner. The United States is an important, traditional ally. Now, how do we manage that? We manage this as a small country. I can’t change the world. I can at least assure them that we will continue with this relationship to the benefit of both.

Hopefully things can subside. The tension is now creating anxiety in the region. And South China Sea is one issue I raised him from Li Qiang in a public forum in Jakarta. I said, Malaysia has to be firm. This is our territory. PETRONAS is involved in some oil rigs. And he responded. I was certainly pleased with his response. Number one, he said, of course they have their claims too, but they will not resort to any aggressive action or violence. They will insist on a series of negotiations, which I said is fair. And I think when this—the response of that Jakarta, it was certainly helpful. I met him again after that, the last few days in Naning, and we pursued some of the issues. And let’s see from there.

SILVER: So let’s turn to domestic politics for a moment. You have a big dream for Malaysia. You have a vision honed over many years of what you want Malaysia’s position to be in the world, and also what you envision for Malaysia itself internally. There was recently an election, as I’m sure you know, and your coalition didn’t come out so well. Was that a green wave? Was it an expression of some other realm of discontent? How do you read that election and what it tells you about what the impediments are going to be for you to realize this vision?

IBRAHIM: Dr. Silver, with your impeccable credentials in academia, you understand that dealing with those who are the proponents of racism, religious bigotry is not easy. And we have to deal with this. But we need to sustain the level of support. There are three important, vibrant—economically vibrant states we won. So we should not winning—I mean, you don’t expect in democracy you should win all. And it gives us some sense of humility not to think that you’re all powerful and popular. So you should lose some. That I learned from Bob, I think. (Laughs.)

But we did succeed, the three important, economically vibrant states. And the last two by-elections in the south, there was concern, of course, whether the so-called green wave of the Islamic party and the—(inaudible)—party would be able to then gain or garner more support. No. They lost. They lost rather badly. So I think we are now comfortable for the next four years we’ll be around.

SILVER: So other than humility, what message do you take?

IBRAHIM: We will have to deal with this rise, as you know, in Europe and here of fascism, and xenophobia, and some extreme appeals for religious support. We’ll have to then communicate more effectively. We have learned that you can assume, talking about Madani, and economic advancement, and lowering inflation to 2 percent, lowering unemployment, getting huge investments, new investments coming in. That does not necessarily impact upon the sentiments of the rural folks. So you need to engage them to reassure them that they will continue to be protected as Malays, as Muslims, in the country. But also to educate them, look, Islam, or the survival of the Malays, does not mean that you should cultivate policies and try and ignore any marginalized race. No country will be stable and effective when you continue to try and discriminate, marginalize any segment of your population.

So I think it is important to understood—to then communicate effectively to them, to say that: Yes, Malaysia—majority of Malaysians are Muslims and Malays. Yes, Islam is the religion of the federation. Yes, Malay is the official language. But yes, we have to then accept the presence of our brothers, sisters, whether it’s ethnic Chinese, and Indians, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Christians, as part of the Malaysian family. That is not as easy because even in a more sophisticated, highly educated society in United States, you have to grapple with these issues. But we cannot give up. And I believe that with this sort of agenda, and hope to focus on economic fundamentals and growth, we’ll be able to do this.

SILVER: And it’s work that’s never done. And it seems like there is some real realignment happening in Malaysian politics among the parties. Can you talk a little bit about that? And what you think is driving that realignment, other than personalities, right? From the point of view of policy.

IBRAHIM: Yeah, a realignment with the former ruling party. I’ve known the dominant party for a long time. I’ve been fighting against them for two decades. And now they’re important partner. So my friends, some of them got cynical. This said, Anwar must have some deals and some compromises. Yeah, compromise, yes, but what deals? Good governance, reining in the culture of corruption. And we’re transparent when we are doing business. And all is shared by my coalition partners, including Sabah and Sarawak. So, if these parameters are accepted, then we can move.

