TUN DR MAHATHIR IN BBC HARD TALK
ON 18 APRIL 2008
Stephen Sackur Introduction:
Last month marked a watershed in the politics of Malaysia. The ruling national front recorded its worst election results in five decades. It’s still in power but seriously weakened. My guest today personifies the power of the ruling party for 22 years.
He was Malaysia’s PM and one of the most outspoken leaders in the Muslim world. His critics called him a racist and a dictator. Has retirement mellowed Dr.Mahathir Mohamed?
Stephen Sackur: Dr Mohamad welcome to Hardtalk. Let’s start with that election result last month, has it marked the beginning of the end for Malaysia’s ruling party?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Not necessarily, unless no action is taken, of course it may result in that. But if proper action is taken, including of course the present Prime Minister leaving his seat of power, it may be possible to bring back the Barisan Nasional Front in order to become again a very strong ruling party.
Stephen Sackur: You’re saying that PM Abdullah Badawi has to be kicked out for the ruling party to recover?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well not so strong as that. He can step down. I stepped down in my time. It’s about time that he steps down because the result of the election shows clearly that many of the former followers, supporters of the Nasional Front had decided that they would work, vote for the Opposition even if they didn’t like the Opposition. They voted for the Opposition to send a message to the present government.
Stephen Sackur: Prime Minister Abdullah says that you have been one of the curses that have brought him down, because you’ve been sniping from the sidelines for the last two or three years.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: That may be so. I don’t see why I should not criticise wrongdoings by him.
Stephen Sackur: What wrongdoings?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well in the first place, the government promises to remove corruption and things like that, but the government is found to be corrupt.
Stephen Sackur: You are tearing your own party apart though, that is the problem. And that is what many people inside your party believe.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well sometimes it may be necessary. I told people that I’m a doctor. If I find one leg becoming gangrenous I remove it.
Stephen Sackur: Now he has said Prime Minister Abdullah, that he will go eventually, but is your message to him that he has no time, he must go now?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: He must go now, because he will take time to revive the party for the next election.
Stephen Sackur: Isn’t the truth of what we see in Malaysia today that the real discontent isn’t so much with Prime Minister Abdullah, it is with the system and the ideology that you bequeathed to your country?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well the system and the ideology have been there for the last 50 years. It’s worked very well we had always won elections, people always supported us and the country has done very well during that 50 years with that system.
Stephen Sackur : But the indications are and the opposition succeeded by saying to the public, we no longer want this racially defined system inside Malaysia. And it was the racial defined system that was the platform upon which you succeeded in running Malaysia for 22 years.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: I think that’s wishful thinking on the part of foreign critics. But the fact is that this election result was due to disaffection on the part of the ruling party’s supporters, with the present leadership.
Stephen Sackur : Well let me just quote you the words of the new head of Penang State and let’s not forget that these results saw five very big and wealthy states go to the Opposition. The new head of Penang State Mr Lim Guan Eng, he says ‘we want a new state administration that is free from corruption and cronyism, we are here to build a Penang State for all.’ You didn’t build a Malaysia for all did you?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: I did. If you look at Malaysia today. Everybody is enjoying, has enjoyed, a very good life. They have become very prosperous. Malaysia was one of the fastest growing countries in the world. If you look at the different races, you can find that they all benefited from that government. So it is of course, necessary for Opposition parties to make remarks like that.
Stephen Sackur : But they are not making it up are they? Let’s look at your new economic policy which you pursued for so long. It favours ethnic Malays, in so many different ways, from public sector appointments to university places, to advantageous acquisition of stocks, discounts on housing, I don’t know where to stop. There are so many different ways in which you ran an unequal system.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: No this was a policy which was initiated by my predecessors, it was necessary to...
Stephen Sackur : But you ran it for 22 years, you had ample opportunity to change it.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Yes I had ample opportunity to implement in a way that will correct imbalances that existed in Malaysia since the British days. And unless these imbalances are corrected there’s bound to be another race riot, as happened in 1969.
