China making claims in South China Sea but we cannot go to war, says Mahathir Mohamad to WION

New DelhiWritten By: Palki SharmaUpdated: Aug 07, 2020, 08:34 PM IST


Story highlights

In an exclusive interview to WION, former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad spoke on a variety of things including Zakir Naik, China's role in Asia, PM Imran Khan and his relations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad spoke to Executive Editor Palki Sharma as part of WION's Global Leadership Series. In an exclusive interview, the former Malaysian prime minister spoke on a variety of things including Zakir Naik, China's role in Asia, Pakistan and PM Imran Khan and his relations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
WION: Sir, former PM Najib Razzak was found guilty in a historic decision recently. What does the conviction mean for Malaysia and its politics?  
Dr Mahathir Mohamad:
I think when he was around as Prime Minister he thought he was above the law and he believed he could remain as the prime minister for as long as he liked because he believes in bribery. He thought he will give money to people and the people will support him. 
Razzak says, “cash is king”. Now, that kind of idea promotes bribery. Corruption in the country is very bad which is the reason why people turned against him and then, of course, the fact that he was leading a party that has been in power since independence for 60 years, then he was defeated in the January elections and the defeat was because the people were really against him.
They came back from all over the world just to vote and then went back and that is the measure of their anger towards him. Now, they feel satisfied that there is a law that operates in Malaysia that recognises no particular privileged people. 
So, we feel it is something that Malaysia can be proud of because we have managed to have people of high standing being tried in the court of law. For a long period, he was given every chance to defend himself but then he was found guilty on all seven charges that were placed against him. So, for us it is very important. We can now feel safe. We don't think that there can be people who can commit some crime and get away with it.
WION: Do you also see a chance for yourself? There's talk of you floating a new party and your country heading for snap polls...
Dr Mahathir Mohamad:
Politics here is a little bit confusing. For example, my party is in the government but I am not in the government. We have two factions now, one is in the government and one is outside. 
But we are not happy with our party being in the government because it is working with Najib's party and Najib's party is known for corruption and all kinds of wrongdoings. So, we cannot join our own party. But we hope that we can replace that party, if possible to bring back the old government.
WION: So you are looking at another term?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: We are working towards bring back the party which won the January 14 elections.


WION: If you take office again would your approach towards India be different?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Our relations with India have always been very good. As you know we have a lot of people of Indian origin here in Malaysia and they still have connections in India. 
They are citizens of this country. Of course, we cannot forget the fact that they are from India and because of their presence, we know Indians very well, we know India very well and from the very beginning we have tried to have good relations with India. 
But of course off and on there would be some minor glitches, events which affect immediate relations at that time. But very quickly we overcome such strains in our relationship.
WION: The people of India and Malaysia are one thing, I'm talking about your relationship as a leader and as a former prime minister. Would you say that under your leadership India- Malaysia relationship deteriorated?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well, it did because of my remarks on Kashmir. But other than that the relationship was very good even under my leadership.
WION: How would you describe your equation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: He was one of the earliest Prime Ministers to call me when I became the prime minister the second time. Apparently, we had met a long time ago, although I had forgotten and he was able to show a picture of us together from a long time ago before he became the prime minister of India.
WION: It sounds like a warm gesture to me. The Indian Prime Minister visited you, as you said, soon after you took office. He put his best foot forward and it is said that you repaid this gesture with hostility...
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well, we always want to maintain good relations, whoever may be the prime minister of India. It is not something that we should take into consideration. Whoever is the prime minister we will develop good relations with that leader.
WION: And whoever is the prime minister, I’m assuming, will not appreciate the kind of comments that came from Malaysia under you on Kashmir. I'm sure you realised what kind of reactions it would get and still you said what you did. Why is that?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: No, I have been making comments about affairs from all over the world, where I think something wrong is done. It is not about supporting Pakistan, it is about the people of Kashmir, they have been free but now they are under India and this is of course not in accordance with the initial agreement that was made at the time of partition.
WION: That is your interpretation, Sir. I did not even mention Pakistan but I will come to Pakistan. There is a fugitive called Zakir Naik who lives in your country. Why doesn't the Malaysian government send him back to India? In 2017, you said that Prime Minister Modi met you in Russia but did not ask you for the extradition of Zakir Naik. India had contested that claim and since then India has sought the extradition of Zakir Naik. Why is he not being sent back?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: The situation in India with regard to the Muslim-Hindu relationship is not so good. There have been cases of people being lynched. So, he is, I think not very welcome in India. So we thought that for the time being he can stay here but we would like to send him to some other country where he would be safe. Unfortunately, not many countries are willing to accept him.
WION: Of course, he is not welcomed. Of course, he is not welcomed by most countries because he has terror charges against him. You have made some very sweeping statements, this is a man on the run, the government of India has asked for his extradition and you are saying he is not welcome in India?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: The government is one thing, the people have got different ideas. Sometimes the people act rather roughly on Muslims in India.
WION: I don't have words to respond to that. That's a rather sweeping statement. If you were to be the prime minister of Malaysia again, would you or would you not extradite Zakir Naik? 
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well, we would like to send him to some country where we feel he will be safe. 
WION: But, not to India?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well, not to India because at this moment we feel that he would not be safe from the Indian public.
WION: It is said that you backed Pakistan against India only to position yourself as a leader of the Islamic world. Is that right?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: It is not about being Islamic or about being the leader of the Islamic world. When I think something wrong has been done by anybody, even the big powers, I have always felt free to voice my opinion, that's all!
WION: Have you voiced your opinion on the minorities of Pakistan?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: We felt that they need to be looked after because here in Malaysia, as you know, we have a lot of minorities but we treat them well and they are citizens of this country.