Of course, they are concerned. There is cynicism. I think I would accept it’s not easy. But what choice do we have? Can we continue the government with this factional strife and enmity? I’ve suffered in—(inaudible). Colleagues know. I mean, ten-and-a-half years of solitary confinement is no easy feat. But we’re not talking about Anwar here. You’re talking about nation and the future of the country. And if you can then garner enough votes and agree on basic parameters, then we can move. And I think it is exceptionally important, because Malaysia is a Muslim majority country. And there is a democracy deficit in this country.

And but we can, if we have a clear vision and work together, prove that there’s nothing stopping a Muslim majority country to emerge as a vibrant, mature democracy, justice, compassion, and embracing, in an inclusive manner, all communities. Is it easy? No, it’s not. But do you then give up? No. I think many in the past have proven to be true. I always quote Alexis Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, about the habits of the heart. You see, it takes a smart French philosopher to tell the story about American democracy. But you were. I mean, I would say, assessment or analysis or the history of American dream, taught me a great thing about the need to inculcate values, understanding, passion. Because only through the habits of the heart you can ensure that there is meaning to democracy, development, growth.

SILVER: Well, I would agree with that. And can you give us your clear vision for the bottom forty and for fighting corruption in Malaysia?

IBRAHIM: Well, if you set the parameters right—it’s not easy. Everybody talks about the war against the corrupt. But if you launched this battle, you’re dealing with the very strong coterie of very, very corrupt elements, and they are very powerful. Many of them control government apparatus, business, the media. So it’s no easy feat. But it takes some crazy people to deal with this. And I think I’ve been relatively successful. Importantly, the leadership must set an example. Uncompromising, impeccable credentials, no-nonsense approach. You are prepared to take the bull by the horns.

And well, they say, well, in the past—the past this has limitations. But what do I do with the past? What I can do is under this administration. I’m proud to say that in my tenure as prime minister over the last nine months, with very close scrutiny by the anti-corruption commission by the commercial crime, by the central bank, they have not found any sort of excesses. If I have incontrovertible facts and evidence to suggest, I have made it very clear to my colleagues, we have to remove them.

SILVER: What about the bottom forty? Talk about—a little bit more about your economic vision for the bottom forty.

IBRAHIM: Well, the first time I was arrested and detained under Internal Security Act for two years without trial, it was because I championed the cause of the poor. Now, unlike the socialists, they talk of equality but shared poverty. (Laughs.) I think we need to share wealth. Which means we have to have concrete policies to generate income and revenue for the country through investments, right? Only then—but with a clear concept that Madani means it’s not growth for the ruling clique and elites. But you have to do that then to be able to use that to affect change.

Start with education, access—democratization of access to quality education, public health, end poverty. I have said that this year, 2023, another crazy idea. I said, I want to be a country, Malaysia, that would deal with, settle with zero abject poverty. Not poverty, poverty, because it takes time. But we have a category as abject poverty. Not one family should fall into this category, OK? Then we did higher up, because in terms of productivity and wage, we have this gap. You know, the productivity increase, but the wage does not increase in tandem with productivity.

But do I push that now? No. I can only push that when we have some comfortable growth and better investments through pragmatic policies. But the civil belief—I’m not suggesting was not done. It was done even in the past. And to be fair, the amount of money disbursed for the poor is enormous. But too many leakages, OK. So this needs to be corrected. But the priority to alleviate the problem with the poor. I’m going to give you a small example, which is, of course, not too much of a concern here that the United States.

I took over. Then I said, look, about our schools. Now, most of the schools here have gotten lavatories. You know, you have a school of two thousand students, eight lavatories, four are non-functioning. And throughout the country we have that problem. Sounds very simple. It’s not something that the prime minister should be dealing with. But I did. We found out that there are 840 schools in the country don’t have proper laboratories. And we had to spend one billion to do that. And I would say that by October, all the 840 schools, mainly urban poor, including some remote areas in Sarawak. It’s a good example how we deal with the issue of poverty.

SILVER: Step by step, small policy, big policy.