Stephen Sackur : But the point is that 80 thousand Indians for example, were on the streets protesting long and loud last November, because they are no longer prepared to live with the racial division that you set in the stone.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Why now? Why not during my time? They were quite free to demonstrate. Many of the people who disagreed with me demonstrated...
Stephen Sackur : But many of the people who disagreed with you, I’m afraid ended up in prison.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Who?
Stephen Sackur : Hundreds of them, read every Amnesty international and human rights watch report for the years in which you were in power..
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: The western press, the problem is that you make up these stories and then you take this as the truth, it’s not the truth. Tell me who are the hundreds of people who ended up in prison.
Stephen Sackur: I’ll discuss human rights a little bit later. I just want before we get distracted from this question of racism in Malaysia, I just want to put to you this final point: Anwar Ibrahim says that he is going to push and of course he your long time friend who became, your political enemy, he is going to push for a colour blind Malaysia where affirmative action is open to all who need help.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well this opportunism for him, now that he is out of the government, he was in the government for a long time, he never made any complaints, he never did anything to.
Stephen ackur : He certainly made a complaint when you locked him up.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well that was not the reason why he was locked up, he was accused of sodomy, he was accused of abuse of power, he was tried in court, nine months and he was defended by nine lawyers and he was found guilty...
Stephen Sackur : Trumped up charges.. trumped up charges.. says not just Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International but I’ve been looking through the record, the Canadian government, the White House, the International Commission of Jurists, all of them expressed grave and deep concern with the way in which your judicial system treated Anwar Ibrahim.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Yes you’re free to say so but...
Stephen Sackur : I’m not saying it, I’m just quoting to you all the people who did say it.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: But what is the record of these countries? These people, these same countries arrested people without the law, and detained them in Guantanamo Bay and even in Britain here, you arrest people and detain them without any sanction by law.
Stephen Sackur : So does that make it okay that you did it for 22 years?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: We did it under the laws of the country, but it is not the way...
Stephen Sackur : You used the laws which went back to colonial times, the internal security act, emergency procedures, you feel satisfied to tell me that that was entirely legitimate?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: No we find that the situation in the country is very very fluid and it is very likely that there will be racial riots, unless we prevent precise people who are promoting racial hatred from talking about it.
Stephen Sackur : Put it this way, Dr Mahathir, you’ve had several years out of power now to consider your record and what you did, I wonder whether you are now ready to say that you regret what you did to Anwar Ibrahim?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Why should I regret? He was arrested under the laws of the country, he was tried in the courts of the country and he was sentenced by the court. If he was not wrong, I don’t think, no matter what you think about our judiciary, I don’t think he would have been sentenced to prison.
Stephen Sackur : It damaged your reputation though didn’t it?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well that’s something I have to accept.
Stephen Sackur : You may also find it comes back to haunt you? Anwar Ibrahim is now leading the opposition coalition. We are led to believe that there are certain MPs in the ruling party who may defect to him, in which case he could very soon be running the government. And he’s made it plain that he wants to have you answer for all of the things you do while you were in power.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well he’s welcome to do that if he becomes the Prime Minister of Malaysia, but if he wins over members of the ruling party to his side, it is the prime minister, the present leader who should be blamed, because he couldn’t even get the loyalty of his own members.
Stephen Sackur : It wasn’t the current prime minister who was in power when Anwar Ibrahim was savagely beaten during his time in detention?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Savagely beaten? I know he was slapped and he had a black eye which was very useful for election purpose...
Stephen Sackur : Why you think he hit himself maybe?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well I don’t know what happened..but the police the IGP admitted that he assaulted Anwar, but that wasn’t me that was the IGP.
Stephen Sackur : But how do you respond, if Anwar comes to power and he as he said on this programme and elsewhere, that he wants a full and thorough public inquiry into all of your, Dr Mahathir’s misdeeds, how will you respond to that?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: He is welcome to do so, but I hope that he finds people who are neutral, who are impartial, probably foreigners, because I don’t trust the people that they put after people they don’t like.
Stephen Sackur : Interesting that you say you don’t trust people who are currently or maybe in charge of any inquiry, do you trust the integrity of the Malaysian judiciary?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: I do, at times I do but...
