On Globalization, Jerusalem and Unislamic Progress
This interview with Malaysia's Muslim prime minster Mohamad Mahathir
was conducted for NPQ by Fahim Al-Hamid, editor of the Saudi Gazette,
a client paper of NPQ's weekly column for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Global Viewpoint.
NPQ | You have spoken about an international conspiracy against Malaysia all the time. How do you manage to overcome this economic crisis which you claim is because of the conspiracy?
MAHATHIR | I have lived under four different governments. I have lived under the British as a colony, I have lived under the Japanese when they occupied Malaysia, I have lived under Thai rule when Japan handed over my home state and three other states to Thailand. Then the British came back and set up a military administration until we struggled to get independence. We have always been oppressed by foreigners so you cannot expect me to like them. Of course some of them have become very nice, like the Japanese. They have been very helpful, though they do criticize us.
But the Western people, not just the British, but in particular the United States, have never said a good word about Malaysia. I don't know why. When we find them doing something wrong we criticize them, but that is because they criticize us first. They say we are not democratic. Well, we point out when they are not democratic. We just say, well, you are doing the same. In the case of the currency crisis, without them there wouldn't be any crisis, because we are very strong. Economically, financially, we are very strong. People in Malaysia save a lot of money-30 percent of the GDP is saved every year. Every month we collect rm1.5 billion for our Employees' Provident Fund. We have a lot of money. We don't borrow. We borrow a little bit from Japan but no dollars. We don't borrow dollars except a few commercial loans. So there is no reason for our economy to go into decline. We have the money, we are a big exporting country, we are a trading country, we are the 18th biggest trading nation in the world. Why should our currency fail? It failed because they purposely attacked it, and they admitted they attacked it. But why do that to us? What have we done to them? And they want us to go to the IMF. If we go to the IMF, it will take over the economy in this country and we will lose our independence.
NPQ | You said that the IMF's medicine made you more sick.
MAHATHIR | Yes, because at that time, the deputy prime minister was minister of finance and he was very close to the IMF president. Camdessus advised him to take certain measures. And my finance minister followed his advice and as a result the economy went down. So I had to stop it. We can't follow these things, we have to do things on our own. That is why we imposed currency controls. Today the economy is doing very well and the world acknowledges that we have made a good recovery. We don't go for any international aid, we didn't ask the IMF. We borrowed some money from Japan but that is all.
NPQ | Can we now say that Malaysia is standing on its own feet?
MAHATHIR | Yes, we can. We have the capacity.
NPQ | Are you prepared for any more conspiracies in the future?
MAHATHIR | Yes, we are prepared. Of course we can't be sure we can win every time, but we have some experience about how to deal with this kind of thing.
NPQ | How did you manage the crisis when the country was so close to collapse?
MAHATHIR | We studied how they attacked us. Once we knew, we took measures to stop them. They attacked us by taking our money and selling it, so the value of our money went down. What we had to do was to stop them from getting our money. Through the banking system we told the banks, you cannot transfer any money belonging to foreigners to any other foreigner. You can use that money to buy things in Malaysia but you cannot transfer. Once you cannot transfer, it means you cannot sell to anybody, you cannot lend to anybody. Once they have no money, you cannot sell. It's very simple. But to know how to do that, we had to study how they manipulated the currency. It took us a bit of time to study and to design a way to stop them from selling our currency.
NPQ | You sharply criticize globalization and said that it will make us beggars. What is your philosophy on globalization?
MAHATHIR | There is no philosophy. What they are asking is that every country should allow foreign companies without restriction. Usually we use our borders to protect our economic interests. Today we have a motorcar industry. The reason why we are able to have a motorcar industry is because we impose a very high tax on imported cars, as much as 300 percent. Then we produce our own car which carries a very small tax. Therefore our car is cheap. Although it is quite expensive to build, it can still compete with the imported cars plus the tax. So we can produce our car and today it is the best selling car in the country.
Over the years we have become efficient and we can now export our cars to other countries and compete with them. But initially, we must have protection. Supposing you have no protection at all, no tax for imported cars. Their cars will be very cheap because they produce millions of cars. We produce only about 250,000 cars. So our costs are higher, theirs are lower. In globalization, you have to bring down the borders. Their cars will come in and compete with our cars and our industry will be gone. They want to do that also for banking. They want their banks to come in and compete with our banks. Their banks are very big. They are merging and becoming bigger and bigger. Each bank is much richer than Malaysia itself. For them, losing money is quite all right. They lose here, they make it up elsewhere. For our banks, if we compete by trying to reduce interest, for example, we will lose money and will have to close down. And they will buy the bank. Then all the banks will belong to them. That is what they mean by globalization.
NPQ | You don't find any positive element in globalization?
MAHATHIR | There are some positive elements like in-flow of investments. We have a lot of factories. Some of them belong to foreigners, 100 percent owned by foreigners. We allow them to bring in the factories, set up their manufacturing here, because they give employment to our people. But what they produce, they must export. It's not for local consumption. If they want to sell for local consumption, they must have local partners. But if you are 100 percent foreign, then you must export. When you export, foreign money comes in.
NPQ | What are you going to do about the WTO?