SILVER: So now I think it’s time for us to take some questions from the audience. I will start with a question from the room, and then we’ll go to Zoom.

IBRAHIM: I feel a bit nervous and embarrassment when Bob is here. I have, you know, (a good relationship with ?) Bob. I admire greatly, I mean, what you have done, the policies and the friendship. So forgive me for, you know, looking a bit too often at—(laughs).

IBRAHIM: Thank you, Chris.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, my name is Christopher Wehri, and I serve here on the Council as a visiting military fellow from the United States Army.

So my question is simple. If you could provide some perspective, what can Malaysia’s friends, partners, allies, both in and out of the region, do better in the Indian Ocean, Strait of Malacca, and South China Sea, to ensure it remains free and open?

IBRAHIM: Our position, the centrality of ASEAN, is that we should resolve that within the region. Of course, we engage with United States in terms of the joint operations, military operations. And our military is quite active with United States. And it does not affect our relations China. We say look, it’s been traditionally our ally. And the operations—joint operation that are going on, I think, the last two, three months we did five operations. Now, those are small scale operations. We don’t want to excite the Chinese unnecessarily. But to see that that sort of friendship will continue.

But as I’ve said to leaders in the administration here, and countries like Australia and recently President Trudeau of Canada. I said, you all want to see—particularly in Muslim countries—a striving, mature democracy. But other than just giving lectures, nothing’s done. Why can’t you look the essentials, how to strengthen the institutions—the judiciary, free media, parliamentary reform, and just assists our work together? It doesn’t cost too much money, but it requires some expertise and a small amount of funds. And Malaysia has come to the stage we don’t need—it’s not foreign aid. We need investments. So the first is strengthening institutions, giving people some exposure, with training, for expertise, and understanding. Number two is to encourage investment. Investments means that the country’s—China takes real strong measures. If they say Malaysia is OK. We’ll promote—make sure that more investments continue.

But where to invest, what area? It’s, of course, up to the companies. Similarly here, because United States is quite exceptional, because you have this long tradition, some huge investments in the country. So, if you say what else can be done, I would say, number one, help assist in strengthening the institutions of democracy. It should not be just because Anwar and his cliques are in, therefore it’s a democracy. The next day somebody comes, and then democracy is out. We want that to be institutionalized. And in order to institutional democracy, the core institution of the government, democratic entity, must be fortified. And that can be done from the relative experienced countries.

And secondly, of course, business investments. And, third, as you know, Malaysian sends huge number of students here, for exchanges, for training, for education. And that will, of course, continue. But, you know, in this days in age, there should be some local arrangement where some of the implementing support is given. I will certainly continue to say this to my colleagues in the administration.

SILVER: We’ll take a question from Zoom.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Kara Bhala.

Q: Thank you, Kara Tan Bhala, Seven Pillars Institute, and an erstwhile Malaysian.

Mr. Prime Minister, what is the fate of the NEP?

IBRAHIM: Now, this—she is referring to the New Economic Policy introduced by the then-Prime Minister Abdul Razak in 1971. At the time when—so after the May 13 tragedy, race riots, when the majority Malays feel that there is no significance and substantive returns for them after independence in 1957. And abject poverty, no proper schools. So he has embarked on this New Economic Policy to make sure that the Malays, through affirmative action and intervention, are given opportunities both in terms of education and in business. And I think those days, I was still a young student, I support, given the scenario then, which I think it is an imperative to seek to ensure this peace and confidence among the Malays.

But as time goes by—as time goes by, it reminds me of one classic song, you remember? You remember—(inaudible)—eh? OK. All right.


IBRAHIM: Casablanca! Oh, dear. Most of them are too young to understand. It’s OK. (Laughter.) I’m sorry to say, you have not seen the movie.

SILVER: I have seen it. (Laughter.)

