Editor's note: John Simons, a Lawrence native and longtime Scottsdale, Ariz., surgeon, was recently invited to interview Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister of Malaysia. Mohamad has repeatedly declined to be interviewed by journalists since his deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was charged with abuse of power and sodomy. Ibrahim is currently on trial in Kuala Lumpur.
President Clinton and other world leaders will be in Kuala Lumpur this week for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
The following is a portion of Simons' interview, which was conducted Nov. 5.
JS: How does Malaysia, long a leader in Southeast Asia, suddenly find itself in a position where so many have become critical?
MM: Firstly, I feel very strong that, when our currency was devalued, that it was not due to us. The general accusation directed at East Asian countries is that the governments were all corrupt, they were all incompetent, they were not transparent and the currency trading followed the above assumptions. But if they are corrupt and incompetent, then they have been corrupt and incompetent all this while. Yet, all these countries have developed much faster than any other developing countries in the world. They were known as "economic tigers."
If corruption is the cause of their economy turmoil, it would have happened a long time ago. It didn't happen until the currency traders came in and starting devaluing our currency. So I put the blame squarely on currency traders, and this is not a popular view. And I spoke very, very bluntly about this in Hong Kong and elsewhere.
For a long time, your people thought that I was in denial, refusing to admit that I was in the wrong. But today, as you can see, a lot more people have realized that it is the currency traders, that I was right all the time. But there are, of course, a lot of people who still feel that my condemnation of currency traders is due to my refusal to admit that I was in the wrong; that the governments of East Asia were all in the wrong. So, over that issue, I was already unpopular.
And then, of course, we have this political problem over my deputy refusing to be dismissed. He decided that he would fight back. His dismissal was entirely due to his moral behavior. But people feel that it is because of my political difference with him. Political difference I do have with him, ideas about how to manage the economy. But I can manage that; that is not a problem for me.
But the moral issue, it is something that is very important to the nation. You cannot have a man of such bad moral character become the next prime minister. I had to remove him even at the time when we are having economy difficulties, because if anything happened to me, he would succeed me. So, he had to be removed now. And, of course, this aggravated the situation. The situation became worse because he courted arrest. He did things which he knew would cause the police to arrest him, because he was arrested before when he was a student leader. He held demonstrations and he was arrested under the Internal Security Act. So he repeated the whole thing.
Unfortunately, during the time he was under detention, he got a black eye. Now, we don't condone police brutality. We are against it. We are investigating why he had the black eye, and we will take action against the police if they caused the black eye. But to accuse the government of condoning, or even some people say that I actually asked the police to give him the black eye -- it is ridiculous. Because, if I do that, why should I then, why should the police then, show him to the whole world with a black eye?
JS: You have been quoted as saying the foreign press is antagonistic and out to get you.
MM: Yes, I have been very critical of the media, and unlike others, I speak out. A lot of people are critical of my style, and they tell me what you say is true, but they wouldn't admit such to the media. I have always felt if I feel something is wrong -- I don't care who, I don't care which country -- I will say it is so. The press, when they misreport, misguide people over something I say. And so many of the reports on Malaysia are completely wrong.
For example, although you see this country is harmonious, with so many Chinese, Indians and Malays living together, without quarreling with each other, invariably, they (the press) preface their remarks saying that although Malaysians look peaceful, underneath everything is boiling and about to explode. Invariably, they are always saying although Malaysia looks calm, it is not calm. You know, every report about Malaysia is like that. So, I think what else can you do?
JS: As I hear you talk today you are very convincing, but you appear to have trouble convincing the media.
MM: Yes, they describe me as being very prickly. I know most politicians are very careful when they meet the press. In fact, I have had instances where I had a prime minister from one country sitting next to me. Suddenly, this individual realizes there is a microphone in front of him, and he clamps down, won't talk, and calls his press secretary to interpret what he means and what to say. And I am speaking of friendly prime ministers. You see, they are also afraid of the press. But they won't speak.
I am also afraid of the press, but I have a habit of saying things as I see it. If somebody does something wrong, I will say it. So, because of that, I am not liked by the press. I don't cultivate the press. So I can understand why they are deliberately misleading people. I think that is not right.
JS: You've been a strong leader for Malaysia. Do you think it possible, if you had had a dedicated group of political savvy loyalists, that your present problems would have been minimized?
MM: Oh, it is entirely possible that there is a kind of generation gap between me and the younger generation of people, but I feel that, if I am given a chance to speak to them, they are willing to listen. I can convince them. But what I am attempting to do is to prevent them being fed with such information as to make them regard anything I say as being wrong, no matter that it may be obviously right. I am attempting to prevent them from saying, if it comes from me, it must be wrong.
JS: Would you describe Southeast Asian democracy as being more focused on the good of society, as opposed to the right of the individual?
MM: That's what I have been trying to say all this while. That our value system is different. We believe in family, we believe in community, and we believe in the rights of individuals so long as the individual does not disregard the rights of the majority. Because the majority is made up of individuals also. So when you trample on the rights of the majority, you also trample on the rights of individuals. That is our belief, and that generally is the kind of democracy that we talk of.
For example, we had demonstrations recently. OK, 5,000 people demonstrated. But thousands of others suffer because their businesses are affected. The hawkers cannot sell their fruits. They lose money because a small number of people want to demonstrate. There are other ways of expressing your feelings than through demonstrations. Come the election, OK, you don't vote for the people you don't want. But when you take to the streets every Saturday, you are depriving hawkers, taxi drivers, and others of their livelihood, and that is wrong.
JS: Will currency trading be a topic of the upcoming APEC meeting?
MM: Yes, I think it will be a topic. But whether you make progress or not is another matter because last year in Vancouver I pointed out what was going to happen, and today it has happened. Last year, I told the group that $500 billion of purchasing power in Southeast Asia had been lost, lost completely. It has not gone to the currency traders. It's just lost, because when you depreciate currencies, people become poor and they cannot buy things.
The West, America for example, sells a lot of goods to the East. I told the group we no longer have $500 million with which to purchase products or services. We cannot buy Boeing aircraft and many other products and services. So everyone is going to feel it. As I said last year in Vancouver, America will not be able to sell a lot of things to us because we do not have the money. And I said America was going to feel the pinch. And now I ask how many people have been deprived of their jobs with Boeing and other companies which were supplying us with the things that we need.
Today, more than a trillion dollars of purchasing power has been lost. Who gains? Did the currency traders make a trillion dollars? No. They made a few billion. But real wealth has been lost, completely lost. Wealth which took 30 years to build is now gone.
JS: How important do you feel it is for the people of America to understand what you've just said?
MM: Yes, you know, most of the countries of East Asia were known as "economic tigers." They were rich. They were buying a lot of things from America. Look at Indonesia. Indonesian currency was devalued by 600 percent, which means they need six times the amount of money to buy whatever it is they used to buy before. They don't have six times more. So because they don't have, they cannot buy.
But they need medicine, they need food, they need everything -- milk for their children. Now they don't have the money. They are starving. I hate to quote Indonesia, but Indonesia is the worst case. Twenty million Indonesians have lost their jobs. Why? Because of currency trading. And, by the end of this year, 50 percent of Indonesians will be living below poverty line. You see, this was a rich country. Why destroy a rich country?
JS: What do you seek to re-establish in the relationship with Europe, the West and America that you've had in the past?
MM: We want understanding. We want to be friends because you can't sell to enemies. If you are our enemies, you won't be buying our goods. We want to sell to people who are our friendly customers. You have to treat us as friendly customers and then both sides will prosper.