However, sometimes in other countries the government may have some policy but the people sometimes do not follow the government policy, they express their views sometimes in violent ways.
WION: Imran Khan gave your Islamic summit a miss under Saudi Arabian pressure. Was that disappointing for you?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Of course, it was very disappointing.
WION: Did you have a conversation with him since then? What did you tell him?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well, he did come after the meeting that he was invited to. He came and we had a chat about the future of Muslims in the world.
WION: What is the status of the parallel Islamic group that you created and what is its purpose?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Not a parallel Islamic group, these are members of the conference of Islamic countries. We found that when we have the whole group, it is difficult to reach any agreement. So we thought if we can have 2-3 countries which are like-minded to discuss the problems faced by the Muslims of the world, I think that would be more effective. At a later stage perhaps other members would join.
WION: But, some of these like-minded countries are not doing very much for the Muslims of China.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Yes, well now China is a very powerful country. We don't go to war with China. We tried to find other ways of solving our strained relations with China.
WION: So, on the one hand, you raise concerns about the Muslims in India, which has the second-highest Muslim population in the world and you make sweeping statements, but on the other hand you say that you will not stand up for the Muslims of China because China is a powerful country. Have I got this right?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well, our relationship with India and China is not quite the same. So with India, we feel that you are more liberal, more willing to accept criticism. But with China, you know they don't. They have a different system and different viewpoints.


WION: So are you going to follow the Chinese system or are you going to stand up for the Muslims of China, as you say you're trying to do something for the Muslim world?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well, there are ways of doing things. It’s not always through confrontation or even through open statements. We will do things in our way.
WION: Have you done something so far?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: We tried to talk to the Chinese.
WION: And what was the response?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well so far it is not so good. But I think the Chinese are becoming more and more conscious of the need for them to be a little bit more liberal towards the Muslims in China.
WION: I don't know how you make that assessment but I will not get into do you see China's role in this pandemic and do you support an international investigation against Beijing?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: I don't think it is the time for finger-pointing. What we need to do is to try and resolve this as a problem for the whole world. Pointing fingers at China doesn't help at all.