IBRAHIM: All right. As time goes by. But as time goes by, you will realize there were a lot of excesses too. Whereas the strength is social mobility. The poorest in the rural areas were given access to education. It’s a splendid, brilliant move. So you have children of poor farmers then becoming doctors, teachers, engineers. But what are the excesses? The family of leaders and their cronies started being awarded massive contracts, free shares. And those excesses now has, of course, disturbed the core because the non-Malays would feel—say, look, you used this to say affirmative action, but actually your family members and the cronies benefitted immensely.

So I—well, even prior to my position as prime minister, there have been some mentions that to make some adjustments. But my policy was you should continue in part. The Bumiputera agenda is not part of the New Economic Policy anymore. It’s an affirmative action to make sure that they don’t feel marginalized, and at the same time to be very mindful of the fact that the number of ethnic Chinese and also the Indians and those in the tribals in the Sarawak and Sabah are given adequate attention, particularly those in the lower category. So I think with this policy, people can be more reassured. So don’t think of NEP or our programs as part of the, you know, remnants of NEP, but major adjustments; need-based, again.

But why do I need to use still the Bumiputera agenda? Because I’m being—I’m being pragmatic. A lot of Malays feel that they’re marginalized. Therefore, you have this wave of reaction. Amazing; I mean, we are trying to help them, respect their ways. But they feel that since you don’t mention the Malays, we feel marginalized. So that is why I think we should use this, but to make sure that there’s clarity in the policy that not a single Malaysian—whether you are Malay or Chinese or Indian or Dayak or Kadazan—would feel marginalized, ignored, or left out.

Q: Ken Roth. I’m now from Princeton.

I want to ask about two issues of human rights. One is the Myanmar junta, where the Five-Point Consensus seems to have gone nowhere. And I understand the difficulty of getting ASEAN to achieve a consensus on anything, but could Malaysia, you know, working with likeminded partners like the Philippines, Singapore, or Indonesia, push harder on the junta?

And then, second, the Uighurs in Xinjiang. A million have been detained, forced them to abandon Islam, their culture, their language. Fifty governments around the world have signed on to a statement of concern. No one from ASEAN did—particularly the Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, which have very important voices. So what could your government do to advance those two important issues?

IBRAHIM: I’ve come a long way, and why do you ask me difficult questions? (Laughter.)

All right. Now, on Myanmar, on Myanmar we’ve taken a very strong stance. Malaysia is one of probably the strongest. But to suggest that ASEAN—(inaudible)—it is not truly correct. ASEAN—there’s consensus in ASEAN. There’s a Five-Point Consensus. And I think that was—I mean, it’s my predecessor. I mean, I can’t claim the credit. But there I would acknowledge that this is very important decision made, the consensus made. And they consistently done that with or without the military junta’s support.

Now, secondly, ASEAN taken a very bold measure because they are supposed to chair ASEAN in 2026 but the consensus was, no, we will not accept ASEAN and Myanmar to do that. So we had that passed, made a very clear message. And in every meeting, almost in every single assembly, we took a varied path—not probably as expected by some countries, but they’ve done this.

I, for example, even said that probably in the best way for ASEAN to manage now is to carve out Myanmar from the—otherwise, in every session we’ll have to argue and nothing happens. I was a bit cynical in the past when I said they talk about constructive engagement but end up with companies doing construction, no engagement. (Laughter.) So we’ll continue to do this.

Of course, you are right; we are expected to do more because we cannot condone the atrocities. And we are suffering. I mentioned this to the Chinese leaders, to ASEAN leaders. I say, look, Malaysia has two hundred thousand refugees, and it’s growing, and people is creating political anxiety at home, and the Myanmar authorities just ignore, and we can’t send them back. They’re completely—the Myanmar authorities completely deny these guys—these people, the two hundred thousand people, is their citizens. Of course, a majority of them are Rohingyas.

