By Khaled Al-Maeena, Editor in Chief of Arabnews Daily
The interview with Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur was hastily arranged. However, despite a busy schedule and a planned trip to India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Dr. Mahathir found time to engage me in a lengthy and candid discussion that covered a wide range of domestic and international issues.
The view on the way to Jaya Putra, seat of the Malaysian government, was of motor ways blending into a natural beauty that has made Malaysia one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The prime minister’s office itself turned out to be a beautiful structure that, like Malaysian architecture generally, combines the very best of modernism with traditional.
When I entered through the small door I was asked for my ID, and on giving over my passport was handed a smart card. The photographer and I used it to get through a turnstile before we descended into an underpass and along a corridor. A lift took us up to the third floor, where the card was exchanged for another which we used to proceed up to the PM’s floor.
The press secretary and his aides met us, and what was immediately striking was how the surroundings were devoid of the trappings of high office. There were no armed guards, for instance, and it seemed more like the boardroom of a major Asian corporation.
At precisely 2:30 p.m. the PM’s assistant ushered me into the prime minister’s office, who stood and greeted me with a warm handshake. He too was wearing a name tag, as though he were just another employee in the building. It was obvious from the first moments of being in his company that he was a man who wears the airs and graces of his title lightly. Not that he has ever taken his responsibilities with anything but great seriousness. He has played a pivotal role in propelling Malaysia into the twenty-first century by adopting a pragmatic, high-tech agenda and refusing — despite sometimes fierce international criticism — to compromise his clear vision of how wealth and prosperity can increasingly become an integral part of his country’s destiny.
A tireless and bold leader, Mahathir is a no-nonsense man who has always had Malaysia’s best interests at heart. In contrast to many other world leaders, you are never in any doubt when you talk to him that he is speaking frankly, and from the heart.
Khaled Al-Maeena: The bombing in Bali and colossal loss of life has increased the appetite of those who are against our culture. It’s also being used to raise the specter of “Islamic terror”. And what can be done to prevent such things from happening in the future?
Dr. Mahathir Mohamad: Both sides should understand the reasons for what is happening now. The West and the Muslims, as well as the people who act in anger. They do not act rationally, but just want to hit back. They can launch a conventional war, but what is needed is more thought about how the causes of the anger can be removed. I must however warn that any attack on Iraq will only sharpen the division between the West and the Muslim world.
Al-Maeena: It is said that, among the Muslim countries, there are no sane voices, while extremists are heard loud and clear. Are you going to do something about it?
Dr. Mahathir: I don't know how much I can do. There is no one who can do enough. If we feel we’re oppressed then we should pledge to work to overcome the oppression; and we've set certain policies. If this is not done, people get frustrated and the result is an increase in the oppression of Muslims.
Al-Maeena: One of the charges against Islam is that democracy is an alien concept to our religion, something repeated more and more by the powers that be in the West.
Dr. Mahathir: If you go back in history, when the Prophet (pbuh) died, the people elected his successor. This proves that democracy is not alien to Islam.
Al-Maeena: Do you think that organizations like the OIC could help to bring about change — without infringing on sovereignty — through conferences, think tanks and workshops?
Dr. Mahathir: Yes, provided they have a firm commitment. There must be a commitment, and a firm acceptance of the idea. If you want change, you must be prepared to accept change.
Al-Maeena: But I think Malaysia is playing a leading role and your role in Islamic banking is paying dividends. People are looking at Malaysia as a role model in this regard. There could be lessons for others here.
Dr. Mahathir: Well, if people see what we are doing with this model and they like it, they are welcome to follow it. We've shown that in Malaysia the democratic system works, that we've been able to develop the country using the free market system but at the same time the people are very patient. We've been able to make advances and we've succeeded in demonstrating that Islamic banking is as viable as other types of banking.
Al-Maeena: Still on the subject of Malaysia, a country where despite racial and religious differences and languages there is harmony. Everyone is “a Malaysian”. Is this feeling natural or does the government have to work at it and remind people of it?
