Thursday, February 22, 2024


 Advocating ASEAN Unity

Insights from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad

Recently, Malaysia was accused of employing child labour and slave labour. This was reported in the Western press, and because of that, they wanted to close their markets to Malaysia.
That is why we need an ASEAN media to act as a single voice that will speak for all the ASEAN countries. If we were to have an ASEAN TV or radio station, broadcasting reports about ASEAN by ASEAN, that would help correct rumours and allegations

 In an age of hyperbole, the words “legend” and “icon” are often overused. But if there is one man for whom such appellations are deserving, it would be none other than Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, who occupied the post for a combined 24 years – first from 1981 to 2003 and then from 2018 to 2020 – Tun Dr Mahathir’s legacy is not just his longevity but also the impact he has made on the country, the region and even the world as a whole.

In Malaysia, he is best known for being the leader whose vision and dynamism led the country to become one of the Asian Tigers,as its economy grew by leaps and bounds. Beyond the borders of the country, Tun Dr Mahathir also gained renown as a vocal advocate of the developing world. With his straight-talking, no-nonsense style, he spoke truth to the powerful Western world, without fear or favour.

Our sister company – VOICE OF ASEAN – had the pleasure of interviewing the legendary Tun Dr Mahathir on its talk show – VoiceS of ASEAN. And we are pleased to bring you excerpts of what he had to say on Malaysia’s development, free trade, Western neo-imperialism and the need for a unified ASEAN narrative.

On Developing Malaysia

“During my youth, I questioned why should Malaysia be poor when other countries are so rich. Of course, at that time, I had not visited any other country. But I have lived through four different regimes – the British, the Japanese, the Thai, and then the British again before we became independent. So I have experienced many phases of the country’s development.

When I started travelling, I travelled a lot to developing and developed countries, and what I observed there influenced my thinking. For example, how is that the Japanese could recover so fast after losing the war, to become the second-largest economy in the world?

From my observations, I saw that their value system contributes to their success. For instance, Japanese people do not like to feel shame. So whenever they do something, they want to do their best, so that people will look up to them and not look down upon them. This character of wanting to do everything very, very well is the reason why their products have become the benchmark in the market.

So I thought that if we were to adopt the culture of the Japanese, we could do the same. That if the people were to do their work properly and the government brings about stability, Malaysia could develop just like how Japan developed. And to a certain extent, we have succeeded in doing so, because we have managed to move away from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial one.

We were also one of the first countries to focus on foreign direct investments (FDIs) and we managed to attract investors to Malaysia by giving them special privileges. And unlike many newly independent countries which did not like to have their former colonial masters coming back to do business, we welcomed everyone regardless of whether they were ex-colonialists or ex-imperialists.

These foreign investors created employment and people became richer, while the government also earned more income from the businesses that were introduced into the country. All this came about because I thought about the countries that did well, and how they managed to do it. And when I realised that it was because they did certain things, among which were industrialisation and local manufacturing, we also took that path.

We helped make FDIs an accepted means of growing the economy. And today, many other countries are doing that while offering cheaper labour and easier bureaucratic processes.

They are now more attractive than us, so we have to think of new ways of enriching the country. The time has come for us to invest in ourselves, to grow big and sell to the world.”

On the Importance of ASEAN Unity

“One of the biggest assets ASEAN has is its population which is about half the size of China. China has 1.4 billion people, and ASEAN has 600 million people.

However, in the past, ASEAN countries were all colonised by different powers. For example, the British ruled Malaysia, the Dutch ruled in Indonesia, and the Philippines was first ruled by the Spanish and then the Americans. Because of that, we were introduced to different systems of governments, and different ways of thinking. So initially, we found it unusual that some things were done in a certain way because we were used to doing them in another.

Back in the 1980s, the leaders of ASEAN then (Editor’s note: They were Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Suharto of Indonesia, Marcos of the Philippines, Prem Tinsulanonda of Thailand, and of course, Tun Dr Mahathir of Malaysia) were there for a long time, and we even knew each other personally. They were giants among men. They were pioneers in developing their countries and their achievements reflected positively on ASEAN.

We had heads of governments of ASEAN meetings and we were able to form personal relations and friendships. But that is not possible now because we might see a leader one day, and then a different one in the next meeting.

And at first, we decided that each country should specialise in certain industries so they won’t be any overlap. For example, in Malaysia, we went into heavy industries. However, after those leaders left the scene, those who came after them did not follow through. And now everyone wants to do practically the same thing.

Nevertheless, I still believe that the size of the ASEAN market is a big asset because they can use it to test their own products, attract foreign investments and grow their countries.”

On the Realities of Free Trade

“When they (former empires) lost their empires, they immediately formed the European Union to protect their market.

But that left them without the other markets around the world. So what they did was to introduce free trade and said that nobody should impose very high tariffs and that every country should be accessible to other countries. It sounds good because our market would grow. But those who really benefited were the imperial nations of the past because they were familiar with most parts of the world and with free trade, they would be the first to make gains.

Along with the idea of free trade, they also came up with the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which is basically to control trade and say you cannot do this or cannot do that. They can appeal to the WTO against any so-called wrongdoing by another country, mainly against newly-developing countries like Malaysia.

So, by introducing the WTO, they gain control of the market and keep their markets to themselves. They can complain that Malaysia produces rubber by cutting down trees and that is bad, so they will not buy. And this kind of international pressure affects our growth.”

For ASEAN, we ignore the confrontation between China and the US. We want to be friendly with both, because these are big and good markets for us. So we want to be neutral and to maintain our trade relations with both countries.

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