In fact, China has shown how they can handle this pandemic much better than the United States of America for example. It is not the case of having the facilities alone. It is a question of discipline. If people believe that they should be free to do what they like, they will find difficulties in accepting rules and regulations and SOPs to handle this pandemic.
WION: Does this episode expose the failure of global multilateral institutions like WHO and the United Nations that have not been able to hold countries powers like China accountable for the export of the virus?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: I think that China is trying to work with the WHO. It doesn't have the same stand as the US, as you know the US is getting out of the WHO, that is not China's way. 
China has offered to work with any country in terms of developing a vaccine and medicine for this pandemic. They are very cooperative, even with Malaysia and I think, China's attitude is far better than some countries which even consider that if they do find a vaccine, it is only for them.
WION: Which are those countries?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well, the vaccine research is being done in Switzerland and Switzerland has stated that their priorities will be to give the vaccine to the United States first.
WION: In the past, you have called out China's neo-colonialism, that was years back and now it is evident. How can countries like Malaysia counter China's expansionism in the South China Sea?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad:
Well, the Malay states, the small Malay states of Malaysia have had relations with China for nearly 2,000 years and that they survived at all is a miracle because if China would have been like the Europeans we would have been colonised by China by now. But China has maintained the relation to the point where even though they call themselves the Middle Kingdom - the biggest country in the world but we survived despite their obvious size and power.
WION: This is a U-turn, Mr Mohamad. From China's new colonialism to saying China is not as bad as the Europeans...
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well, this is true. China is not as bad as the Europeans. The Europeans came here in 1509, two years later they colonised us. China has known us for longer than that and they have not colonised us. It is a fact! A historical fact. Today, we have a problem with China making claims in the South China Sea but we cannot go to war with China, we have to find other solutions to the problem. At this moment we have some claims and they have not disturbed us.
WION: American military presence has increased in the Indo-Pacific region to counter the Chinese. What does it mean for the region? And do you fear a military clash even though you say that Malaysia would not want to be involved but there are other players in the region...
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Yeah, we don't think the confrontation is going to present good results. America always thinks in terms of violent solutions to problems. If anything happened in the past they would send gun boats, now they send aircraft carriers. I think that it is not the way to deal with international conflict. I think it would be better if America and China were to sit down to iron out their differences across the table. That is our wish, that is our way. We are against war, we are against making threats to call the other countries to follow what you want them to do.
WION: That is the Chinese playbook, making threats and forcing other countries to make them follow what you want them to do. Nobody wants a war, but when there is a clearly expansionist power trying to rename islands, trying to occupy territory, trying to grab land, would you not stand up against them?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: We have stood up to China, for example during the period of the previous government, they entered into agreements which were one-sided in favour of China. 
We took a stand that we want the agreements to be changed and China has not resisted. They have accepted our need to change the agreements which were more in favour of China than of Malaysia. To that extent, we have been able to deal with China, but of course, we are not up to sending warships into the area to threaten China. That would be very silly because we do not have the capacity. 
I think we should know what is our strength and weakness to deal with other countries.
WION: You have said it in the past that you would choose China's money over America's uncertainty. Do you still stand by the statement in the wake of the pandemic?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: One cannot deny that China is a big market. 1.4 billion people with very high income now and they are a big market for us. In fact, China has become our biggest trading partner.

We don't fight with our markets. We have to develop good relations with our markets and we have to develop a balance with other things happening like political relations and political actions taken by China...again the fact is that China is our market, our big market.
WION: What do you make of China's border aggression against India?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: I think India and China should sit down and settle this problem...
WION: Talks are very much on but since you say you comment on anything you see as wrong in the world, would you not want to comment on what China is doing on the border with India?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: We never take sides. We just recognise problems and solving the problems by taking sides is not going to do any good. We think that between China and India there is already some understanding, already you are going to talk to each other. Please continue talking...
WION: Well the talks are very much on but as one of the senior most leaders of the world someone who is not known to pull his punches or mince his words, would you not criticise one country for its unprovoked violation or transgression?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: It is not going to solve anything. Even if we criticise it doesn’t change matters. All we are going to do is to appeal to countries which have conflicts with each other to sit down around the table and to discuss things. Fighting, killing and all that is not the way to solve problems.
WION: Well you have... you have criticised Donald Trump and that hasn't changed anything, you refused to meet him during your visit to the US, you have renegotiated trade deals with China and slammed Xi Jinping’s policy. You have taken on the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, you have upset the Saudi monarchy, you've set up war tribunals to indict British leaders. Who is your friend Dr Mahatir Mohamad apart from perhaps Imran Khan?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well, I think all those people are my friends. The problem with the US is not the United States, it is the President. That will change we hope in November because even the Americans don't like their own president. So, as far as India is concerned, I've met the Prime Minister of India and we had good discussions.

