Mahathir talks about S’pore, China, Najib & stepping down as PM in wide-ranging SCMP interview

The video interview is 33 minutes.

Kayla Wong | March 9, 05:43 pm


Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has gifted his first non-Malaysian media interview of 2019 to a Hong Kong media.

The world’s oldest prime minister spoke to South China Morning Post about a host of topics, which naturally included comments on Singapore, his former protégé-turned-nemesis Najib Razak and China.

The interview was published on Friday, March 8.

The SCMP interviewers included two Singaporeans, Zuraidah Ibrahim and Bhavan Jaipragas, as well as Tammy Tam, the paper’s China-born editor-in-chief who is the first woman to take the role in the newspaper’s history.

Here are the highlights of the 33-minute interview.

1. On China’s influence

Welcomes Chinese FDI, but not Chinese people to live in Malaysia

Mahathir explained that foreign direct investment (FDI) is welcome in Malaysia, but it does not want “dominance by any particular country”.

“… on one hand we welcome Chinese investment in Malaysia although it is quite big and they have the money and the expertise.

But we do not want them to come and live in Malaysia.

People who are working at the top level, yes, they may come to Malaysia. But not to be residents.

But our workers must find jobs from Chinese investments in Malaysia. So we have to look into what benefits us.”

In addition, he said the “building of huge cities” and attempting to bring foreigners to live in Malaysia will “disturb the political equation” in the country.

Malaysia supports China’s BRI

As for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Mahathir expressed his support for it.

He is also the first world leader to confirm his attendance at the second BRI forum for international cooperation taking place in Beijing in April this year.

When asked if he is concerned that Beijing is using the BRI to lure poorer countries into debt traps, he said that the programme is “not really connected this dominance or attempted dominance of China”.

Rather, the Chinese are simply “good businesspeople” who want to increase their influence in the rest of the world by making use of their financial capital.

No fear of China trying to “build an empire” in the region today

When probed further on his views regarding the theory that the BRI is a deliberate move by Beijing to make countries indebted to the country, Mahathir said “maybe”, because that is “one way of achieving influence”.

Nevertheless, he is not concerned that China would go about dominating Malaysia like the way the “Europeans” did in the past.

“… 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.

Later on in the interview, he continued:

“… we always say, we have had China as a neighbour for 2,000 years, we were never conquered by them.

But the Europeans came in 1509, in two years, they conquered Malaysia…

China’s attitude of course is to gain as much influence as possible. But so far China doesn’t seem to want to build an empire.

So, we will remain free people.”

Still, he acknowledged the “strong influence” Beijing has on Malaysia’s economy, and even its politics.

And this is up to Malaysia itself to handle, he said.

Huawei poses no threat to Malaysia’s security at the moment

When asked on his views on the alleged security risk that comes with using Huawei’s 5G networks, Mahathir said it is of no concern to Malaysia at the moment.

“… we have not found them a threat to our security. Not yet, maybe later.”

But even if Huawei’s 5G technology was found to be problematic, Mahathir said Malaysia “cannot just follow actions taken by other countries because Chinese technology seems to be ahead of Western technologies”.

Talks on ECRL still ongoing

On negotiations regarding the China-backed East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), which is a key part of China’s BRI, Mahathir said it will be “difficult” to come to a resolution anytime soon.

“The Chinese have accepted that the price was too high.

They have proposed a reduction in the cost of the whole project but it is not enough.

For us, the main thing is that we don’t have money and we cannot borrow large sums of money to build something that is not going to be profitable.”

Malaysia prefers China in terms of economics, but not when it comes to politics

When asked if he had to make a choice between China or the United States, Mahathir said “it depends on how they behave”.

But for now, Malaysia has to accept that China is close to them.

“… it is a huge market. We want to benefit from China’s growing wealth. So at this moment, economically, we would prefer China.

But politically, of course, we are not attracted towards a system of government that is very authoritarian.”

2. On water price issue with Singapore

Mahathir said he is not “anti-Singapore”, but simply “pro-Malaysia” and looking after the interests of his own country.

Nevertheless, he repeated what he had said many times before, that Singapore is “asking a poorer country to subsidise their economy and their growth”.

As for the price of raw water Malaysia supplies to Singapore under the 1962 water agreement, he said Malaysia has a right to negotiate.

“… we are entitled to renegotiate the price after 25 years, that is the second agreement, which was made in 1961.

After 25 years we can negotiate, but what Singapore says that because 25 years is passed, therefore you have lost your right to negotiate.

How can that be? It says after 25 years, not at 25 years, you must negotiate.”

He further said there is “no place in the world” where prices do not escalate and that there is no such thing as “a fixed price in the sale of goods or whatever”.

3. On Najib

When asked what he thinks about Najib’s charm offensive — his growing social media campaign and him meeting many people —  Mahathir said Najib was able to do all these as he was “quite free”.

But Najib saying what he wants to say, such as “denying his wrong deeds” and saying that the government has been “unfair” to him, shows that Malaysia is a democratic country, Mahathir said:

“… we have to allow people to have free speech.

He is of course abusing free speech the way he used to abuse power.”

4. On promise to step down & give way to Anwar

When asked on the growing voices for him to stay on as prime minister beyond the two years that was initially agreed upon, Mahathir said he would “stick to [his] promise”.

And other factors “cannot influence a promise” that he made.

You can read the entire interview here.

Top image via SCMP video

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