Stephen Sackur : Is that because you appointed the judges?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: I didn’t appoint the judges, the judges were recommended by the Chief Justice and my duty is to check whether he has any records or not and after that he is presented to the king who will then appoint the judge...
Stephen Sackur : Dr Mahathir, you know as well as I do, that the hottest political topic in Malaysia today, is the state of the judiciary, the integrity of the judiciary and that a video has been playing in Malaysia for a long time now which shows a top lawyer talking to a top judge going back to 2001, in which the lawyer says to the judge ‘believe me in the end all of the positions going all the way to the supreme court are fixed by the politicians’, i.e. by you who were the prime minister at the time Dr Mahathir?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Did he say that? Did he mention my name?
Stephen Sackur : He didn’t mention your name he said this will be fixed, this goes through the political system. You ran the political system.
Mahathir Mohamad: I’m not so sure about that. But the fact is that this man had his video taken because they intended to blackmail him. He happens to be my lawyer, defending me at this moment for libel against Anwar and this tape came from Anwar. Anwar had these things recorded in order to blackmail the lawyer.
Stephen Sackur : But the point is the current government led by Prime Minister Abdullah who is nominally or despite what you have said on this programme, is of your party. Prime Minister Abdullah has now essentially apologised, he said both to the supreme court justice that you removed and to other judges that were suspended or removed during your time in power, he’s said sorry to them. He’s said that he wants to offer them monetary compensation
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Fine but it’s a political move. Something a man who is very unpopular at the moment, wanting to show that he’s going to do something right.
Stephen Sackur: And that Dr Mahathir is my point. The Malaysian people no longer want to live with the system you created. That’s why Prime Minister Abdullah is essentially dismantling the system that you created.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: No no no he’s not dismantling the system, he is making use of the system in a worse way. Nobody can say anything against him, he has newspapers which only reports about him and how great he is. And he was mislead by his own supporters, into believing that if he holds the election now, this is one and half years before the end of the term, he would win, he would have a clean sweep.
If you look at the records, he made statements that he would win the election, with zero for the Opposition.
Stephen Sackur: The more I listen to you talking about Prime Minister Abdullah, the more I wonder why did you choose him to be your successor?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well these people are very smart in hiding their true character. He was known as Mr Clean and I thought I would appoint a clean person to succeed me. Although he was not the one with the highest votes in my party. But I thought that he was older and I appointed him thinking that he’s not going to do anything very wrong. But this man gives priority to his family rather than to the country.
Stephen Sackur: So it was a fundamental lack of judgement on your part?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Yes I’ll admit that. But we all make mistakes. The British people voted in people like Blair, who told lies, so did the Americans. Lots of people make mistakes.
Stephen Sackur: We all make mistakes you say, was it also a mistake for you to define yourself so clearly, as anti-western and anti-democratic, in the sense that the West understands democracy?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: No that’s the problem, I am not anti-Western, I am against the bad things that were done by the Western countries.
Stephen Sackur: You’re not anti-western and yet in June 2003 before you left office, you said anglo-Saxon Europeans are essentially proponents and I’m quoting here: ‘proponents of war, sodomy and genocide.’
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Which is true, you must admit.
Stephen Sackur: But you’re not anti-western?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: I’m stating the fact. This is their character and I will continue to say so.
Stephen Sackur: So when you come here, you sit in the Hardtalk studio, in the heart of London, you regard yourself do you, as in one of the Headquarters of war, sodomy and genocide?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well I come here of course expecting to be lambasted by you, because that is the way you work.
Stephen Sackur: Well I’m not lambasting you at all. I’m trying to tease out whether you believe it was a mistake for you to use this sort of language. Because you clearly cut yourself off, from any sort of meaningful dialogue with the West when you use these words.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well the Europeans used to call us the lazy Malays, incompetent Malays, untrustworthy Malays, we couldn’t say a thing about you. So when I was in a position to say what we think about you, and I did and you don’t like it. When you said it to us you expect us to like it. We didn’t like it, but we had no way of making our voices heard.
