Prime Minister, Malaysia
Chief Global Advisor, University of Denver; Former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad discusses his tenure as Prime Minister and Malaysia’s relationship with the United States.
HILL: OK. Well, good morning, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. And we are very honored this morning to have with us for “A Conversation with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia,” one of the original tigers—I’m referring to the country—of Asia and continues to be one of the real success stories in Asia.
I would like to—my name is Christopher Hill. I’m at the University of Denver, and I was formerly assistant secretary for East Asia-Pacific. We didn’t join the Indian Ocean at that time; we—it was just East Asia-Pacific. And I dealt with Malaysia on many occasions, but Malaysia for me was always one of those kind of good news stories. I mean, you had your share of problems, but compared to North Korea—(laughter)—we just loved you. I mean, what’s not to love?
So, Mr. Prime Minister, I thought we’d have kind of a little discussion for about an hour. I thought maybe we’d talk about some of the things going on inside Malaysia. You’ve been a very busy man, you know, for example reducing the voting age to eighteen. Do you have any plans to bring it to sixteen? We can talk about that. (Laughter.) I think we’re going to talk a little about what your reforms have been, how the economy’s going.
Then because, you know, in this country we have a bit of a China syndrome—we’re always in what’s going on with China, and maybe you are too, and you’ve had some interaction with the Chinese with their Belt and Road Initiative and in your case, I guess, an east coast road. And as a former negotiator, too, I’m kind of interested in how you negotiated that, and whether you might be prepared to negotiate on behalf of other people, because I think you did very well in that. So we’ll talk about that.
I’d like to also talk about this issue of the refugees in the—the Rohingyan refugee population. I know Malaysia is hosting some hundred thousand of these refugees, and then how you see that issue kind of going forward.
And then I think we will do questions and answers from the audience. I know people will have a variety of questions. And before you know it our one hour is going to be up and you are going to go on with another of your twenty meetings today, because I know you are—you’re a very busy man.
So, Mr. Prime Minister, I guess, you know, you were prime minister before. Now you’re prime minister again. I was kind of tempted to ask you whether you think Joe Biden is too young to be—(laughter)—president here, but maybe we could skip that one and go on to the question: What’s it like to be back in government? I know you were out for—you know, from—almost fifteen years.
HILL: Was everything the same? Was the office the same? Were you able to find things in the office OK? And then how has it changed? What’s the new generation of Malaysian civil servants? And by the way, I think one of your great strengths has been a civil service that’s been very effective over the years. How has that worked? So just some atmospherics on becoming prime minister again and what it all looks like.
MOHAMAD: Well, I never expected to return as prime minister when I decided to resign. I was known as a dictator by the whole world, I think, but dictators do not resign. I was the only dictator who resigned—(laughter)—without any pressure from anywhere. But I thought that we need younger people to take over from me. So two prime ministers, actually, then me. But after a short while the people were not happy with them. They keep on coming to see me to ask me to do something. I tried to advise. It didn’t work. And then I find the first—the prime minister immediately after me was not doing very well, and I campaign against him, although he was my nominee.
And then I thought I would put in place a person who has—he is the son of a very illustrious prime minister, the second prime minister of Malaysia. I expected him to do as well as his father, but unfortunately he was worse than the fifth prime minister. So, again, lots of people came to see me. I suppose they look upon me as a kind of elder statesman. And they asked me to do something. Again I tried to advise; it didn’t work. And finally, I had to resign from the party. I had to form another party of my own. And then I decided to work with the opposition, form a coalition, because alone nobody can defeat the government, which had been in place for—ever since independence, a very powerful party which governs our country.
So forming a coalition with the opposition involved some of myself giving up on some of my previous ideas. And I worked with them, and for some strange reason they decided that I should be their leader. And also—
HILL: Some strange reason? They just—(laughter)—
MOHAMAD: Well, they used to call me dictator, all kinds of nasty names. (Laughter.)
HILL: I see.
MOHAMAD: They hated me.
HILL: So those were not terms of endearment.
MOHAMAD: No, no. (Laughs.)
MOHAMAD: But they decided that I should lead the coalition and be the candidate for prime minister should the coalition win. And somehow or rather, it worked. We won. We didn’t expect to win. We won. And now we have the task of trying to un-wrangle a lot of wrong things done by the previous government.