Dr. Mahathir: We've had to work very hard at it. The tendency earlier was to be very racial in our outlook. But we accept that we've got to live among ourselves. There was once a racial riot. We were able to put a stop to that kind of thing and learn the lessons from the incident. Our feeling is that it is far better to have a slice of the cake that is growing, rather than to have the whole cake when it’s shrinking. So if we cannot get on together, the country cannot grow and the economy cannot grow and we'll all become poor.
Al-Maeena: The Asian financial crisis caused a lot of turbulence in the area among big players and plunged Malaysia into deep recession. At that time you blamed certain speculators from outside and implemented reforms and decisions that were considered controversial. In hindsight, do you think you took the right decisions?
Dr. Mahathir: I think they were the right decisions. In fact, everybody admits that Malaysia has managed to come out of that crisis intact and healthy both financially and economically.
Al-Maeena: Returning to the question of the Middle East, since you are going to visit the area and India and Pakistan. Do you think there will be some sort of beckoning from your side to the leaders of both India and Pakistan to try and resolve some of the issues?
Dr. Mahathir: I don't think I would make any attempt. I don't think I’d be welcome.
Al-Maeena: If one party asks you to do that, would you do it — considering that Malaysia has good relations with both sides?
Dr. Mahathir: Yes, we've good relations with both India and Pakistan. We've got our own way of solving our problems. And that is not by confrontation but through compromise.
Al-Maeena: When you visit Saudi Arabia, I’m sure you will be discussing the problems in the area. The United States seems to be very reluctant to acknowledge that there is failure of progress of the Middle East issue. You have been an advocate of the right to self-determination for the people of Palestine. Don't you think much more should be done from the OIC and the Muslim side to tell the American administration that they have to look into this more sympathetically, especially in light of what we’ve said about the causes of terror attacks?
Dr. Mahathir: Some of the countries in the OIC should make their voices heard. How that can be done I don't know. But if they keep silent, it will be assumed that the Americans are right.
Al-Maeena: In June this year you went on national TV to announce your resignation, only to recant a few hours later. Then a decision was made that in September or October 2003 you will resign. Is there a particular reason for this?
Dr. Mahathir: Nothing very particular except that I've served the country for 21 years and that's the longest period for any other prime minister in Malaysia. I think it's time that I stepped down to give others an opportunity to lead the country.
Al-Maeena: Despite the announcement of Moody's ratings, Malaysian wants and risks were hardly affected by your decision. Are you confident that the takeover by deputy prime minister will be orderly and will not cause any dissent within your own party?
Dr. Mahathir: I don't think there will be any dissent. I think the party accepts even now the fact that I'm stepping down in October 2003 and I'll be handing over to my deputy. Everything is in place in order to ensure that the economy of the country will continue to get stronger.
Al-Maeena: Many view you as the chairman of a board who does not take kindly to the opposition from the board members.
Dr. Mahathir: It’s not true at all. I wish that people would watch us sitting in the Cabinet. There’s much laughter! Sometimes my views are not accepted. So… they are not accepted. I don't dictate things to “the members of the board”. The problem is that the media has built up this picture. They say to Cabinet ministers: “Please tell us is it’s true that he’s a dictator.” They say “no, it's not true.” But they just repeat that “the truth is that he is a dictator. Isn't that true?” There is nothing you can do when people have already made up their mind. So the perception is that I'm like that.
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Al-Maeena: Looking at the New Strait Times, I find you're a keen advocate of the English language. Do you think the use of the English language in Malaysia and the Muslim world will facilitate our attempts to get our viewpoints across?
Dr. Mahathir: If you're backward, people will attack you all the time. That's why we've got to learn English – not because we want to speak English or because we think it’s a superior culture or anything like that, but because English is the language of knowledge today like Arabic was the language of knowledge in the past.
Al-Maeena: There are those who raise fears that too much English will dampen the culture.
Dr. Mahathir: But we can use the language and at the same time protect our culture.
Al-Maeena: When you think of Malaysia in the future, what do you think are the main challenges you have overcome?
