An AUDIENCE with "KING' MAHATHIR - An Interview the AUSTRALIAN BROADCASTING CORP apparently has to "SEEK" in order to be granted the AUDIENCE
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad - 03/07/2006
When he retired three years ago, Malaysia's longtime prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said he wasn't going to be a back seat driver, but in true Mahathir style he hasn't been able to resist.
The latest target is his successor, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, and it's all over a bridge and a car. The government of Abdullah Badawi has greatly reduced tariffs and increased competition for state-backed car maker Proton, and then cancelled a bridge that was to replace a causeway to Singapore, two Tun Mahathir pet projects.
The frustrated former leader has become a one-man opposition, but the ruling UMNO Party is standing behind Mr Badawi and is threatening to discipline or even expel the man who ruled for 22 years.
* Tun Mahathir, are you satisfied that your legacy is now in good hands, what you have passed on to your successor?
Not legacy, actually, it is certain things that were done wrongly, and this needs to be criticised, corrected. And if those things are done properly there should be no problem.
* You mean the Proton car projects? You mean the bridge? Why are those two so important to you?
No, we went into the automotive industry because we need to have skills in engineering. It is something that speaks of a lot of engineering skills and that's what has happened. And it is a successful project. It was very profitable. Now that they have decided to remove the CEO who made it profitable, now they are losing money and they're not doing so well now and with the government policy to allow in an unadmitted number of foreign makes and also not too strict about under-declaration, this thing is hurting the local Proton car.
* But could it be argued that there's a different person in power, has a different style, sees things differently?
Fine, as long as he does a good job. But he's not. Where you have a company that is profitable, so profitable that it can do a lot of things with internal resources, today it is not doing well at all. So it must be that the approach is wrong.
* But the Prime Minister has the Cabinet supporting him on those decisions.
Yeah, I'm a bit disappointed because this cabinet appears to be saying, "Yes, yes, yes," even before something is done. They have already said that they will say yes to anything that the Prime Minister says, and that was not my cabinet. In my cabinet before, we have very long debates and some of my ideas were thrown out.
* Tun Mahathir, when you retired you said you weren't going to be a back seat driver, you weren't going to interfere. Should you perhaps just allow the Prime Minister to do his work?
I would allow if the thing is not harmful. But to do something that will obviously harm us, like allowing another country to decide on what you want to do in your own country, you lose sovereignty. That, I cannot accept.
* This is the bridge issue?
The bridge, yes.
* Have you personally told the prime minister that you are not happy with some of these decisions?
Well, I think he knows. I have already made a statement. I'm supposed to be an advisor to Proton and, of course, if Proton does not do well I feel responsible. So I must make the necessary criticism of a policy that is very damaging.
* Do you think, though, that your outspokenness on these issues might be damaging to the government, to the country's image?
I think that the government should be strong enough to withstand that kind of criticism. If you cannot be criticised at all then it is not a good government.
* Now, UMNO supported the Prime Minister, does it concern you that you might face disciplinary action by UMNO, or maybe even be expelled from UMNO?
Well, that is something I went through before, but I think when I think something needs to be corrected, I don't care what happens to me. I have never cared what happens to me.
* Tun Mahathir, many people are surprised at your views these days. You talk about the importance of freedom of the press, you talk about having democratic debate as being very good for a country. And they see an irony in the fact that when you were leading the country you didn't tolerate those things.
That is your perception. It's not my perception.
* But when you were in power you did close newspapers.
Yes. If you stir up racial trouble in this country, we will do that. That is a stated policy... When we went for election, people know that this is our policy. If you stir up racial trouble in this country, and we cannot afford that, we will take action against you.
* Was it just on racial issues? But they're also political issues as well.
No. Not political issues. The first thing I did when I became prime minister was to release people who were detained under ISA because of political beliefs.
* As he works on his memoirs Tun Mahathir has been mulling over his legacy, his achievements and his failures. The lot of the indigenous Malays has always been a preoccupation of his. But in a multi-racial country, he feels his policies never really change the mindset of the local Malays.
My disappointment is that I cannot get my own community to take up a challenge to change their ways so they can compete with the others.
* But all those years of affirmative action have not been successful? Is that what you're saying?
It is only partially successful. Because it's one thing for the government to propose ways of overtaking the others but people must respond. And not only respond in terms of taking up the policies, but they must develop the correct and the value systems necessary to make the response successful.
* So what is keeping your people down, then? What is it? Is it a psychological factor? What is it?
Yeah. Some of them have changed but they cling to their old value system. They like an easy life, an easy way out. And I have tried to point out to them that this is not good for them because in the end they will lose.
* They will be overtaken?
They are trying to catch up. They have moved quite a bit but not sufficiently.
* Is there anything that you can do to make sure that they catch up? Were you talking about more affirmative action? What can you do? How can you motivate them?
I have removed some of their defection, and I have told them they have to undergo some kind of orientation so that they understand the values system which will contribute to our success.