By comparison with my first term as prime minister—there was nothing. I mean, everything was in place. Everything worked well. But now the whole machinery of government has been, well, undermined, and the government’s finances were in a bad state because the previous government borrowed more than one trillion Malaysian ringgit. Now, one Malaysian ringgit is—four Malaysian ringgit is equivalent to one U.S. dollar. But in terms of purchasing power, it’s almost one ringgit to one U.S. dollar in Malaysia because the cost of living is rather low. So we have to repay the loans, and that is tough job because much of the—well, not much—a portion of the revenue of government is used to pay the loans, which means that we have less money for development, less money for supporting the people. Well, it’s very tough now.
I have to work eighteen hours a day because I don’t have much time. I promised I would step down before the next election and give way to another candidate. So I may have at the most three years, perhaps, and during that three years I need to accomplish a lot of things.
HILL: So you’re working eighteen hours a day—
HILL: —to make the three years, because otherwise that would take six years or something if you had a normal—(laughter)—
MOHAMAD: Well, one has to because I know I am a very old man, ninety-four now, and it’s tough working that—
HILL: Eighteen hours a day, yes. It’s maybe not good for you. But are you horseback riding or doing something else? (Laughter.)
HILL: So we know about some of the fiscal accounts, the problems you had on fiscal accounts and inheriting far more debt, both government debt and I think some foreign debt as well.
HILL: But overall, I mean, what is the—what’s the economy looking like? I mean, you know, America, for example, I think we’re your number-one investor right now, or are soon to be.
MOHAMAD: The first thing we did is we tried to reduce the debt by canceling or reducing the scope of some of the projects. That enabled us to save quite a lot of money. In the case of the east coast railway, we save over twenty billion ringgit in terms of contract.
HILL: Twenty billion on the contract, yeah.
MOHAMAD: Twenty billion ringgit. That divide by four. (Laughs.) So—
HILL: So $5 billion.
HILL: And this was the Chinese contract, correct?
MOHAMAD: The Chinese contract, yes.
HILL: So I wonder if you could explain to us how that worked. The Chinese, during your campaign you signaled that you were not happy with the east coast road project or the road contract. So when you came in, were the Chinese kind of expecting your phone call? Was that—how did that—did you initiate contact with Xi Jinping and tell him we love—
MOHAMAD: No. No, I depended upon some people who are very close to them, familiar with them, and he would meet them. I would be very nice to the Chinese. I make a visit. I don’t risk controversial issues. But—
HILL: Do you put tariffs on them? No, I’m kidding. (Laughter.)
So you kind of raise it as, hey, a mutual problem, we have a problem here.
MOHAMAD: Yeah. We had to show them that we are still their good friends, their good trading partner, but this particular thing needs to be attended to, reduced in scope and in cost, because we don’t have the money. We don’t have—we don’t have the money. We can’t afford this. And I think they were in the end quite sympathetic. And the terms of the contracts and order got to be renegotiated because normally Chinese companies tend to bring their own workers, their own materials, and all that for any project anywhere that they do.
HILL: So even if you go out on the east coast to see this project, you’re seeing a lot of Chinese construction workers out there working on this? Is that—
MOHAMAD: Yeah. Initially, yes. Not now.
HILL: Not now.
MOHAMAD: Not now. Now we have Malaysian contractors also participating.
HILL: I see. I see. Yeah.
MOHAMAD: That’s one of the conditions we asked.
HILL: Yeah. Yeah. But altogether, as I understand, you took about one-third of the cost off of the—of the project, and were the Chinese very quickly willing to do that? I mean, was it—sounds like it went very easily, in which case I’m wondering who negotiated it before that they’re willing quickly to take one-third off.
MOHAMAD: We had a good negotiator and he went to China, met the leaders. Of course, he has to explain that he was representing me. I myself are not one to raise this issue when I go there. And he was able to persuade and tell them, look, we just cannot afford this.
HILL: I see. So by the time you visited with the Chinese, a lot of this—how to put it—difficult conversation had already take place—taken place.
MOHAMAD: Yeah, yeah.
HILL: So you didn’t want to be the great dealmaker; you wanted to make sure it happened, but maybe you didn’t need to be there the whole time.
I wonder more broadly, because you have so much experience dealing with the Chinese, this Belt and Road Initiative, which has included ports in Sri Lanka, you know, questions about does Sri Lanka even need those things, and then the Chinese have somehow claimed that if they’re not going to get paid they have to kind of take over these facilities. They have a right to use them. I wonder, can you speak to the Chinese motivation? Maybe partly it was to help you with your east coast road, but was there something more? Does it have a kind of notion that China has some right to be there? Or is it—is it strategic? Is it a function of excessive demand—I mean, excessive supply in their ministries? What’s the motivation? Because you have such a better view of it than some of us do.