Now, third, to take on the Uighur(s), it’s very controversial, very difficult, but ASEAN took this position that, look, whoever wants to engage, engage privately. I would say I don’t know. But the other countries, in my—in my engagement even with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, I did raise. I did ask about these issues. And some years back in The Washington Post in the front page there was an interview with me that makes some reference to this—(inaudible)—concerns. I think with the Chinese, I think it’s—a better way is, of course, for us as friends to discuss and let them explain. Of course, they will say this is an internal matter and it’s not true, it’s part of Western propaganda. But I would say that I can’t choose to ignore because this has been raised a couple of times, and I did raise and they did explain, and they did welcome me or any of the people of the team to go and have a visit, not necessarily manage or control or organize by the Chinese authorities. But of course it is of concern. But I—our position, I know, is to continue to express in confidence, in private, as I did with some leaders, to show—to show that these are issues of some—particularly, even in Malaysia many people have expressed, and I have to present this case to them.

SILVER: Your voice and Malaysia’s voice, very important on both of these issues.


Q: Thank you. Jeff Laurenti. Minister Ibrahim, thank you very much for covering this waterfront.

I have a question dealing with the waterfront on the East River, the U.N., because other counterparts of yours and I presume you yourself in your address to the U.N. General Assembly will be giving enormous emphasis to the Sustainable Development Goals, midway through which promise period we are right now. But I would ask if you could help us walk through whether this is a conversation that exists anywhere outside of U.N. talking shops. That is, when you have ASEAN meetings, do folks talk about how we ASEAN members are making headway on fulfilling our targets, our goals? To what extent when a national government—your ministries are putting together budgets do they invoke the Sustainable Development Goals that were decided on way off in New York as guides for where we need to invest money? And to what extent do those countries that, unlike Malaysia, are in a much more—how shall we put it?—needy state of development turn to you, because you all have done very well in the developing world, for guidance on what works to achieve whether it be gender equality or climate goals or whatever the seventeen goals might be?

IBRAHIM: The SDG is considered and discussed extensively within ASEAN. From even the last meeting in Jakarta, we made reference to that with some specific programs on the agenda.

But for Malaysia, we even introduced last few months the national energy transition plan, part of the—part of the SDG program. In our economy, Madani is a major component of SDG being addressed. And I don’t think we in the region take very lightly.

But there are, of course, concerns, you know? We don’t want, as you know, to be dictated by, you know, the West to say—you know, to impose too many stringent conditions because you fail, you have cut all your trees, and we are now to keep (them ?). And just this debates continues, the issue of carbon credit and how (these states ?) survive.

Even in Malaysia, we took—Malaysia, the government took a very tough stance: no more deforestation. But we have to deal with these provincial governments. They say, look, yes, this is the only revenue that we can get and you say no, so we will have—the federal government—have to compensate them in some sort of carbon credit for them or some reforestation program.

So I think this is where the dialogue with the West, with the richer countries and economies, have got to be open and frank, because we need this better understanding. OK, Malaysia probably is not as difficult as many other poorer countries, but still we face it because this is the stark reality. We said, yes, no more; this is the limit, no more deforestation. Is it fair that you give them the money because there’s the only revenue in there? This issue of money understood here and in developing world in the more successful economies. To be able to contain this sort of policy or excesses, we need to also understand because these are real problems that we face. I mean, for Malaysia, OK, we say we can do it. But I think some countries may have worse problems than that.

But as far as ASEAN, I have no choice. Again, I’m not claiming credit. I just joined. I am probably in one or two meetings in the past during chairmanship of Jakarta, President Joko. But thus far, in every single deliberation SDG is put as a main—one of the main agenda.

SILVER: Take a question from Zoom.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Raj Bhala.

Q: Thank you so much, Prime Minister. It’s an honor to hear your remarks and to have visited Malaysia many times.

My question is about Malaysia’s free trade agreement policy. Malysia is, of course, a member of the CPTPP. Chapter 23 of CPTPP speaks about women’s rights. And in the somewhat analogous chapter in the new NAFTA, to which of course Malaysia’s not a party, there’s also reference to the rights of people based on sexual orientation and gender identity. So the question is this: What is your view on what Malaysia’s free trade agreement policy should be in advancing social justice, the rights of women and LGBTQ+, and how does that view square with the views of some who take a different view according to Islamic law? And I should say I’m a law professor at the University of Kansas and teach international trade law and Islamic law. Thank you.

