- In his first interview with international media this year, Mahathir speaks candidly to the South China Morning Post on everything from the US-China trade war to his scandal-tainted predecessor Najib Razak
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad spoke candidly to the South China Morning Post on a wide range of issues in his first interview with international media in 2019. Mahathir is approaching the end of his first year in office, his second stint as premier after his opposition coalition won the elections in a stunning victory last May. He previously led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 and now, at 93, he is the world’s oldest prime minister. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Q: What has the past year been like for you, and what has been the biggest challenge your second time around as prime minister?
A: One year would include the period we were not the government. Because we formed the government only for the last 10 months. But during these 10 months, the work of rearranging things and correcting all the mistakes of the past, dealing with the high debt that was incurred by the previous government, has been very, very difficult. At the same time, of course, the people are expecting everything to be done overnight. So we are in a little bit of a quandary because the expectations of the people are that when the new government takes over, everything will be done immediately. But it is not possible, and we are having a tough time trying to restore the administrative machinery, and also the economy and finance of the country.
Q: What are the economic prospects for Malaysia in 2019?
A: Growth has been good. Some of the figures [show GDP growth of] 4.5 per cent, 4.7 per cent, which is good for Malaysia. But there seems to be a disconnect between the economic performance of the country as a whole and the well-being of the people. The people still feel the pressure of higher prices and things like that. And we are not able to give them the service that they used to get from the previous government. Because the previous government tends to distribute money freely.
We don’t have the money so we find it difficult to tell the people, sorry, we don’t have the money, we can’t give you the kind of support of the previous government. You must understand that what was done by the previous government was wrong. But the people still feel that by now we should have done something that will make them feel better off. But as far as the economy is concerned, we are doing well. We are growing, still growing.
Q: You were the first world leader to confirm your attendance at the Belt and Road summit in April. What message will you be bringing to Beijing?
A: Whatever may be our attitude towards China, we have to admit that China is a big power. It is a regional power and we need to deal with them. We need to understand their policies and strategies and we have to make adjustments so that we can gain some benefit from China’s policies. So I am going there because I want to listen to what they are saying about the Belt and Road and at the same time, given a chance, I would like to explain Malaysia’s attitude towards this policy of China.
Q: What would that be?
A: We support the policy of Belt and Road. In fact, long ago I had already brought up the possibility of improving the old Silk Road by having better train service and all that. Sea routes I didn’t look at but now it’s not only land but the sea. Well, we are using the sea as our supply line also. So we want the sea to be free. You can claim what you want, but that sea must be open to traffic, all kinds of traffic.
Q: There are accusations that China is using the programme as a means to entrap poorer countries. What is Malaysia’s position on this, and your personal view of whether there is a debt trap?
A: Well, the Belt and Road policy is not really connected to this dominance or attempted dominance of China. What is happening now is that China is a very rich country with plenty of capital. And they are using the capital to penetrate into many countries right up to Africa and even the Caribbean. They have the money. Chinese by nature are very good businesspeople. They see opportunities and with their capital they want to penetrate areas where before they had no representation or little representation. We will have to face that problem.
It is the same as in the past, where the Europeans were masters in terms of business, technology and capital. They penetrated the rest of the world because of their power. Now China has the power derived from its very good growth, in terms of its economy. So they want to use that power to enlarge their influence. I think it is a natural reaction.
But the countries concerned must be able to distinguish what is allowable or needed by their country and what is not. If countries prefer to borrow huge sums of money, well, that is your decision. You make that decision, you know capital flowing into the country exerts some influence over the country. So it is up to the countries concerned to make sure that the money flowing into their country is not borrowed money, is not money for infrastructure, but maybe limited to money for investment in productive processes.
Q: Do you buy the theory that it is a deliberate move to make countries indebted to Beijing?
A: Well, yes maybe it is that way because that is one way of achieving influence. But if you look back at history, you know the Europeans came to the East and they very simply conquered the East. So we became their colonies. So far I think we have not become colonies ruled by China but we have put ourselves in a position where China has strong influence on our economy and maybe even our politics. But it is all up to us.
Q: What are your thoughts on China’s economy now?
A: If you look at Japan, initially Japan was growing at a very fast rate. Even two-digit growth. But as the economy grows, growth is going to decrease because the base is bigger. So China is going through the same period. Now the cost of producing in China is rising. People are demanding higher pay and better facilities et cetera, and very gradually [or] even at a very fast rate, China will become less competitive than it is today. At that time of course countries like Korea, like Japan, and even European countries, if they can sort out [growth] they will be able to compete with China in the world market. So while China can remain rich simply because it has a population that is bigger than the combined population of Europe and America, so it has a big domestic market, but eventually China must spread its trade with other countries and if they can gain control over the economies of other countries, it would be in their favour.