TOKYO - Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said he wants to review his country's membership in the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement led by Japan, but also plans to revive a 1980s policy under which Japan served as an economic model for Malaysia.
"This is a new government. The old government may have (had) some understanding with its counterparts, but we want to review that understanding," he told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview on Friday (June 9), adding that he will also review China-related deals entered into by his predecessor Najib Razak, so as to put a lid on national debt.
The interview comes as Tun Dr Mahathir arrives in Tokyo on Sunday for a three-day working visit, in his first overseas trip since he was re-elected Prime Minister last month.
Dr Mahathir, who was PM from 1981 to 2003, will deliver a keynote speech themed "Keeping Asia Open - How To Achieve Prosperity And Stability" at the 24th Nikkei Future of Asia conference on Monday. He will meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit.
Dr Mahathir has yet to name his pick for Foreign Minister. But with Mr Najib seen as having leaned heavily toward China, experts will be parsing his visit for clues on his administration's approach to East Asian geopolitics.
Japan will welcome any revival of the Look East Policy, which was launched in 1982 to urge Malaysians to adopt East Asian work ethics, management and other policies for commercial and industrial expansion. Japan served as the model to emulate initially, but South Korea was also included after the Japanese economy lost steam.
Dr Mahathir said he will relook the multilateral trade deal now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP-11, after the United States withdrew from it. He said he believes weaker economies like Malaysia are at a disadvantage under the current terms, adding, "It is important to take into consideration the level of development of a country."
Any review or pull-out by Malaysia will not pull the brakes on the TPP-11, as a failsafe clause has been included such that it will still take effect once ratified by at least six member countries. Singapore is a party to the deal.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian PM also said he wanted to review a proposed Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, which Asean and Beijing has been negotiating. "We do not want to have any tensions and the possibility of fighting in these areas."
The Malaysian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Saturday that Dr Mahathir's Japan visit will "enable Malaysia to highlight its current policies towards Japan and other countries in the region, especially related to foreign investments and trade". His attendance at the Nikkei conference, of which The Straits Times is a media partner, will provide a chance for Malaysia "to engage in initiatives aimed at greater economic cooperation between countries in the region".
University of Tokyo political scientist Heng Yee Kuang, who studies soft power issues, told The Straits Times that Japan will see the visit as a chance to "encourage a stronger Malaysian position on Tokyo's pet security concerns over the freedom of maritime navigation and Chinese island-building in the South China Sea".
Dr Mahathir has "often criticised Najib for his ties to China", and Malaysia is "seen as not actively opposing Chinese territorial claims in the region compared to other claimants", he said.
Still, Dr Heng said Dr Mahathir will likely "strive to keep a balance between China and Japan".
Mr Masatami Kasagi, a Japanese expert on South-east Asian matters, also told ST that he sees Dr Mahathir as "neither pro-China nor pro-Japan".
He pointed to the nomination of Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok - said to wield influence among the Chinese leadership - to the newly-formed Council of Eminent Persons that advises on economic matters as Dr Mahathir's intention to keep good ties with China.
And given Dr Mahathir's pragmatism, senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia Bunn Nagara, told ST: "Wherever there is any kind of mutual benefit, Dr Mahathir will go for it. It is not about substituting one for another, but to increase the total in foreign investment and trade."