MOHAMAD: We are forced to because we just couldn’t afford. So we have to do something about it.
I don’t know about Sri Lanka. They accepted the Chinese proposal that the Chinese take over the development—the area that they had developed. I suppose if Sri Lanka would try and negotiate, they might be able to get something out of it. But I don’t know, that is their policy, their approach.
Our approach is to save our finances. We cannot afford to build this very expensive railway line. So whether we like it or not, we have to go to the Chinese and appeal to them, point out that, you know, we are good trading partners. And, well, in the end I think they were persuaded that the best way out is to somewhat reduce the scope and reduce the cost.
HILL: And to stay, because that was the price of staying in.
HILL: Yeah. I wonder if we can switch a little to the focus of, you know, for decades Southeast Asia has tried to act more closely together through, of course, the association, ASEAN. And you’ve seen ASEAN in its infancy; you’ve seen it now. I wonder if you can give us a kind of report card. Is ASEAN taking on big issues? Are they managing things? I mean, after all, if you put all those Southeast Asian countries together, we’re talking five hundred million people. We’re talking a very serious part of the Asian GDP. Do you see ASEAN as something that can tell China, look, China, we love you, we welcome you, but we need to have a kind of sense of mutual respect on these issues?
MOHAMAD: We all realize that we have to deal with China jointly because that would have given us more strength. But, of course, China tries to deal with each ASEAN country separately. When a country becomes threatened, it has to make some noise, some protest.
For example, the Chinese occupied Commodore Reef, and Commodore Reef belongs to the Philippines. The Philippines had to do something about it. Although we are behind the Philippines, but we are not really strong enough to tell—to tell the Chinese, no, you shouldn’t do this kind of thing, it’s against international law, or whatever.
We ourselves have a—claim one island almost in the middle of the South China Sea. We have a runway there for our planes and we have even a small hotel there. But so far the Chinese have not disturbed us. They came there as tourists in the small island, but they have not tried to evict us in any way.
So I think whereas the Chinese may make the claim, but they are not at the moment very aggressive. They would like to have Southeast Asia very supportive of China because Southeast Asia is their testing ground for whatever they want to do.
HILL: Well, this is a somewhat brighter picture than we see in the U.S. because we see a lot of aggressiveness. You know, it’s one thing to create facts on the ground, but they were actually creating the ground by putting dirt on atolls and beginning to build things where there was really ocean. But you’re suggesting that this is more of their effort to say this is ours but we will not act on it. Our concern has been now they have the capability militarily to act on things that they may have claimed a hundred years ago but never had any ambitions to do something. So you’re seeing it more on that traditional side, or are you worried about what I’m a little worried about with their capacities, military capacities?
MOHAMAD: In the past they have not made that claim. What they did was to create facts—we have built islands, and we occupy these sand bars and all that, and built it up into islands. The Chinese have not disturbed us if we occupy first. The Vietnamese occupied Kayman (sp) Island. We built an island there. But the Philippines went to Commodore Reef, occupied it for a short while, and then they evacuated, and then the Chinese came. So it’s important to create—to have something there, in place. Although they claim, but they are not yet at a stage where they would be rough on us.
HILL: Yeah, yeah. Very good. Before we get on to the—more of the regional issues, especially the question of refugees, I just have one more sort of question about your domestic situation. For example, you’ve created an administrative capital outside KL. It’s actually—I mean, for those of you who haven’t been to Malaysia, you get off the airplane and you go through what is—seems like an eternity of palm oil plantations, and then suddenly you’re greeted by this beautiful capital. And all of the administrators have their names on their—which I think was your idea of accountability, if I—but I guess the question I have is, isn’t it a little isolated from where other people are kind of running their businesses, et cetera? And does it—how does it work between government and commercial? I mean, does government understand what’s going on in the real world? Does the real world understand what’s going on in government? How is that—because it was quite a far-reaching experiment on your part.
MOHAMAD: Well, the site chosen is not too far from Kuala Lumpur. It’s only twenty-five kilometers from Kuala Lumpur. And also it is twenty-five kilometers from the airport. So it is a very nice site we have and it’s quiet. It used to be a palm oil plantation. We bought it and we built the capital there.
And the town of Kuala Lumpur is expanding. So although it was twenty-five kilometers away, now it is getting very much nearer.
HILL: It’s getting closer, I see.