MAHATHIR | We have been arguing with them that if you want to have globalization, if you want to remove borders, then you have to do it slowly so that we have time to adjust. Bring up our banks, our manufacturing, so that we are strong enough to compete with them-although I find it difficult to think that we can compete with their banks. Their banks are huge.
On Jerusalem and Mideast Peace
NPQ | How do you view the Mideast peace process, especially after the collapse of Camp David talks?
MAHATHIR | We support Arafat only. We think he has already conceded enough to the Israelis, so the Israelis must accept the terms of the agreement that were reached in Norway under the Oslo Peace Accord. On the other hand, there is also a need for unity among all the Palestinians. They must accept not extremism but the majority's opinion. And the majority is still with Arafat. They cannot say, "We will not agree, we will continue fighting, shooting and bombing." It doesn't get us anywhere. The best thing is to reach an agreement, set up a Palestinian state and then strengthen that state. Build up its commerce, industry and its people. Palestinians are all over the world and they are clever people. They will go back and rebuild the country.
NPQ | One of the main issues at Camp David was Al-Quds and Arafat did not make any compromise on that. What is your view on Al-Quds?
MAHATHIR | We cannot accept anybody treating Jerusalem as their own capital. We cannot accept embassies moving there. They can stay in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem must belong to the Palestinians even though they may share the administration of Jerusalem a little with some of the Jews. But Jerusalem must be the capital of Palestine.
NPQ | Do you consider Al-Quds a purely Palestinian issue, or an Arab or Islamic issue?
MAHATHIR | It is an Islamic issue. We have to admit there are three religions there. Even if it is administered by Palestine, it must be accessible to the Jews and the Christians, and be very liberal.
NPQ | Are you planning to have diplomatic relations with Israel?
MAHATHIR | Not until Israel conforms and makes peace with the Palestinians. That is always our stand.
NPQ | What is your stand on Iraq? We have heard conflicting reports about Malaysia's stand.
MAHATHIR | There are two different things here. One is the government of Iraq or Saddam Hussein's regime. The West is against the regime and many Arab countries are also against them. That is one issue. We are not disputing that. We don't think that Iraq should invade Kuwait. But on the other hand, what about the people of Iraq? They have not done anything wrong. Why punish them? Children have no food, no medicine, they are dying.
NPQ | But who is responsible for this? Is it the regime or the West?
MAHATHIR | Well, you can blame the regime because you don't like the regime. But the fact is that the West has the means to relax or take away the sanctions. In ancient times, when you fought a war, you surrounded the city and you starved the people until they had to eat rats and then they surrendered. That is ancient times. In modern times you don't surround a country and starve its people to death in order to conquer that country. That is wrong. That is not civilized. That is why we have a very firm stand on the sanctions-we object to them because it hurts not the rulers but the people. You can blame the rulers for it, but the fact is that you are hurting the Iraqis themselves.
Is Progress Unislamic?
NPQ | You gave a dark vision of the Muslims' situation at the Organization of Islamic Countries' foreign ministers conference in Kuala Lumpur in July. Why are you pessimistic?
MAHATHIR | Because throughout history, ever since the end of the Islamic empire, we find that if there is any attempt to develop an Islamic country so that it will have the knowledge, skills, ability and industrial capacity, some group comes up and says it is not Islamic. And they try to bring down the government. They attack and kill people. Mostly they kill Muslims. Every time there is an attempt, they are quick to say, "You are going to become secular." But Muslims must understand that we cannot reject modern science. In fact Muslims were once the most advanced people in sciences. But do you now hear of well-known Muslim scientists? Nowadays, the people you hear about are the people who make interpretations of the religion. And then we argue among ourselves, do you kill a person who has become "murtad"? And we have a whole argument about that when we know we are really not in the position to execute somebody who has left the religion. We have many Muslims who have left the religion, but we have no capacity to go and kill them. The argument is purely academic. But what is necessary is for us to learn all the new knowledge, skills and industrial capacity. These are the things that are important. Our country must be as developed as all Western countries. And there is no reason why not, because Muslims are not stupid. Seven million Muslims are now in America. Why? Because in their own country they cannot function. They have the brains, but there is no capacity in their own country to exploit their skills, because in their own country the argument is still about whether this or that interpretation of Islam is right. We find differences about religion among ourselves and fight each other, and in the process we become weaker. We are actually doing the work of our own enemies.
NPQ | Do we have the instruments to fight the worst?
MAHATHIR | We don't at this moment. But the main thing is our frame of mind. We should not quibble about differences in the interpretation of religion. We should accept a person as a Muslim because he declares that he only believes in one God and that Muhammad is his prophet. That makes him a Muslim. While we quibble, we are being hard pressed by those who dislike us and we're not preparing ourselves. So we are weak. If we want to fight, we have to buy planes from our enemies.
After all, our enemies are not going to give us the best weapons. No way! We have to develop the capacity to build our own aircraft, our own tanks, everything. We must be self-reliant. And we can be. Even Malaysia, with its small capacity, has proven that we can, in the electronic field, be very, very advanced. But we are still quarrelling over interpretations of religion. We are arguing in detail about minute things. If there is a war, we can't win. That is why we try to dedicate ourselves to building a strong Muslim community here in Malaysia.
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