TUN MAHATHIR MOHAMAD – Foreign relations
During Mahathir’s tenure in office, Malaysia’s relationship with the West was generally fine despite being known to be an outspoken critic towards them. Early during his tenure, a small disagreement with the United Kingdom over university tuition fees sparked off a boycott of all British goods led by Mahathir, in what became known as the “Buy British Last” campaign. It also led to a search for development models in Asia, most notably Japan. This was the beginning of his famous “Look East Policy”. Although the dispute was later resolved by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Mahathir continued to emphasize Asian development models over contemporary Western ones.
Mahathir has always been an outspoken critic of the United States and yet the United States was the biggest source of foreign investment, and was Malaysia;a biggest customer during Mahathir’s rule. Furthermore, Malaysian military officers continued to rain in the US under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.
Some say that relations with the United States took a turn for the worse in 1998, when US Vice President Al Gore stated at the APEC conference hosted by Malaysia:
” Democracy confers a stamp of legitimacy that reforms must have in order to be affective. And so, among nations suffering economic crises, we continue to hear calls for democracy, calls for reform, in many languages – People Power, doi moi, reformasi. We hear them today – right here, right now – among the brave people of Malaysia.”
Al Gore left immediately after making that statement, probably as a form of protest.
Al Gore and the United States were critical of the trial of Mahathir’s former deputy Anwar Ibrahim, going as far to label it as a “show trial”. US News and World Report called the trial a “tawdry spectacle.” The government included the statements of the purported “victims” of Anwar’s sodomy attacks, evidence that was widely considered to be tainted. Furthermore, the prosecution was unable to accurately decide on a date that the aleged acts of anal sex had occurred – the government originally alleged that a sodomy had occurred inside a building that had not been constructed at the time of the alleged event. Mahathir himself went as far as to go on television to declare Anwar guilty of sodomy and homosexual acts, even as the trial from human rights groups and the opposition parties who protested the trial. Many of the “reformasi” supporters who were against Mahathir at that time were arrested by the FRU and Special Branch and were detained without trial under the ISA. Some of them were opposition supporters, and some of them were former academics.
Also, Anwar Ibrahim was the preeminent Malaysian spokesperson for the economic preferred by the IMF, which included interest rate hikes, among others. An article in Malaysia Today commented that “Gore’s comments constituted a none-too-subtle attack on Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and more generally on govrnments, including Japan, that resist US demands for further market reforms. Gore’s endorsement for the regormasi (reformation) asking for (among other things) the ouster of Mahathir, was anathema to Mahathir, and he remarked that “I’ve never seen anybody so rude”. This also summed up the Malaysian expectations that one who is a guest should not show such discourtesy to the host.
However, Mahathir’s views were already firmly entrenched before this event. For example, before the Asean meeting in 1997, he made a peech condemning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, calling it an oppressive instrument by which the United States and other countries by which the United States and other countries try to impose their values on Asians. He went on to share his view that Asians need stability and economic growth more than civil liberties. These remarks did not endear hi to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid a visit to Anwar’s wife.
Yet Mahathir has not hesitated to point to America for justification of his own actions. In speaking of arbitrary detention without trial of prisoners of conscience in Malaysia, he said: “Events in the United States have shown that there are instances where certain special powers need to be used in order to protect the public for the general good.”
At the other end of the spectrum, the United States government has previously criticized the Malaysian government for implementing the ISA, most recently in 2001 when President George W. Bush said “The Internal Security Act is a draconian law. No country should any longer have laws that allow for detention without trial.” In 2004, however, Bush reversed his stance and claimed “We cannot simply classify Malaysia’s Internal Security Act as a draconian law.”
In 2003 Mahathir spoke to the Non-Aligned Movement in Kuala Lumpur, and as part of his speech, said:
” If innocent people who died in the attack on Afghanistan and those who have been dying from lack of food and medical care in Iraq are considered collaterals, are the 3,000 who died in New York, and the 200 in Bali also just collaterals whose deaths are necessary for operations to succeed.”
Marie Huthala, the American ambassador to Malaysia responded with a statement:
” These are not helpful statements by any standard, and i’m here to tell you that Washington does take note of them. They are bound to have a harmful effect on the relationship.”
More recently, the 2003 Invasion of Iraq caused additional friction between the two countries; Mahathir was highly critical of President Bush for acting without a United Nations mandate.
In spite of all this, Malaysia’s relationship with the US has been strong. A 2003 house subcommitte hearing (Serial No. 108-21) on US policy towards South East Asia sums it up as “Despite sometimes blint and intemperate public remarks by Prime Minister Mahathir, U.S – Malaysia cooperation has a solid record in areas as deverse as education, trade, military relations, and counter-terrorism”.