MOHAMAD: The fact remains that Kuala Lumpur is overcrowded. The government ministries are scattered all over. And before we have the cellphone that you can communicate easily, you had to travel from office to office, and that takes a long time. So we decided that we should build not a capital, but an administrative capital—bring all the ministries to this place, make it easy for people to access this place, and they don’t have to go through traffic jams and the like. And it has worked because it’s very close to Singapore—to Kuala Lumpur. It’s not like Brazil, you know. Brazil went hundreds of miles into the Amazon forest, and it’s difficult. Lots of other people want to do the same. But the trick is not to move too far away. Fortunately for us, as you said, we have a lot of palm oil plantation(s) and we bought one of the big plantation(s). It’s called Great War because after the Great War some British entrepreneurs got the land from the government. And they called it Prang Besar, which is “Great War.” We have a quiet—it’s not very big, but it’s sufficient for a capital. We have practically all the ministries there, excepting one or two which are—who deal with businesspeople.
HILL: Yeah, yeah. I see. And so just one other point about it because I just—one of the things to me that was just fascinating about Malaysia was the capacity of your civil service. And can we give the British a little credit for that, or not?
MOHAMAD: Yes, I will. You see, during the colonial period the British became heads of all departments, but they put Malaysians as their number-two men. And the moment we became independent, number two becomes number one. So there was no interruption. There was a small transition from British rule to Malaysian rule, and the system remains the same. Practically all that was introduced by the British was retained. Of course, we have to expand because the country has grown, there are more people, and all that. We had to expand. But the expand is based on people who are trained in the British system.
At one time the head of our administrative organization was appointed head for the Commonwealth on administration. So there was quite a (smooth trough ?). It’s quite different from having to go to war to get independence. If you go to war to get independence, the warriors, the people who made sacrifices and all that, think that they are entitled to rule the country. But they have skills in warfare, but not skills in administration.
HILL: And that shows, yes. Yeah.
MOHAMAD: In our case, the administrators simply get promoted and they know how to play the game.
HILL: Yeah. When you loo at the economy, we’re talking computer parts, computers; we’re talking oil and gas; and we’re talking palm oil. That’s always kind of the thing you hear about in Malaysia. Does the government play a role in saying we need to do something else here? How does—how does that—planners, do they—if they don’t plan, do they do planning, I guess?
MOHAMAD: We do a lot of planning. We have five-year plans. We have ten-year plans. We have thirty-year plans. We always plan for the future because we want people to be focused on what needs to be done in order to achieve the objective.
But what happened, of course, is that when we became independent we have a lot of unemployment. So the easiest thing to do was to clear the forest and plant rubber trees or palm oil. But still there were a lot of unemployment. We decided that it’s better to industrialize because one industry can occupy an acre or two acres of land but give employment to five hundred people. In the palm oil estate you had one person or two persons looking after one acre. So that solved much of our unemployment.
At the same time, because we have no knowledge about manufacturing, we decided to invite foreigners to come into the country to start up plants there and employ—train our people and employ our people. For a time that solved the unemployment problem. At the same time, from being a country depending upon resources—depending upon rubber, palm oil, and tin—it became a country that is also able to produce manufactured goods for the local market, as well as for export.
HILL: We only have a couple minutes before we go to audience questions. I just have one more, and it’s a bigger question about—you know, we started talking about ASEAN but it was more about China. But let me ask you, there is an issue in the world now in terms of nationalism and in terms of the emergence of very strong leaders who continue to be proud of being called dictators, and we’re seeing some of that in ASEAN as well. Certainly, many of us have concerns about developments in the Philippines, but not only there. I mean, there are a number of issues. And when you sit with your colleagues in ASEAN, I mean, is there a quality to the discussion where there’s an effort to try to say let’s work together on things? Or is there more sort of a nationalist bent? Do people understand—I mean, I don’t know for—I don’t mean to pick on the president of the Philippines, but does he understand some of the historical antecedents that have gone into building what has been a pretty successful regional organization? I mean, so are you able to, with your experience, try to talk about—to these other leaders, who may have a lot less experience in terms of the need for regionalism?
MOHAMAD: Well, in the first place Malaysia is a multiracial country. During the British period they brought in Chinese, they brought in Indians, but the indigenous people accepted these people and they have no problem living together—not actually very close together, but anyway they are very tolerant of foreigners coming to live in the country. So at the time when we became independent, 40 percent of the population were actually descendants of immigrants. So we are used to living with people of other races.
