The world according to Asia's most senior statesman, Malaysia's Mahathir

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at an interview with The Straits Times at The Loaf bakery-cafe in Cyberjaya on March 21, 2018.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at an interview with The Straits Times at The Loaf bakery-cafe in Cyberjaya on March 21, 2018.PHOTO: ST FILE

NEW YORK (WASHINGTON POST) - At 93, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was the most venerable statesman to appear at the United Nations this week.

He's the last survivor of an old guard of towering South-east Asian leaders, including figures like Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and Indonesia's Suharto.

Before returning to power with a dramatic election victory in May, Tun Dr Mahathir had governed as prime minister between 1981 and 2003.

When he delivered his last speech from the dais of the UN's General Assembly 15 years ago, President Donald Trump wasn't even a reality television star yet.

On Friday (Sept 28), Dr Mahathir will address the assembly again.

In an interview this week, the Prime Minister said he will focus on the importance of strengthening democracy and democratising the international system.

It's the same theme he addressed in his 2003 speech, where he, like other non-Western leaders, called for the restructuring of an international system dominated by a handful of powers.

The UN's Security Council, Dr Mahathir said, is "a very undemocratic organisation in which five countries can frustrate the rest of the world".

The Malaysian leader has long been known for his sharp remarks - especially when it comes to his grievances with the United States and the West.

It's a penchant for plain-speak that endures.

"There's talk about equality, but there's no such thing as equality" in the international system, he said. "The powerful will do what they want. The weak will have to submit."

 
 
 
 

In recent weeks, Dr Mahathir has earned attention for attempting to buck this trend. His new government cancelled two multibillion-dollar Chinese investment projects, a move perceived by analysts as a rejection of Beijing's geopolitical ambitions in Asia.

But Dr Mahathir pushed back on any suggestion that he was "anti-Chinese".

"China does not have a history of creating empires through conquests," Dr Mahathir said, contrasting that history to centuries of European colonial violence and plunder. "We have relations with China for almost 2,000 years, but they never conquered us."

He condemned the imminent trade war between the United States and China as "silly", "old-fashioned" and something Beijing does not want.

He also looks dourly upon Mr Trump, a new antagonist in the White House. "I find it difficult to make out what he is like, because he seems to be rather mercurial, changing his mind in a short space of time," he said of the American president. "When he expresses an opinion, it seems to be not in keeping with reality."

Dr Mahathir argued that he cancelled the Chinese contracts in question not as an act of defiance against China, but because the debt-laden deal didn't serve the national interest and was the work of his allegedly corrupt predecessor as prime minister Najib Razak.

Dr Mahathir's return to the world stage followed a remarkable election campaign this year to unseat Najib, his former protege.

Popular discontent with Malaysia's political status quo, intensified by spiraling corruption scandals surrounding Najib, compelled his mentor to head up an opposition coalition and bring down the ruling party he had dominated for decades.

The opposition victory was "a textbook example of democracy", Dr Mahathir said. "Democracy can only function if people understand and respect the vote."

In a high-stakes contest in Malaysia, he argued, the vote was respected.

There are profound ironies about this turn of events.

For years, Dr Mahathir was viewed by many as an autocrat in democratic clothing, a charismatic politico who ruthlessly consolidated power even as he pioneered his nation's modernisation.

He is still irked by this characterisation, casting it as a "trick" played by the Western media.

"Whether my policies were good or bad is up for others to evaluate," he said. "But I stayed on for 22 years. I led five elections and in all five elections, I won with a very good majority. The people were not so disappointed with me to the extent of wanting to throw me out."

Nor does he take any responsibility for the political legacy he may have bequeathed to his country - a certain political elite engaging in astonishing graft, enabled in part by a compromised judiciary.

Since leaving office in 2003, Dr Mahathir has become a vocal critic of his successors. "I don't see why I should be blamed. Without anybody asking me to, I resigned to give way to other people," he said, referring to his departure in favour of then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

Instead, he blames "the character of the people who succeeded me, not the political system" itself.

He said his government will work towards cleaning up the country's judiciary and reviving foreign investment.

In the 1990s, Dr Mahathir was the chief proponent of "Asian values", a set of principles that challenged the universality of human rights and seemed to justify authoritarian governance if it delivers prosperity and development.

Now, he has softened his rhetoric to fit his new democratic bona fides."It can't be a case of one-size-fits-all," he said, pointing to the failure of democratic uprisings in the Middle East.

"Democracy is not perfect, it does not guarantee good governance. Democracy can throw up a leader who can manipulate the law and so he actually becomes a dictator." Dr Mahathir then added: "Trump is what happens with democracy."

Malaysia's nonagenarian leader is eager to avoid any more talk about dictatorship at home. He came to power on a pledge to eventually cede office to once-jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a politician who Dr Mahathir targeted for prosecution 20 years ago.

They've since buried the hatchet, and Dr Mahathir said that he will give way to Datuk Seri Anwar in "two or three years".

He ended on a matter-of-fact note: "I don't want to stay forever."