The world according to Asia’s most senior statesman
NEW YORK — At 93, Malaysian Prime
Minister Mahathir Mohamad was the most venerable statesman to appear at the
United Nations this week. He’s the last survivor of an old guard of towering
Southeast Asian leaders, including figures like Singapore’s Lee Kuan
Yew and Indonesia’s Suharto. Before returning to power with a dramatic election victory
in May, Mahathir had governed as prime minister between 1981 and 2003.
When he delivered his last speech from the dais of the U.N.'s General
Assembly 15 years ago, President Trump wasn’t even a reality-television
On Friday, Mahathir will address
the assembly again. In an interview with Today’s WorldView this week, the
prime minister said he will focus on the importance of strengthening
democracy and democratizing the international system. It’s the same theme
he addressed in his 2003 speech, where he, like other non-Western leaders,
called for the restructuring of an international system dominated by a
handful of powers.
The U.N.'s Security Council,
Mahathir told Today’s WorldView, is “a very undemocratic organization in
which five countries can frustrate the rest of the world.”
The Malaysian leader has long been
known for his sharp remarks — especially when it comes to his grievances
with the United States and the West. It’s a penchant for plain-speak that
endures. “There’s talk about equality, but there’s no such thing as
equality” in the international system, he said. “The powerful will do what
they want. The weak will have to submit.”
In recent weeks,
Mahathir has earned attention for attempting to buck this trend.
His new government canceled two multibillion-dollar Chinese investment
projects, a move perceived by analysts as a rejection of Beijing’s
geopolitical ambitions in Asia. But Mahathir pushed back on any
suggestion that he was “anti-Chinese."
“China does not have a history of
creating empires through conquests,” Mahathir said, contrasting that
history to centuries of European colonial violence and plunder. “We have
relations with China for almost 2,000 years, but they never conquered us.”
He condemned the imminent trade war
between the United States and China as “silly," "old-fashioned”
and something Beijing does not want. He also looks dourly upon Trump, a new
antagonist in the White House.
“I find it difficult to make out
what he is like, because he seems to be rather mercurial, changing his mind
in a short space of time,” he said of the American president. “When he
expresses an opinion, it seems to be not in keeping with reality.”
Mahathir argued that he canceled
the Chinese contracts in questions not as an act of defiance against China,
but because the debt-laden deal didn’t serve the national interest and was
the work of his allegedly corrupt predecessor, Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Mahathir’s return to the world
stage followed a remarkable election campaign this year to unseat Razak, a
former Mahathir protege. Popular discontent with Malaysia’s political
status quo, intensified by spiraling corruption scandals surrounding Razak,
compelled his mentor to head up an opposition coalition and bring down the
ruling party he had dominated for decades.
The opposition victory was “a
textbook example of democracy,” Mahathir said. “Democracy can only function
if people understand and respect the vote.” In a high-stakes contest in
Malaysia, he argued, the vote was respected.
“Whether my policies were good or
bad is up for others to evaluate," he said. “But I stayed on for 22
years. I led five elections and in all five elections, I won with a very
good majority. The people were not so disappointed with me to the extent of
wanting to throw me out.”
“I don’t see why I should be
blamed. Without anybody asking me to, I resigned to give way to other
people,” he said, referring to his departure in favor of then-Prime
Minister Abdullah Badawi. Instead, he blames “the character of the people
who succeeded me, not the political system" itself. He said his
government will work toward cleaning up the country’s judiciary and
reviving foreign investment.
In the 1990s, Mahathir
was the chief proponent of “Asian values,”
a set of principles that challenged the universality
of human rights and seemed to justify authoritarian governance if it
delivers prosperity and development. Now, he has softened his rhetoric to
fit his new democratic bona fides.
“It can’t be a case of
one-size-fits-all,” he said, pointing to the failure of democratic
uprisings in the Middle East. “Democracy is not perfect, it does not
guarantee good governance. Democracy can throw up a leader who can
manipulate the law and so he actually becomes a dictator.” Mahathir then
added: “Trump is what happens with democracy."
Malaysia’s nonagenarian leader is
eager to avoid any more talk about dictatorship at home. He came to power
on a pledge to eventually cede office to once-jailed opposition leader
Anwar Ibrahim, a politician who Mahathir targeted for prosecution 20 years
They’ve since buried the hatchet,
and Mahathir told Today’s WorldView that he will give way to Anwar in “two or
three years.” He ended on a matter-of-fact note: “I don’t want to stay