Yes, we are nationalists, but we are also tolerant of people who have come to settle in Malaysia, and we give them citizenship. We accepted them and today we are less identified by our race but more as a nation. We are Malaysians. But of course, many insist that there are Chinese Malaysians or Indian Malaysians. Only the Malays are Malays because they were the indigenous people.
So because of this willingness to work with different races, the country has prospered. It’s like America. You accept so many immigrants here. They contributed towards the prosperity. They started industries, et cetera. The same thing happened in Malaysia.
So we were able to grow much faster because the ability to live together at peace with each other makes the country stable and peaceful, and investors like to come to that country. That’s how we grew.
HILL: Yeah. Well, I think we’ll go to some questions. They may have different questions than I’ve had, so let’s start with this gentleman here in the blue suit.
Q: Feisal Abdul Rauf, Cordoba Initiative. Welcome, Mahathir, to our lovely town and country.
Your predecessor refused several entreaties to leverage and to champion Malaysia’s sterling reputation as a moderate Muslim-majority country, to partner with some other OIC countries to address issues which are currently even more urgent facing the ummah. Our prophet said the ummah is one community—part of one body, rather. If one part of it is in pain, the whole is in pain. And therefore, I ask you, would you be willing to work or identify a strategic initiative to partner with a few key OIC countries to address the issues which are facing the Muslim world today, given now even the problems that Muslims are facing in China, in Kashmir? Just yesterday Sheikh Hasina was talking about the Rohingya problem, which Chris referred to. Which really, if the OIC countries presented a little bit more of a carefully crafted sort of campaign, could perhaps turn the needle more positively on these issues. Thank you.
HILL: So a question about Malaysia’s preparedness to work with key OIC countries to see whether there can be some effort on some of these very critical issues facing the Muslim world, and this would be a good opportunity to talk about the Rohingyans because I mentioned it and we’ve never gotten to get to it, so.
MOHAMAD: Well, I think there is this opportunity for some of the countries to work together, like Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia. These countries are relatively stable and they understand what is happening. What is happening is that most Muslims have forsaken the religion. They don’t follow the religion at all. Yes, they pray, they fast, they give alms to people, they perform the hajj, but beyond that they are not Muslim. All the teachings of the Quran they reject. You see, one of the first things that is said in the Quran, that all Muslims are brothers. Brothers don’t go and kill each other. That’s what they are doing. They disobey the Quran. And also, Islam forbids killing. You can’t kill even non-Muslim. If you kill a Muslim, your place in hell is reserved for you there. But you don’t care. You are doing these things, all that is forbidden by Islam.
If you go back to the teachings of Islam as found in the Quran, I think the Muslims will prosper. They will live happily with other people because in the Quran it says to you, your religion; to us, our religion; and that God has created people of different kind, different races, so that they may know each other. That is what the Quran says. But they don’t care about that. They fight against people simply because these people are not Muslims, therefore they are bad. We only fight with people who attack us. That is what the Quran says.
I find that the Quran is written in Arabic; most of us don’t read Arabic, don’t understand Arabic. So you can’t call the Quran a guide when you can’t understand it. You must understand what the guide is saying. The guidance provided by the Quran is—(inaudible)—live, the Muslim way of life. From birth to death, everything is already recorded. And what you need to do at any time is already given in the Quran, but we ignore all that. And that is why I read the Quran in languages which I understand. I read it in Malay. I read it in English. I understand the Quran. And understanding the Quran made me realize that most Muslims are only—well, they claim to be Muslim, but they are not doing the things that is taught by Islam.
So this is what we need to do, to return to the true beginnings of Islam. The word of God is in the Quran.
Q: But I’m asking you to make that call.
Q: Make that call—(off mic).
MOHAMAD: Yeah, we get—we get right to do that because a lot of people will not change. They like to follow their leaders. You know, somebody tells them it’s all right to kill fellow Muslim, and they do. That’s against Islam.
HILL: Just if we can—if I can just ask you to address the Rohingyan issue. I mean, have you talked to Aung San Suu Kyi about these kinds of issues? How has that gone? (Laughs.)
MOHAMAD: Well, partly it’s because the Rohingyas are Muslim, and I kind of understand because normally Buddhists are very tolerant but in the case of Myanmar the moment they became independent they expelled the Indians because the Indians controlled the economy. They were in the retail business. They were in all kinds of business. So they were expelled, which resulted in the country not being able to grow its economy. And now—
HILL: Instead of what you did, in other words.