We raised some matters and we ignored other matters but that is the way to carry on. I don't think confrontation or the breaking of diplomatic relations would help in any way. We would like to sustain relations and we would like to discuss and find solutions to our problems.
WION: Wouldn't you say your policy of non-confrontation is selective?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well for certain countries it appears that we are being selective while we are not. We are a neutral nation. We have good relations, we want to have good relations with every country, irrespective of their ideologies. Of course, with some countries, it may be bad but we don't try to just make criticism, if we can do something, we do it.
WION: How much did India's palm oil import ban hurt Malaysia? And would you say that you jeopardized the economic interests of your country to further your political interests? 
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: We would want to see all problems and conflicts between nations resolved in a peaceful manner that is our belief. We are against violence and we are in no position to use violence against anybody. We are a weak nation and we accept it.
WION: Would you say that China's debt trap, as we call it, is a serious concern for countries in the region and across the world? There are many countries which are unable to repay the Chinese loans that they took and it is hurting their economies...
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: China has suddenly become very rich and their policy is to expand their relations with many countries including many poor countries in Africa. 
Malaysia is very close to China, we have 26 per cent of our population of Chinese origin and this enables us to have closer contact with China and we feel that while we welcome Chinese funds coming here, we have limits to the amounts of investments coming from China. But we will not borrow money from China because it will place us in a very difficult position.
WION: Would you say that India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emerged as a global player?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Yes, but in India we look at Modi's policies, the foreign policy I think is okay, but it is the domestic policies which differ from previous Indian governments. You have been a secular state and I think it is important that you perpetuate that stand that you took when you became independent.
WION: Well India is still a secular country and I was talking about India's role at the world stage under this Prime Minister. It is interesting that you want to keep taking the focus back to the domestic issues which I'd be happy to discuss, but for the moment I want you to answer, has India emerged as an assertive global player under the current Prime Minister?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Well in many ways he has done well internationally but then, of course, we need to understand India better under Modi because he is different from previous Prime Ministers. We feel that we were very comfortable before but now we find that sometimes there have been accusations that the laws discriminate against Muslims for example.
WION: You're harbouring a terror accused and you are blaming another country, I do not know what to say to that. I'm sure you get this question a lot Sir, you made a dramatic comeback, then you announced a sudden resignation, you are 95 years old, have you considered retirement?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Yes, I will retire. In fact, I had retired when they asked me to come back. It is not my own wish. After I retired people came to see me and asked me to do something because the government was not doing the right thing.

Then I had to advise and become active again because this is the demand by some people, majority of them because as you know they support my coalition to the point of winning for the first time against the government of Malaysia which has been there for over 60 years. 
They think that I can play a role, I can't be selfish to say, well I'm old and I can't do work, please let me be free. It is not my way. If I am required to do something for my country, my health doesn't matter at all.
WION: That is very inspiring especially at a time when health has become the biggest issue the world cares about, do you want to give us some tips for remaining healthy? At 95 you are raring to go... 
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: (Chuckles...) I don’t know what I can tell people. I am an ordinary person who happened to become a leader and who happens to live longer than other leaders. 
As long as I can do something for my country I will because that is what I dedicated my life to because I think one should not be selfish when one can do something for one’s country, one should not consider one's personal likes and dislikes.
WION: And you have seen so much in the world, so much has changed, you have seen some really big events but this pandemic is being described as a once-in-a-century situation. How will this change the world according to you? And the world order?
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: When the West decided on a globalized world and on removing borders and a border-less world, they thought that it would mean they would have the whole world but now they are finding out that eastern countries are making use of that border-less world for themselves and doing much better than the West. 
And now they have second thoughts about the globalized world, now they feel they should look after their own territories, their own citizens and be more nationalistic rather than being internationalistic. 
So this is what is troubling the world because the West is yet to admit that their time is over, they must accept that other regions too can do as well as they did in the past without the wrong things that they did of course. So, in the future we are going to see the Asian countries dominate the world not because they want to colonise the world but because they want the world to be borderless and they want free trade and therefore bring prosperity even to the poorest countries.
WION: Dr Mahatir Mohamad, I hope you are successful in your next political mission and I hope when we talk next, you will have a more unbiased view of India and India's leadership and India's society. 
Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Thank you very much, you asked very interesting questions and of course, it is quite difficult to answer without hurting other people’s feelings. But still I appreciate the questions that you asked because you gave me a chance to clarify some of my stands and my beliefs and what I mean. Thank you!