PUTRAJAYA: Dr Mahathir Mohamad is the former prime minister of Malaysia and the architect of modern Malaysia. Mahathir bin Mohamad was the leading force in turning Malaysia into a major industrial power in East Asia, and is credited with turning Kuala Lumpur into a modern city with (for a while) the world’s tallest building and high-tech industry. Mahathir developed the “Malaysia Can” slogan in 1993 and developed the Vision 2020 program in which he planned to make Malaysia a fully developed country with 70 million people (compared to 20 million in 1998) by the year 2020.
Dr Mahathir focused government energies on expansive infrastructure projects and high-tech development even when Malaysia was suffering from an economic crisis during the late 1990s. Mahathir once called himself a “cyber addict.” He was one of the first world leaders to have his own blog and website and said he wanted to create a paperless government in Malaysia.
He began his career as a medical doctor before entering politics, and remains the country’s longest-serving premier. From 1981 to 2003, he held office as prime minister and president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the leading party of the government coalition still in power today.
Kuwait Times recently met Dr Mahathir in Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia, to discuss in depth his legacy and Malaysia’s future direction as well as his take on the root causes of conflicts in the Middle East, his view of the challenges facing the Gulf and other key concerns of the region.
Kuwait Times: I want to start by asking what is your view of the current situation in the Middle East? What do you see as the main challenges and what is your opinion on how they will play out.
Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad: If you look at the recent history of the Middle East, you will see what is happening today is the result of decisions made 60 years ago with the creation of the State of Israel out of Palestinian land – this destabilized the situation and divided the people in the Middle East. Again, the idea surfaces that they could solve all problems if they become democratic, but they don’t understand the workings of a democracy.
They thought that if they become democratic, they all would be in the government, but of course in a democracy, there would be elections and some people will form a government and some people will be in the opposition, but they do not want to be in opposition and do not want to be defeated. All of them want to win, and because of this, democracy has not brought stability and good governance in the region.
Kuwait Times: What is your opinion of the cold war-like tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the recently created 34-nation Saudi-led anti-terror coalition?
Dr Mahathir: We don’t think confrontation is the way to solve a problem. War is not a solution to any problem. We had an experience of confrontation by Indonesia in the early years of the independence of Malaysia. Of course, they used force in the first instance, but ultimately we solved the problem of confrontation by diplomatic solutions and dialogue. We cannot treat or see any country as our enemy and if you do, they will see you as their enemy and then you have to be against each other and that is very negative, and is not productive at all. Yes, there are differences between countries, but I think problems and differences can be minimized or solved by dialogue or diplomacy.
Kuwait Times: What is your view on the GCC’s shift toward the East in terms of trade? What do you foresee in terms of GCC or MENA relationship with East Asia moving forward?
Dr Mahathir: GCC countries are oriented to the West and most Arab relationships are more with the West. There are many Western experts working there in very important positions. They are not trading much with us because GCC countries are mainly importing countries. They do not produce goods for export. It is a one-way trade. But in the East, we want to export and import and we want to buy and sell things but many other things we sell can also be imported from the West.
So the GCC’s trade with the East is very minimal. But I think there is a great potential for them to do more trade with the East because now more of their people are travelling East, simply because they are not welcome by the West anymore due to security reasons.
Kuwait Times: What are your expectations for future GCC/Malaysia relations?
Dr Mahathir: We hope to strengthen trade with GCC countries and we can do many things together. Malaysia is a trading nation. We want to establish more markets for ourselves. At the same time, we want to source a lot of things from other countries. But of course, GCC does not produce much for trading purposes. Maybe now they are trying to industrialize, so we can have some increase in trade with them and even increase in investments.
Kuwait Times: The recent decline in oil prices has affected not only the Gulf and all other oil producing nations, but the global economy too. What is your view on the matter with regards to the causes and how do you foresee the longer term impact, especially for Middle East and other oil producing countries?
Dr Mahathir: The price of oil has always been quite artificial. Of course, it responds of supply and demand. The price of the oil had gone up beyond the cost of production. It is not sustainable. The moment the supply of oil increases, the price falls. Some countries used to earn high income from oil because of world demand and its high price in the past. Now, due to the oil price drop, those countries are suffering and will suffer more if the price drops further. It is just a question of adjustment. The price of oil at $35 today is much higher than what it originally costs. It is now much more reasonable than before. Of course, some countries will suffer from the low oil price in the world market because their development budget depends on the proceeds from only oil. They must feel burnt with the low oil price at this moment. But a country should not depend on only selling oil, but must diversify its economy for sustainable development in the future.
Kuwait Times: What is Malaysia’s view of OPEC policies and its future direction?
Dr Mahathir: Even though Malaysia is an oil-producing country, Malaysia has never been a member of OPEC and at one time, we were an observer. OPEC is a kind of monopolistic organization which is not good for the economy. To fix the oil price is always bad and it has a nitty-gritty impact on the economy. It should allow the market process.
Kuwait Times: HH the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah of Kuwait has initiated a KD 2 billion ($6.64 billion) project to enhance leadership qualities among the young generation and aspires to develop Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Kuwait and support Kuwaiti entrepreneurs. What is your advice to enhance and make this project a success based on your experience as prime minister and chairman of Perdana Leadership Foundation in Malaysia?
Dr Mahathir: It is a good move for Kuwait for its development vision. In order for economic development, one needs to train future leaders, but we must give them the right kind of training, because if you give people the wrong kind of training, you will get very bad results. Be reminded that absolute power corrupts absolutely. When you train people, you are giving them tools of power and you must give the right kind of training where they will not abuse the power in the future.
By Dr Serajul I Bhuiyan
NOTE: Dr Serajul I Bhuiyan is a professor at the Department of Mass Communications at Kuwait University