MOHAMAD: We retained them. But then, of course, suddenly they have this feeling about getting rid of the Rohingyas. This, again, there’s a British—(inaudible)—they were different people in a different country. But they combine all the different tribes in that area and call it Burma, and have—made it into a single country. Where the British go and start ruling, they want the easy way out. They combine all the races together, but they are—they shouldn’t be together.
The Rohingyas, they have been there a long time. But it’s not right for Myanmar to expel them and treat them in that way. It’s not right at all. And as a result, of course, they have to migrate to Bangladesh and some came to Malaysia. We gave them some help. We operate some field hospitals in Bangladesh, et cetera. But that is not going to resolve the problem. The thing is that Myanmar must receive them back in Rakhine state, which has always been the place where the Rohingyas live.
HILL: I see. I see. Yeah. OK. And you’ve had this conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi?
MOHAMAD: Not an actual conversation, I admit.
MOHAMAD: But I did write to her when this thing first happened. I used to write to her when she was, you know, under house arrest. I was very sympathetic towards her predicament. I campaigned for her release like everybody else. And I thought that she would be sympathetic towards the Rohingyas. I wrote her a letter asking her to do something about it; I got no reply. And later on, she explained that she practically supported what was being done to the Rohingyas. I met her at several international meeting, but I didn’t bother to raise.
OK. Yes, sir, and then to you.
Q: Hello, Mr. Prime Minister. I’m Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch.
I wanted to follow up on the earlier question and focus on the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang. And it’s widely known that China has detained roughly one million Uighur and other Turkic Muslims for so-called reeducation and, among other things, you know, pressing them to renounce Islam in favor of the Communist Party. And there’s been wide outcry against that. In Geneva a couple months ago about twenty-five governments denounced this. And so China orchestrated a counter statement, you know, saying they were wonderful toward the Muslims, and Malaysia, unlike many other members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, refused to sign that letter.
And so Malaysia has really maintained a sort of studied, at least public, neutrality with respect to this and I’m wondering, you know, what pressure you have been under from the Chinese to embrace what they’re doing against the Uighurs and, you know, second, what possibility is there for Malaysia to speak out more publicly against what’s going on there?
MOHAMAD: Well, the fact is that some of the Uighurs wanted to be independent. So they did take up arms and did something violent against the Chinese government, and the Chinese government, of course, mounted an operation to arrest these people—detain these people. Some of these people ran away. Some found their way to Malaysia, and we decided that sending them back to China would not be a good thing because they are likely to be punished for what they have done.
So we allowed them to escape to other countries. That’s what we did. But at the same time, we are concerned, of course, about these huge number of Uighur Muslims being detained. You want to detain a million people, you really need a lot of places. So whole areas, I suppose, would have been cordoned off, was in some way so that these million people cannot very well rise or take up arms against the government.
So we do send our people to go there. But when you go there, the Chinese showed that these people are very—they’re very happy as they are. They think it’s good to be reeducated and all that. But we—we don’t know; in other places maybe there will be, well, worse things happening. But so far, the Chinese have been trying to convince us that they are not that violent against the Uighurs. But, of course, you take up arms against the government, of course, they are going to arrest you and punish you.
HILL: Yes, ma’am?
Q: My name is Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist.
When Anwar Ibrahim was at the Council some months ago, he said that he had changed his views on the issue of affirmative action, which had been just for the Malays and created a lot of hostility with Chinese and Indian ethnic groups. He now feels that affirmative action should be for poor people. What is the situation of affirmative action and what is your view now and do you agree that it should be not based on the ethnicity of the person—that it should be based on their economic situation?
HILL: So a question about Malaysia’s affirmative action, which has a much nicer name and I forget the Malaysia name for the idea that you should help—I’m sorry?
HILL: Bumiputera. OK. And then Anwar—that Anwar was here months ago and indicated he thought it ought to be less of an ethnic issue and more of an issue of socioeconomic.
MOHAMAD: Yeah. We are very concerned about poor people. We want to help them all without regard to their race or religion. But at the same time, we cannot avoid noticing that most of the poor people are the indigenous people. They are very poor compared to the much more—of much more business-oriented Chinese. The Chinese have done extremely well in Malaysia.
Even if you say that it is between rich and poor, but the fact is that the poor—majority of the poor are the Malays and they see it as Malays—poor Malays. Yes, there are poor Chinese. But you have to bring up the Malays to the same level as the Chinese.
