Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad talks to The Nation’s managing editor Supalak Ganjanakhundee in an exclusive interview covering issues including Thailand’s coming election and the Kingdom chairing Asean for 2019
Thailand will be chair of Asean for 2019. As the region’s most experienced leader, how do you think Thailand can forge Asean centrality in a region dominated by the struggle between the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative?
In the first place, the people of Asean number more than 600 million [which] is a big market, even if it is a poor market. So we can exploit this big market to help all the countries of Asean to develop.
Then we have China, which is very active. China at one time was a very poor country, but because of the huge population of 1.4 billion, it was able to industrialise very quickly thanks to its captive market. So very quickly they have now become very rich. Asean can follow the same line. Of course, we have to deal with China and the competition that China has with the US, but we must be neutral. I think the less tension in the region, the better. If we take sides in the conflict between the US and China, then this area will become very tense with confrontation, and that is not good for Asean development.
With the so-called trade war, we can look forward to opportunities. For example, if the US doesn’t want goods from China, those things can be produced by Southeast Asia.
Already we are seeing a trend of people [businesses] in China pulling out in order to settle in Asean countries so their products can be accepted by the US.
Asean and China will likely negotiate a Code of Conduct for the disputed South China Sea next year, but there is concern that Beijing will use its economic leverage to tilt the outcome in its favour.
We should have a good code of conduct; it is the most important thing for the Asean archipelagos. The sea should be open to all ships from all nations – there should be no attempt to close passages, especially in the straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.
If you start bringing warships into the region, the other side will do the same and there will be tension. Warships can pass through [but] they should not be stationed in the Strait of Malacca or in the South China Sea. Then there will be less tension.
If there is any conflict, it’s better for the leaders to sit down and talk. That is the Asean way. Asean was formed in order to reduce conflict among the nations in Southeast
Asia and [so that] if there are any differences, we can always talk to each other.
Military activities could be a threat to freedom of navigation…
Well there are some military exercises that have been conducted for a long period of time and done nobody any harm. But it’s better if we reduce such exercises and avoid creating tension in Asean, by being “aggressively” cautious.
You said at last month’s Asean Summit in Singapore that Malaysia will not sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) unless it constitutes a fair deal. Do you see elements of unfairness in the talks ?
I believe [fair] competition will happen when people are equal. If not, then we have to give some a handicap. In golf you always handicap some players to give everyone a fair chance of winning. But now we are seeing freedom of movement for trade and finance, which generally benefits the rich [so] we need to protect the poor as well. The poor cannot develop if the rich come to the scene with their finance, technology and skill. Then our countries will not be able to develop our own industrial capacity because we have to compete with the rich countries and their advanced technology.
The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is another big economic cooperation. We want to make sure that when we join the TPP, there are certain protections in place for the weaker countries. We have already signed the TPP but not ratified it yet. We want to check [first] whether our internal management of our economy will be affected by the TPP.
How do you see the future of Thailand as we approach a general election next year? What are your concerns?
We hope when you hold the election that, of course, the [winning] majority will form the government. At our own recent election in May, the government party was very strong and they used government authority and power in an abusive way. Nevertheless the people rejected the ruling party by voting for the party they wanted [in power]. This is what we call people power: the people have the right, and if given the opportunities, they will determine who should govern the country.
Anything is possible [but] the most important thing is that the election must be conducted according to the law and that if [the government is rejected overwhelmingly] we have to accept that the party with the majority of votes should form the government. That’s all – no violence, no suppression and no cheating or anything like that.