Even after retirement, Mahathir was not hesitant about his criticisms of the United States. In 2004, (The Star, 18 October 2004), he was quoted as having said “The American people are, by and large, very ignorant and know nothing about the rest of the world…. Yet they are the people who will decide who will be the most powerful man in the world”. In the same interview, he also predicted George W. Bush’s victory in the 2004 United States Presidential Election, in which he was later proven correct. In another October 2006 interview with Associated Press, he predicted that the Republicians will retain both chambers in the 2006 mid-term elections because “American voters are not astute and will be fooled by President George W. Bush’s propaganda.” This prediction was proven faulty.
Mahathir’s relationship with Australia (the closest country in the Anglosphere to Malaysia, and the one whose foreign policy is most concentrated on the region), and his relationship with Australia’s political leaders, has been particularly rocky. Mahathir regularly took offense at portrayals of Malaysia in the Australian media (which criticized Mahathir’s belligerence and outspokeness), calling on the government to intervene in this (an action that would be politically unthinkable in Australia). Relationships between Mahathir and Australia’s leaders reached a low point in 1993 when Paul Keating described Mahathir as “recalcitrant” for not attending the APEC summit. (It is thought that Keating’s description was a linguistic gaffe, and that what he had in mind was “intransigent”.)
Mahathir, along with other Malaysian politicians (and many other Asian leaders) also heavily criticized Keating’s successor, John Howard, whom he believed had encouraged Pauline Hanson, whose views were widely perceived in Asia (and Australia) as racist. Australian politicians then pointed out Mahathir’s farcical trial of Anwar Ibrahim, saying that the prosecution was using homophobic overtones.
Mahathir has valued the right of a nation to do whatever it wants within its borders, which he calls “sovereignty”. This was articulated in the ASEAN policy of non-interference. In 2000, Mahathir was quoted as saying: “If Australia wants to be a friend to Asia, it should stop behaving as if it is there to teach us how to run our country. It is a small nation in terms of numbers and it should behave like a small nation and not be a teacher.” He also said, “This country stands out like a sore thumb trying to impose its European values in Asia as if it is the good old days when people can shoot aborigines without caring about human rights”.
Mahathir also made remarks to the effect that John Howard was trying to be America’s ‘Deputy Sheriff’ in the Pacific region. This was in response to John Howard’s statement that they would pursue terrorists over the borders of their neighbours.
His perception of Howard has not softened after retirement. In an interview, he stated: “They (accepted) Blair, and I am sure they will accept Bush. They have already accepted Howard who told a blatant lie”, a reference to the “Children overboard” scandal during the run-up to the 2001 Australian elections.
Despite this supposed non-interference policy, Malaysia during Mahathir’s premiership had been constantly criticising Singapore, but would take the slightest unfavourable comment coming from Singapore as an attempt to interfere in the domestic affairs of Malaysia.
Under Mahathir, Malaysia was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, and established diplomatic relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. (Israeli citizens remain banned from entering Malaysia and Malaysian citizens from Israel without special government permission.) In 1986, a major diplomatic row erupted with neighbouring Singapore when Chaim Herzog, the President of Israel, paid a state visit.
Mahathir’s public remarks about Jews date back as early as 1970 when he wrote in his controversial book The Malay Dilemma: “The Jews for example are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively.”
In 1997, during the financial crisis, he attributed the collapse of the Malaysian ringgit to a conspiracy of Jews against a prosperous Muslim state: “The Jews robbed the Palestinians of everything, but in Malaysia they could not do so, hence they do this, depress the ringgit.” Under strong international criticism, he issued a partial retraction, but not in Malay language media sources.
On 16 October 2003, shortly before he stepped down as prime minister, Mahathir said during a summit for the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Putrajaya, that:
|“||We [Muslims] are actually very strong, 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Nazis killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million [during the Holocaust]. But today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them. They invented socialism, communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong so they may enjoy equal rights with others. With these they have now gained control of the most powerful countries. And they, this tiny community, have become a world power.||”|
He also named Israel as “the enemy allied with most powerful nations.” Israel strongly criticized the remarks. The speech was also condemned by most nations from the West. Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said that Dr Mahathir had employed “expressions that were gravely offensive, very strongly anti-Semitic and… strongly counter to principles of tolerance, dialogue and understanding’.” At the same time, Mahathir’s speech was defended by several Muslim leaders and politicians, including Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Maher and Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Bush considered the comments “reprehensible and hateful.” The Muslim Public Affairs Council condemned Mahathir’s remarks as “extremely offensive, anti-Semitic comments.” The Malaysian prime minister’s comments were also condemned by Jewish organizations and the government of Israel.