So we had the affirmative action. A lot of—lots of people say it failed. It didn’t fail. Lots of Malays did well under affirmative action. We gave them a lot of scholarships, so much so that in the medical profession, for example, only 2 percent of the doctors were Malays at one time. Now, 40 percent. They have the capability but they have to give—be given the opportunity, and we are doing the same for business and in other fields as well.
And I think we have reduced the disparity between Chinese and Malays, between the poor Malays and the rich Chinese. The disparity is much less now. But it is not yet satisfactory for the Malays because they will not support you if you don’t give special attention to them as Malay poor people.
So, well, Anwar believes that we should treat the poor. I agree with him. But at the same time, if you are seen to be ignoring the race element, you will never win the election because they form a big majority of the voters. To get them to support you, you must show that you are concerned about their poverty.
That is why we need to have affirmative action still, but this time we’ll be more careful because in the past we used to give contracts to people who could not do anything. They couldn’t carry out the contract, and they used to sell the contract. Licenses, they used to sell. This time around, you get a contract, you do it yourself. If you don’t, we’ll take it away from you.
So the idea about selling contracts, selling licenses, APs (ph) and all that, will not be tolerated by this government. But we need to bring up the Malays so that you don’t identify Malays as poor rural, Chinese as rich urban—that we shouldn’t have to be reduced. That is why the new policy of the government is sharing prosperity. Shared prosperity. That means that we should reduce disparities between town and country, between state and state, between race and race. All these things need to be reduced. We cannot completely make everybody equal to each other. But we need to reduce the disparities so that that feeling of envy and anger and frustration will be reduced.
HILL: I’m going to go for some affirmative action for the right side of the room here. This lady back here, if—
Q: Hi. Thank you so much. I’m Akila with the Global Justice Center.
And yesterday evening, I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel with the foreign minister of Bangladesh and the minister of justice of Gambia on the issue of the Rohingya crisis, and the Gambian minister announced that they will soon be filing a case at the International Court of Justice for violations of the Genocide Convention. And I know that Malaysia is a part of the OIC’s Ad Hoc Ministerial Commission on accountability. I was wondering if Malaysia plans to either through the OIC or directly support or engage in this case.
MOHAMAD: Well, we will support any attempt made to solve the Rohingya problem. We want to work with the OIC. But, of course, the OIC finds it difficult to make decisions because their members are—have different ideas.
But for those members who are keen like Bangladesh, we are working with Bangladesh on the—we are trying to relieve them by giving—providing medical service, looking after their welfare, and there are a hundred thousand of them in Malaysia. We have to look after their children because their children cannot have access to education. These things we can do.
But what we find it difficult to do is to get them to go back to their state because they are so afraid of the—Myanmar’s military. This is something that I find very frustrating because while we believe in noninterference in the domestic affairs of countries, but when the domestic problem is so severe as happened in Cambodia—in Cambodia, two million people were killed. The whole world knows about it but did nothing about it, and it is likely that the whole Rohingya problem will be like that.
We hesitate because we say this is internal affairs of Myanmar. We are not going to send armies in there. But in the meantime, they are going to kill people and we are going to just stand by—become bystanders doing nothing. It is very frustrating. The U.N. cannot do anything.
HILL: Yes, go ahead. And then I’ll get back to you, sir.
Q: Diana Lady Dougan, Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Dr. Mahathir, it’s so good to see you again and I can’t help but bring up my wonderful years on your Multimedia Super Corridor Board. And for those who do not know, he had a vision, among other things, of having the first paperless prime minister’s office. But also, you were doing many vanguard things in electronic medicine and record keeping and so on, and I think a lot of us have lost track of what’s happened to it. And I’m told that you’re going to be rejuvenating that a bit so I wonder, particularly now, when the rest of the world has discovered what you knew, what your plans are for the future and how you see things changing.
HILL: So reviving the paperless office?
MOHAMAD: Yes. Yeah. Well—
Q: I used to tease him about it.
MOHAMAD: —very early on, we realized that things are going to change during the age of knowledge, the age of information, and that this new equipment that we have would enable people to communicate much more easily, store data much more easily, and there is no need to use paper. You can communicate through your phone and through your computer or whatever.
So we realized that at the time when we started the Multimedia Super Corridor and we invited many distinguished people to come and help us, advise us, and I think it was going on quite OK. We now espouse the paperless world and paperless administration. But, of course, we need to train our people. We are doing that now.
For a time, it was neglected. For fifteen years after I stepped down, there was not too much attention paid to the switch from—to paperless administration. But now we are beginning again and I think many of our people are well trained. They are—they are very advanced. They are able to design programs and all that, which is very important, and I think that we will achieve the target of being paperless, and also the businesspeople, too, are communicating with the government in the—using their phones or whatever and this has speeded up administration of the country.