Stephen Sackur: I am just wondering how you feel about democracy. Of course in the world since 9/11, the United States and the coalition of partners led by the United Kingdom, have talked a lot about spreading democracy, do you believe in democracy?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: If you look at the history of the west, they come up with all kinds of ideologies, they use it for sometime and then they found it defective and they dropped it and start on another. One day they are going to forget about democracy because in some countries democracy actually ended up with anarchy. And there were practically no governments. It’s not a system that can feed everybody. You must have a certain understanding of the limitations of democracy, in order to make it work.
Stephen Sackur: Is that why you were not a democrat, why you in the end did behave like a dictator?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well that is something that the West would like to say about me, I am a dictator.
Stephen Sackur: Well I’m just quoting your own words from 2002. You said it’s good governance people need, you said, feudal kings even dictators have provided and can provide good governments.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Well that’s very true, that is very true. The great civilisations of the past did not have democracies. And yet they became great. It’s not necessary that the system will work for everybody. But if we have a bad leader, even the democratic system will fail.
We must remember that it is a democratic country which dropped atomic bombs, killing 200 thousand people.
Stephen Sackur: How do you think the Malaysian public will respond to you saying, look you know what democracy isn’t the best system and in fact dictatorship can often work better.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: I went through five elections and I won all the elections with a majority...
Stephen Sackur: Without a free press, locking up many of your opponents
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: There you go again about locking up many of my opponents, who are they?
Stephen Sackur: I don’t know how many times I have to tell you, that I’ve studied the human rights watch reports, the Amnesty International reports, studies from the state department, from the Canadian government.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: These are biased reports, the first thing I did on becoming the prime minister in 1981, was to release political prisoners who were detained by my predecessors, 22 or them, including many members of the Opposition.
Stephen Sackur: Under the 1984 Press law which required newspapers to get a new licence every single year. It made it very easy for you to quieten them down, didn’t it?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: No it has always been there, the press law has been there...I didn’t do that...but the fact is that we have a multi-racial country and if we are not careful, there will be racial flare-ups. And you look at most of the countries with multi-racial population, they are never peaceful, even Northern Ireland, it took you such a long to stop the war in Northern Ireland.
Stephen Sackur: Talking of peace, you did worry about the stability of your country, didn’t you? That’s why you were very strong, very tough with Islamist extremism inside Malaysia.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Yes it is necessary.
Stephen Sackur: Well I just wonder in that case then why just before you left office, in October 2003, why did you tell the Islamic Summit Conference that and I’m quoting again a very famous speech, it’s a little bit long but “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews,” you said. “We’re actually very strong. The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million but today Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.” You went on to say: “But the Jews have become arrogant. And arrogant people like angry people will make mistakes and there may be a window of opportunity for us.”
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: I’m stating facts, I am willing to say that again and again that this is what has happened.
Stephen Sackur: Anti-Semitic and racist that was called by many governments and people around the world.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Anti-Semitism is created by the Jews themselves. We cannot say anything. In fact journalists have been arrested for saying something against the holocaust and jailed for three years. Where is the freedom of press?
Stephen Sackur: So those words I quoted in your view, are not anti-Semitic?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: No they are not anti-Semitic? I am just quoting facts. The fact is that the United States obeys what Israel wants it to do.
Stephen Sackur: You call them facts, let’s leave that aside for the moment. I am trying to understand your logic. Here you are a man who says that your own country is potentially destabilised by Islamic extremism and then you go out in an Islamic Conference and you use words which could have been used by Osama bin Laden.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: There’s no contradiction, no contradiction at all. I don’t want Islamic terrorism any more than I want Jewish attacks against Israel, or American bombs on Baghdad. It is not incompatible.
Stephen Sackur: Do you feel confident that people still listen to your message?
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: I wouldn’t be able to say. Why should people worry about me?
Stephen Sackur: In Malaysia people say, and I’m talking about the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition: it’s time for you to be quiet.
Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: Why should I be quiet? You mean to say when they are doing something wrong, to my country and I should not say anything? I would be irresponsible if I were to do that.
Stephen Sackur: Dr Mahathir Mohamad thank you very much for being on Hardtalk.
Dr. Mahathir Mohamad: You’re welcome.