Dr. Mahathir: I had a particular problem when I first became prime minister in that there was fear among the tiny Muslim community that I'm a Malay Muslim cynic and therefore would bring chaos to the country. I worked hard to prove that this was not true. And today I think that’s was one of the most important things I've been able to accomplish. I think this should confirm it. I've been able to bring disparate groups together and they are living in harmony. Now I think the non-Malays don’t have a problem. All I wanted to do was balance development between the Malays and non-Malays.
Al-Maeena: You're an articulate spokesman for the developing world and you've stood up to the superpower when it comes to globalization and several other issues. You've been criticized and have incurred the displeasure of many quarters, including the United States. Has this stand of yours been a thorn in the side of the US-Malay relationship?
Dr. Mahathir: Well, there are some in the United States who are still unhappy with my views. I've been able to defend myself and so far they have not been able to prove that I've been objecting to globalization without proper reasons.
Al-Maeena: In the context of the OIC, since we are talking about globalization, should the OIC help the Muslims adopt an economic, social and religious framework to create a defense against such attacks?
Dr. Mahathir: We've got a framework but there is the question of what we want to do... If we want, there are many ways of protecting ourselves. Even though we may be weak in other fields, in numerical strength we have great wealth.
Al-Maeena: Are you confident about Malaysia's future on the global scale in light of the regional situation? In particular, I refer to the bombings, and Japan and Korea being in recession and not taking kindly to what Malaysia is doing with its financial field.
Dr. Mahathir: We can't be absolutely certain but it's reasonable for us to expect Malaysia to succeed. Even the downturn in the world's economy today has not effected Malaysia too much. Our economy is quite strong, and although it has depreciated downward it has not done so as much as the United States, Germany and others.
Al-Maeena: If you've one motto in life what would that be.
Dr. Mahathir: One motto....
Dr. Mahathir: We're a very pragmatic people. We're not tied to any ideology. We think ourselves as Muslim fundamentalists. That is, we stick to the basic teachings of Islam. And that has given us strength. Because many people who do not understand the basics make all kind of interpretations about Islam, and they believe in interpretation of this person and that person when they are in doubt.
Al-Maeena: But the application of the word fundamentalist, which has now become one that causes fear, might give cause for nervousness in the West. Don't you think a further explanation of the word is necessary.
Dr. Mahathir: I did that almost 16 years ago. I had dealt with the fundamentals of Islam. Islam is about peace. Islam says that you don't fight against people who do not fight against you. If people want peace then give them peace. These are the fundamentals of Islam.
Al-Maeena: Are there ways that we can engage the West with all that’s going on -- I'm sure you must have read about US Baptist Minister Jerry Falwell's statement on the Prophet (pbuh). Are there any mechanics that can be put in place so we can engage the West in their own language?
Dr. Mahathir: People have access to the media and the TV, but it’s important that the media and TV do not imitate the West in sensationalism, or be provocative. They should give the true picture of our religion and our way of life.
Al-Maeena: One of the accusations we're getting from abroad is that those who are promoting the moderate, saner voice are found wanting in their techniques and their efforts. Malaysia has been making efforts in this regard to establish Islamic universities. Do you think you could institutionalize this in such a manner that there will be people from here who can be trained? You've said very proudly that you're a Muslim fundamentalist in the true sense of the word, a fundamentalist believing in the fundamentals of Islam. Do you think after leaving office you could be the guiding light for such activities?
Dr. Mahathir: Of course, I'll continue to speak out whenever necessary. If people don't hear me, there isn't much I can do. But if I'm called upon to do so and invited to speak, I will.
Al-Maeena: How would you like to be remembered?
Dr. Mahathir: I have been asked that many times.
Al-Maeena: But this is an original one from my side!
Dr. Mahathir: The most important thing for me, despite the fact that I was labeled an “extremist” when I took office, is that I've been able to prove that I am nothing of the sort. I've been very fair and because of that I can now say that all the communities in the country are stable and peaceful.