HILL: OK. Yes, sir?
Q: Stephen Schlesinger from the Century Foundation.
How is your effort going in weeding out the corruption of the past government, particularly the former prime minister? Where does that stand at this point?
MOHAMAD: Well, that’s the first thing we wanted to tackle because we need to stop the corruption, if possible entirely. But we know corruption is not something that you can reduce to nothing. There will be some corruption.
What we have done is, of course, to free the anti-corruption agency not to be under government influence, and this anti-corruption agency has introduced several laws and set up several institutions that will deal with corruption at different levels and in different areas. And I think the mere fact that we advertise that this government is dead against corruption has stopped a lot of people from being corrupt.
What happened before was that when the prime minister is corrupt, of course, there is the junior—the heads of government and all that became corrupt. We got rid of them. We have dismissed all of them and they will—if we have a case against them they will have to face—have their day in court.
But at the moment, we have reduced corruption—large-scale corruption that we have reduced to almost nothing. But corruption by certain agencies are still happening and we are trying to find ways and means to reduce even that. But people are aware that this government will not tolerate corruption.
HILL: OK. Yes, sir?
Q: Good morning. My name is Juhon Klik (ph) from McKinsey and Company. Dr. Mahathir, thank you very much for joining us today.
Would love to—oh. (Comes on mic.) Would love to ask you the—as you think about Malaysia over the next ten years, what are the things that worry you? What are the things that could go wrong? And if you were giving advice to the next prime minister, where would you be suggesting that they spend his or her time?
MOHAMAD: Well, I thought when I stepped down in 2003 I had put the country on the path to achieving the target. The financials were good. The politics—politics was OK and the administration was well capable of running the country. Unfortunately, when you have a leader who has other ideas, wrong things can happen. So now I cannot guarantee that somebody who succeeds me will do well or maybe not so well.
But I think we’ll put things in place. The administrative machinery has now been cleaned up and put in place people who are more honest, but they are also a little bit less trained. But they are quite capable of doing their work. We have corrected the financial situation, reduced the debt, and also planned out how to deal with the debt into the future.
We have also removed many of the heads of departments and ministries and put in new people. But, of course, we cannot be certain. We cannot be certain. The last time also we put things well in place I decided to step down after I found that the country is not in financial trouble, the politics is OK, the administrative machinery was doing well. But after I stepped down, lots of things happened. So I can’t guarantee. But we can put in place the right—the right machinery, which, if you work within the system, I think we can achieve the goal of becoming a developed country by the year 2030. Thank you.
HILL: I have a question. Any tips for the rest of us on how to get to the age of ninety-four and be—(laughter)—what do you do? Do you eat yogurt or what do—how do you do this? (Laughter.)
MOHAMAD: Well, in the first place, I don’t know. (Laughter.) I’ve been spared, but I do practice certain things which I think contribute to being more healthy than others. One thing I advise people is not to eat too much. Eat to live and not live to eat. You see, when you see people at the age of forty bulging around there, that’s the time to stop eating too much. I follow my mother’s advice—when the food tastes nice, stop eating. That’s very—(laughter)—
HILL: OK. Yeah. (Laughter.)
MOHAMAD: The reason is very simple. When I was studying medicine, I realized it was very sensible because when the food tastes nice you tend to eat more. When you tend to eat more, the stomach grows—becomes bigger—and you keep on eating more it becomes bigger because the stomach is bigger and you need a lot more food in order to assuage your hunger and, therefore, that food goes towards building you up, not muscles but fat.
So the next thing is use your muscle. If you don’t use your muscles, you are going to be in a bad state. You know, like old people normally they don’t want to move around. They want to sleep. That’s bad. Get—be active.
And as for your brain, the brain is like the muscle. You don’t use your brain, it shrinks. The capacity to think and all that diminish and you cannot remember people. You cannot remember words. You cannot converse with people. The brain and the muscle must always be used. So be active and I think you may survive to ninety-four. (Laughter.)
HILL: OK. OK. Mr. Prime Minister, it’s been a great pleasure. I now see you have a future after politics as a lifestyle coach. (Laughter.) So I think we’d all appreciate that. But thank you very much for sketching this—you know, where Malaysia is in the region, where it is in the world, what it’s trying to do, and what it’s trying to prevent.
So we appreciate all you’re doing and thank you so much for coming. (Applause.)