IBRAHIM: I think in terms of women’s participation, there’s no disagreement. Our policy, we have made clear pronouncement to increase the level of participation of women in the workforce. Quite radical. We have announced. And of course, at home I’m—I am in the minority. Other than my wife, I have six children; five are girls. So that has certainly some influence. But seriously, on the national position, we—I don’t think it’s even contentious issues.

The only question or criticism is how far is the government committed to enforce this, and fast-tracking it, and probably accelerating the process, which I think to be fair is a basic issue of justice. And that has to be done.

On the LGBT, we have to understand. I agree that people should not be harassed, but the consensus—Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians—in Malaysia, the vast majority cannot accept the open display/practice, and we have to respect that decision. There’s a vast majority in Malaysia in a democratic process. There is a stark reality.

And it’s just not—it’s not true that you say it is Islam. I have engagement with the Christians, with the Buddhists, with the Hindus. That is the position that they take. And I think for our government, we have to be mindful and sensitive to the demands of the—of the majority, vast majority of our people.

But when you are then cautioned is not to be—not to use our differences to excessively punish or harass innocent people. That is where we draw the line.

I know that’s a very difficult issue to discuss in the United States.


Q: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, for—oh—for coming to CFR and speaking to us. And thank you, Mariko, for the opportunity to ask a question. I’m Zoe Liu, and I’m a fellow here at CFR.

So my question really is about to regard—is about your recent revitalization of the idea of an Asian Monetary Fund, which was first proposed during the Asian financial crisis in 1997. And at that time, also you were nominated as the best finance minister during that—I guess a year before. So from your perspective, why do you think Asia now or in the region need a(n) Asian Monetary Fund? And the last time when Japanese finance authorities introduced the idea, it was not quite as successful. And why do you think this time there is a chance? Thank you.

IBRAHIM: Look at Malaysia’s experience now. As I’ve said, low, I should say, inflation, 2 percent; low unemployment; high investments; high or relatively high growth in difficult times; but—declining value in the rate of the currency, of the ringgit; just because of the decision here at the Fed. So it doesn’t affect our fundamentals. However hard you work, we’re a thriving economy, the ringgit is not—is influenced by the decision in the United States.

So what do we do, then? Do we—people talk of a de-dollarization. It’s not practical. I mean, dollars will continue to be a major currency in international trade. We acknowledge that. But what can we do to redeem the impact that’s adversely affecting our economy?

For example, within ASEAN, we have encouraged strongly to use our local currency in the trade. All? No, not possible. Twenty percent, 30 percent? Or like we with the renminbi with China, 20 percent. I think with China is about 20 (percent), right? At least to the best of our capacity.

Now, why? Just because of our inability. There’s no choice to survive and at least to keep the currency at the level that is nominally acceptable. The only option is, of course, to start increasing our interest rate, which have also some ramifications to the economy, to the business community, probably the poorer elements. So we will have to grapple with this sort of issue now.

Therefore, we say: Why can’t we in Asia talk in terms of a possibility of some sort of an arrangement? We have the Chiang Mai Initiative, which is partly resolving. Not a complete de-dollarization because it doesn’t seems to be economically feasible for now, but at least it would be able to contain the negative impact that we face and suffer, which—and without any sort of a(n) initiative to counter this, at least in a limited sense.

So I, then, say: Why don’t we in Asia start talking about this and preparing? And it’s to redeem part of the negative or adverse impact on the currency. The Chinese seems to be quite amenable to discuss, and ASEAN too. But realistically, what we—what we have done is to just make sure that there is these local currency arrangements through the central bank in a limited way.

SILVER: Thank you, Prime Minister.

Thank you for your excellent questions. Thank you for joining the session with the prime minister today. Please note that the video and transcript of this session will be posted on the CFR website. And we hope you’ll be able to join the 5 p.m. hybrid event with Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

And thank you very much, Prime Minister. (Applause.)


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