* And as if that's not disappointing enough Tun Mahathir's past is about to catch up with him. Anwar Ibrahim, once the anointed successor, was sacked by Tun Mahathir in 1998 and jailed on sodomy and corruption charges. And now Anwar Ibrahim is suing Tun Mahathir for again questioning his sexuality.
I still stand by that. That is the reason why I took action. I didn't take action against him because he was trying to take over my place. I could fight my own battles in politics but I have a certain standard which I apply for people who work in my government.
* You haven't seen Anwar Ibrahim for at least eight years. Has your view on him softened at all?
No. He's still the same. I can not afford to soften myself in any way.
* He is suing you, isn't he?
Yes. He is suing me.
* Are you apprehensive about that?
No. I'm not apprehensive. I know this is something political because what it will do is, of course, to keep my mouth shut during the time because he's in a court of law. And that would serve his purpose, not my purpose.
* Are you confident that you will win this?
I'm reasonably confident, but of course when you go before a court anything can happen. So I'm quite prepared for whatever it is that the court decides.
* For decades, Tun Mahathir has been the champion of Asian values, of non-interference in the affairs of the neighbourhood, chiding Australia for what he decried as 'megaphone diplomacy'. But it hasn't worked in the case of Burma. In 1997, Tun Mahathir was responsible for inviting Burma to join ASEAN in the belief that it would change the regime's attitudes. It's done
nothing of the sort. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won national elections 16 years ago, despite international outcry remains in detention.
I am quite disappointed because we have tried to convince the Burmese leaders that they can change their ways and not be harmed by anyone. The problem that we face is that whenever a dictator gives up his power in order to become democratic invariably he gets arrested and thrown in jail. With that kind of things happening to neighbours it's going to be very difficult
to persuade the rulers of Burma that they should give up power then land in jail. So you have to assure them that if they give up power then they will be treated like normal citizens. So we have tried. I'm afraid we are not very successful, but we keep on trying.
* But how much more patient can you be with Burma?
Well, we have to be very patient because we have to try. People don't live forever.
* In elder statesman mode and hosting a global peace conference in Kuala Lumpur, it's obvious that retirement has neither slowed him down nor tempered his controversial views.
We are witnessing the early years of the Fourth World War. The Cold War was the Third World War. You may think I'm being alarmist or even irrational, but think again.
* Some in the west call it "The War on Terror", but Tun Mahathir sees things very differently.
The leaders of countries who wage wars must be labelled war criminals. Even as they... Will Bush, Blair, Howard, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and others, high up in the chain of command, be arraigned before a war crimes tribunal?
* In your speech yesterday, you referred to war criminals, you referred to George Bush, and even John Howard. How do you come to that conclusion, that John Howard is a war criminal?
They are responsible for killing people. They are, they know exactly what they are being. They know that when you drop a bomb, when you fire a rocket with a warhead, then you are killing people.
* But to leave now, wouldn't that just invite more carnage?
If you leave, you're going to have more fighting, if you don't leave, the fighting will also continue. And so, if you leave now, what have you achieved? You have done nothing except to excite people and cause them to kill each other. That is your contribution.
* Is Australia going to feature in your memoirs?
Well, I don't know yet but I, when I come to it, I think I will have to mention Australia, which claims to be an Eastern country, but with a Western mind, Western culture, and a tendency to preach to others, to take the high moral ground. I don't like that.
* And you don't think Australia has changed? You have, you outlasted three Australian prime ministers, so you have had experience with the colourful ones. You don't think we have changed at all, as a country?
No, I think it would... Howard is the worst of the three. He tends to lecture the people, all the time. I tried to be friendly with him, when he first became prime minister, I met him. I thought we would work together. But of course, he, condemns me as barbaric, and things like that, so I'm not going to stand up to that kind of thing and keep quiet.
* Tun Mahathir, do you give credit, though, to John Howard for trying very hard to accommodate Indonesia with Indonesia's concerns over Papuan asylum seekers, with helping out countries in the neighbourhood that need assistance? That he's trying very hard to engage in the region?
I don't think he is trying very hard. You know, otherwise I think relations with Indonesians and Australia would be good. Indonesia is much more inclined to be friendly with Australia, but Australia is not reciprocating.
* So, of the prime ministers from Australia that you've dealt with, which one do you think engaged the most with Asia?
I think Bob (Hawke) was the only one who was really very concerned. Even now, he's very much involved with Asia.
* And Paul Keating?
Paul Keating, well, I could have got along fine with him. His calling me "recalcitrant" did not hurt me, but people here were very annoyed. So, I have to be sympathetic toward the feelings of the people here.
* What sort of a country are we today?
You don't know where you are. You want to be European...
Yes, you still feel like a European, and yet you want to be Eastern. You have to make up your mind.
* It sounds, though, like we will never belong, because of our make-up.
You can belong, if you drop this idea that you are here to supervise the region, to be a deputy sheriff and things like that.
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad Dr Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003.
This Viewpoint is an excerpt from an interview with Helen Vatsikopolous taken from ABC Asia Pacific's 'Asia Pacific Focus' program, first aired on July 2, 2006.
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