Asean on right track, but moving much too slowly

Dr.Mahathir Mohamad: "Asians don't go around telling people what they should do in their own house. Photo by Nampeth Vorakanonta

Mahathir Mohamad has earned his reputation as one of Southeast Asia's most influential figures. The former Malaysian prime minister has been credited with modernising Malaysia and playing an active role in integrating the regional bloc that is Asean. Now retired from political duty, his favourite pastime is writing blogs while taking the time to advise foundations and the business sector.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad: โ€˜โ€˜Asians donโ€™t go around telling people what they should do in their own house.โ€™โ€™โ€”Photo by Nampeth Vorakanonta.

In a recent interview with the Thai media, including Bangkok Post's Assistant News Editor NAOWARAT SUKSAMRAN,Dr Mahathir offered his candid views on Asean and his role in alleviating the strife in Thailand's far South.

What keeps you busy these days?

People come to see me for various reasons. I give interviews to local and foreign newspapers. I write on my blog, and I give stops to many countries. Sometimes I think I'm much busier after retirement. I'm preoccupied.

Looking at Asean, in the '70s or '80s, all the countries in the region had to manufacture a lot, export a lot. But now we're all into tourism and education. For you, looking into the future, what will be some of the new sectors that Southeast Asia should tap into, to earn more income?

Well, most of the East Asian countries depend upon export earnings. They have to manufacture for export but now we find that the markets have shrunk because the markets are in trouble because of the crisis.

So we need to see how much our countries can depend on each other, develop each other's economies so that you don't have to depend that much on foreign markets outside East Asia.

Developing East Asia makes you rich and therefore it makes a good market for all of us.

Is there any particular country that you think we should look to as a model? South Korea, maybe, or China?

We have a policy called "Look East" policy. It was introduced in the early 1980s. By the Look East Policy, we took Japan and South Korea at that time, or even Taiwan, as a model for development. Now, of course, we include China. And we think that by looking at these countries and interacting with them, we can gain knowledge, skills, technology, and also they can become good markets.

For Asean, do you think we're moving in the right direction now that we have the Asean Charter?

We're moving in the right direction, but the speed is very slow. We need to come together much more. It's not only about opening more markets. It's about cooperating and depending on ourselves. Because Asean has to contest with other regions, like Europe, America, and with the introduction of the ideas of free trade, borderless world.

Some of these can be harmful to us. So if one country tries to defend itself, it's not strong enough. But if Asean as a group takes up an issue, then people will survive.

Asean can also work with Northeast Asian countries like China, Korea, Japan, and so (we) become much stronger in protecting our interests.

What do you think is the biggest hurdle to Asean as a regional bloc?

We are not as strong economically. We are not as well developed as the developed countries. The developed countries are rich. They have technologies. If we just open up more markets to them, we'll find that they can take advantage of us, but we can't take advantage of them because it's neither technologies, neither capital and we cannot be active in their countries the way they are active in our countries.

Do you think Asean is a functional family? Even though we say the Asean spirit is about being a family, we don't talk about each other's domestic affairs?

The Western idea is, if you have problems like this, you should punish these people, apply sanctions, make them poor, make them suffer, so that then they will come begging.

That is not the real Asian. Asians don't go around telling people what they should do in their own house. We can say that this is not good... The West would apply sanctions, punish the people - not the leaders - and they suffer, and hope that they can pressure their government to change. But they are not able to do that. They are frightened of their government. So people should not apply pressure on them. [They] should try to persuade them.

Do you think Southeast Asian countries these days need economic prosperity and stability more than civil liberty?

Well, I think it's fine to have civil liberty and be poor... Then you can say 'Oh, I'm free. I can say what I like...'

If a country is to develop, there must be some restrictions because one man's freedom can mean another man's loss of freedom or the community's loss of freedom. One man's desire to do something funny in the street [means] a lot of people cannot do business. So we have to think about the majority of the people. We have a demonstration in town, then people who are doing business in town cannot earn their living. Some of them are very poor, so it's not fair to them.

Do you think an authoritarian style of government which suppresses press freedom or cracks down on the opposition is still the way to go for this generation today?

There is a limit to everything. There is limit even to freedom. If you have a press that constantly tries to create enmity within the people in the country, then I don't think we should call that freedom of the press. You are really causing a lot of damage.

It's just like when you have freedom, you can't go around and punch other people's noses. You have freedom, yes, but there are several things you cannot do.

So if you don't want a dictatorial government which suppresses everybody who is against the government, we have to look after the welfare of the people. If anybody exercises his freedom in a way that is damaging to others, then we should say 'Stop!'

A lot of people have admired you because you stood up and spoke out against the West. Do you think Asia needs someone like you today?

I think they can if they want to, especially if they stand together... So we took a stand by supporting the whole of Asean. If Asean were to stand together with us, it would be much more comfortable.

This is something that foreigners don't understand. What happens is that in Malaysia, we have three different races living together. The races are divided not only by race, but also by language, culture, religion, and even wealth. So the ingredients for constant clashes within the races - Chinese, Indian and Malay - the ingredients for confrontation, tension and even civil war, are there.

I am very happy that I inherited a country that was stable and I was able to keep it stable during my term of office. That, to me, is something that I'm proud of. Because when I became prime minster I was known as... an extremist, but when I stepped down, those who called me [extremist] became my stronger supporters.

You initiated so many projects during your time. Which one are you most proud of?

Well, everything. All of them were not just projects for fun. They were a necessity... This is something that is necessary for us to establish ourselves on the world's stage. We look forward to the future. We don't plan it for today. Don't think only for today. We look 10 years ahead, even a hundred years ahead. The airport is planned for 100 years ahead.

When we plan anything, we plan for the future. When we built the light rail system, there were hardly any passengers. Today it is crowded. The same thing applies to the road system. We built the north-south expressway... We look into the future.

The southern part of Thailand has a lot of violent incidents...

Well, I once suggested something but Mr Thaksin [Shinawatra] was very angry with me. I talked about autonomy but Thailand doesn't want autonomy. In Indonesia, they've given autonomy to Aceh, to another part in Indonesia. That way, the locals feel that they have [freedom to manage] their own affairs. Maybe that is a solution. But I just say this; I don't mean to offend your government.

Do you think Thailand's policy in trying to solve the southern violence is heading in the right direction, with a lot of budget going down trying to lift people out of poverty, developing the area, giving them education and jobs?

I think it is the right thing to do. But we find that the people in the South are very backward. The education is very poor. They don't have skills. So it will be a long time for them to get the full benefits of the strategies adopted by the government.

But in terms of Thai-Malaysian relations, it's doing well, right?

It's doing well. It doesn't cause us to fight each other or quarrel with each other. We look at this as your internal problem but sometimes, of course, if we can be of help, we would like to be of help.

How would you like to help us?

One time I talked to these people in the South... You see, they are not one single group. There are many, many groups. This is the problem. One group may agree but others deny.... Khun Anand [Panyarachun] invited me to play a role, so I tried but I did not succeed.

You did not succeed because of the complexity of the issue? Why do you think you failed?

I talked to quite a number of groups but still there are others who were not in the discussion. So they have their own idea about what they should do. So it didn't work.


Email from: Ms. Wahyuningrum (Yuyun)

By: Published in Bangkok Post
When: 7/2/2014

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