THE DOCTOR IS IN: Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaks about democracy, freedom and values to Mior Kamarul Shahid and Kamrul Idris at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia’s 26th Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur last week
Answer: This is really because of models. What happened was that after the war, the Japanese recovered very quickly and this was noticed by other East Asian countries. The question is, if the Japanese can do it, why can’t we. This was asked by all the countries of East Asia. They then decided that they should use the Japanese model, which is to import raw material, add value and export. So you see that almost all countries of East Asia adopted this idea of importing raw material, processing and adding value and exporting, depending on the market in order to prosper. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, most of Southeast Asia and China adopted the same strategy. They are dependent upon their export markets. This has brought them prosperity because they have been able to compete with the West in terms of their pricing and then in terms of their quality.
Question: Yet, one also sees enormous deficits in democracy, observance of human rights, rule of law, and peace and stability in many Asian countries. What is wrong with governance in these countries?
Answer: If you look at them and then compare with the West, yes, it is true. But if you look at them and compare it with the previous situation in these countries, you will find that they have made considerable progress in all these areas. They are much more open, much more liberal, less authoritarian; even in China. One should not compare East Asia with Europe and America. Those countries became democratic much earlier and their situation enabled them to become more liberal. For example, they have given up on religion. East Asia is still very religious. So we don’t have to measure ourselves against the liberal West. We should measure ourselves with the past, which means, what is the progress that we have made? If you look at that, you will find that every country in East Asia has made tremendous progress towards more liberal attitudes, to more democratic systems, more democracy, more open government, changes in leadership. These things were not there before, but are there now. It is success in terms of change towards a much more open society.
Question: There are those who argue that there is a direct correlation between development and democracy. They point to the fact that the world’s richest economies are also the most democratic. Yet the Asian experience seems to indicate that this need not always be so. Under what circumstances do you think democracy and development strengthen each other?
Answer: I think development in the West is not because of democracy. In the West, they were most undemocratic. They conquered the world. They extracted the wealth of the world and they became rich. It is not democracy at all. Now if we can conquer Europe, for example, and then make the Europeans our workers, our slaves, to produce goods, then we can become rich as well. But of course that avenue is closed to us. We have become more prosperous not because of democracy but because of our desire to compete with the West. For a time we were oppressed by the West. We want to be relieved of that oppression; we want to show that we are as good as they are. And this is what we have done. It is not democracy. It is a desire to compete with the West and to make sure that we are no longer looked down upon and oppressed by the West.
Question: You once extolled “Asian” values. You even compared them favourably to “Western” values. Do you still hold the same view? How are Asian values different from Western values?
Answer: Now it is even more so because you see the West failing. And we see the East still rising. What is the crux of Western values? This talk about freedom etcetera, well, freedom is fine but freedom without progress is not going to do anybody any good. You can have a lot of freedom but the country cannot grow. On the other hand, in the East, we think of the welfare of the majority. They think of the welfare of the individual. The individual must have his rights. One person can demonstrate and call their country names, say that we exploit foreign workers and all that — that’s one person. But the majority of the people do not do that and don’t say that. Their opinion is different. We respect the majority and in that sense we are more democratic. The Europeans expect to have freedom only for one person to say what he likes, to print what he likes. But when we print something that is offensive to the majority, they want to allow but we don’t allow it. For example, a man decides to marry another man. That is just two persons and the majority must subscribe to that. But we don’t. We cannot subscribe to that because we feel it is immoral. So that is the difference between their beliefs and our beliefs. We look after the welfare of the majority. They look after the selfish needs of the individual.
Question: Is Western liberal democracy suited to Asia?
Answer: Some of it, I think, is good. But we cannot follow everything they do. They have in excess what they call liberal democracy, which means the freedom to do anything you like. As a result their moral quality has deteriorated, has almost disappeared. Their religion says that sodomy, for example, is forbidden, as it is for Muslims. They talk about Sodom and Gomorrah and in that religion it says that this is wrong. But because they want to be liberal, they say it is now right. So we cannot follow them. We pick and choose. What is good for us, we take; what is not good for us, we reject.
Question: NGOs and civil society are often at the forefront of criticisms against poor governance on the part of governments. Should not civil society also be answerable to standards of good governance?
Answer: Yes, I think they should! But you can be sure that if they ever form a government they are most likely to do even worse than what the government is doing. They have nepotism in their own societies.
Question: You were a great defender of freedom on the Internet and resisted any form of censorship of cyberspace when you were in office. Don’t you think there are many excesses on the Internet, such as wild and unfounded allegations, libel, lack of etiquette, pornography and such like, and that these problems need to be rectified as best they can in the interest of justice, ethics and morality? Should there not be a move for self-regulation such as a code of conduct, at least?
Answer: When I said there should be no censorship of the Internet, I really did not realise the power of the Internet, the power to undermine moral values, the power to create problems and agitate people. The morals of our young people are now affected by the easy access to pornography, where before magazines and all that could be banned from coming into our country. Now it is so porous that we cannot prevent all this filth from coming into our country. Therefore, we should rethink the absolute freedom given to the Internet. Countries should be allowed to devise ways of filtering the dirt that comes through the Internet. Of course, if there can be self-regulation, fine. But if the regulation is broken, there must be some power to enforce and to punish.
Question: You were once a champion of East Asian economies getting together to protect and promote their common interests, especially when the Uruguay Round appeared to be getting nowhere. There was harsh criticism and opposition from some powerful countries then. Are you gratified with the emergence of the Asean Plus Three process? Do you see the East Asia Summit as complementing the Asean Plus Three or as undermining it?
Answer: This is a case where the West does not practise what it preaches. It talks about freedom. While Europe can come together into the European Union and America can form NAFTA (North American Free Trade Association), American leaders, especially Mr Baker (former US secretary of state James Baker), went all out to prevent East Asian countries from even talking to each other. He told Japanese businessmen, Korean businessmen, not to be associated with this project. That is very wrong. It is international oppression. It is bullying on the part of America. I have no compunction about saying this. I am calling a spade a spade. This is America’s policy. America is the international bully in this case. Why is it that we cannot talk to each other, when they can talk to each other? When (former South Korean president) Kim Dae Jung decided that we should have Asean Plus Three, it is akin to the East Asian Economic Community. So it is a small step forward. I think it should be formalised into a grouping called the East Asian Economic Community which can meet regularly, not to form a union like Europe, or NAFTA even, but merely to try and help each other overcome the threats posed by ideas coming out of America and Europe.
Question: What, in your view, are the greatest challenges confronting governance in Asia?
Answer: It’s the level of knowledge of the democratic system in Asia. They know only about the freedoms. But they don’t know about the limitations of freedom. They have very little knowledge about the responsibility that goes with freedom. That makes it very difficult for us to implement democracy effectively without damaging ourselves.
Question: How do you foresee the Arab Spring evolving from now on? How will it affect the economy, society, governance and security in the Middle East?
Answer: When people have one intention, like seeking independence, for example, they will be united. In this case, they were united because they did not like the existing government. But having achieved that, then comes the problem of the replacement. That is when there will be less unity because the objective now becomes different. So getting a government that they yearn for — they might not be able to achieve it. So there will be a lot of instability for quite some time until, of course, they become more mature and they understand the limitations of democracy, the limits they can go to and the responsibilities of the people