His comments were widely criticized in the West, but the issue was ignored in Asia and Islamic countries, which felt that his remark had been taken out of context. Mahathir later defended his remarks, saying: “I am not anti-Semitic … I am against those Jews who kill Muslims and the Jews who support the killers of Muslims.” He tagged the West as “anti-Muslim“, for double standards by “protecting Jews while allowing others to insult Islam.” He also said “But when somebody condemns the Muslims, calls my prophet, “terrorist”, did the European Union say anything?”
Mahathir is an alumnus of the Medical College at the University of Malaya at that time located in Singapore under British Malaya [University of Malaya campus at Singapore has since been renamed National University of Singapore while the campus at Kuala Lumpur remains as University of Malaya]. He graduated as a physician from then King Edward VII Medical College in 1953, during British rule. He is held in high regard by his alma mater, and regularly attends reunions.
However, relations with Singapore under Mahathir’s tenure have been stormy. Many disputed issues raised during his administration have not been resolved, and in fact have been exaggerated. Many of these international issues have been raised up under Mahathir’s Premiership term, but no significant headway had been made then to resolve them bilaterally. Issues have included:
- the low price of raw water paid by Singapore to Malaysia (3 Malaysian cents (US$0.008) per 1000 gallons);
- the proposed replacement of the Causeway by a suspension bridge to improve water flow through the Straits of Johor (later cancelled by Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi);
- Singapore’s land reclamation work, affecting shipping access to Port Tanjung Pelepas;
- the use of Malaysian airspace by Republic of Singapore Air Force jets;
- the status of Pedra Branca Island (also known as “Pulau Batu Putih”), was brought to the International Court of Justice and now belongs to Singapore; and
- the sovereignty of the railway line crossing Singapore and Points of Agreement regarding the matter.
Both sides had stubbornly refused to compromise, with the result of bilateral relations turning frosty. The absurdity of the whole situation was illustrated by Mahathir’s proposal to replace the Malaysian portion of the Causeway with half a bridge, with the end result, a structure which would symbolise Singapore’s uncompromising attitude. Under Prime Minister Abdullah, relations have begun to thaw, and inter-citizen relations have gone on much as they have before in that they are totally independent of political bickering. Many Singaporeans and Malaysians have relatives on the both sides of the Causeway, and despite the bickering of both governments over different issues, relations between citizens of both countries remained unaffected.
Recently, the issue of replacement of the Causeway with a bridge and the use of Malaysian airspace by the RSAF have been successfully solved by Mahathir’s successor Abdullah, an issue that has been heavily criticised by Mahathir.
People’s Republic of China
Though an anti-communist in his early career, Mahathir highly approves of the new directions adopted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after Deng Xiaoping’s ascension to power. Malaysia and the PRC maintained a close relationship since the late 1990s, when doubts and suspicions of China’s ambition in ASEAN region were cleared, and Mahathir and Chinese leaders found many common grounds in their authoritarian style of ruling and their opposition to Western interference in regional matters. Mahathir is keen that the rise of PRC could to some extent balance the American influence in Southeast Asia, as well as benefiting Malaysia from the PRC’s economic prosperity.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mahathir has been noted as a particular ally and sympathetic co-religionist of that nation. He visited Sarajevo in June, 2005 to open a bridge near Bosmal City Center signifying friendship between Malaysians and Bosnians.
He made another 3-day visit to Visoko to see the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun in July 2006. He made another visit a few months later.
In February 2007, four non-governmental organizations: the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, the Congress of Bosniak Intellectuals, and two Christian organizations: the Serb Civil Council and the Croat National Council, nominated Mahatir for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work during the conflict.
On 22 June 2007, he made another visit to Sarajevo with a group of Malaysian businessmen to explore the investment opportunities in the country.
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Malaysia had relations with the Communist state. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Malaysian government and other Islamic states sided with the Mujahideen. Since the 1990s however, relations between Russia and Malaysia have improved significantly. In 2002 Mahathir made his visit to Moscow. He made the statement that Russia can be the rival to the United States and Israel and he praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and his opposition to Western interference and democracy promotion
Among some developing and Islamic countries, Mahathir is generally respected, particularly for Malaysia’s relatively high economic growth as well as for his support towards liberal Muslim values. Foreign leaders, such as Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, praised him and have been trying to emulate Mahathir’s developmental formulae. He was one of the greatest spokesmen on Third World issues, and strongly supported the bridging of the North-South divide, as well as exhorting the development of Islamic nations. He was dedicated to various Third World blocs such as ASEAN, the G77, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organization of Islamic Nations, and most recently, the G22 at the latest WTO talks at Cancún.
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- Tun Mahathir Mohamad