Mahathir Mohammed on Yemen, Iraq and a host of issues”I said it before: the Iraqi war was a big mistake.” [Archives:2004/736/Community]

May 10 2004

Walid Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf
Yemen Times

Former Malysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed is a well-known personality in the Middle East and across the world. He has fascinated so many Muslims with his leadership skills and courage in confronting local challenges in Malaysia and international issues abroad. Being one of the highly respected leaders of the Muslim world, he is also greatly admired in the Republic of Yemen.
He has now paid his second visit to Yemen for exchange of ideas and views of establishing joint efforts to help develop Yemen's economy and promote Malaysia-Yemen relations.
Even though he is not in office right now, yet he is still quite active in all aspects and fields. He has his independent office in Putrajaya, the Federal Capital of Malaysia, and continues to contribute to the prosperity of his country.
Editor-in-Chief of Yemen Times Walid Al-Saqqaf met with Dr. Mahathir at the Presidential Palace in Sana'a last Wednesday and filed the following interview.

Q: As you have resigned from your post as Prime minister, how is Mahathir, the citizen, leading his life?
A: I have been invited to many countries to give talks, mainly about Malaysia's development and also about international issues. I kept myself quite busy at home and I also continue to go to my office. I have my own office now, where I communicate with scholars from within the country and abroad. So I am still quite busy.

Q: How do you assess your successor Mr. Badawi in running the affairs of Malaysia? Do you believe he will have a similar line as yours and would follow in your footsteps in continuing your development plans for Malaysia?
A: He is doing quite well and his policy will remain the same. Only the style would be different. Of course, different people have different styles. But the overall policy of Badawi will always be the same of that set up for Malaysia.

Q: With no exaggeration, during your leadership of Malaysia, you have become more of an idol for millions of Muslims throughout the world. Many people and I am sure, many of our Arab leaders are wondering: what makes a successful leader?
A: Well, a leader first must lead in all aspects, but at the same time he must ensure that the people who follow him are not far behind. Sometimes, a leader may go too fast for his people in terms of ambitions and steps towards development. A successful leader must have a vision. He must have ideas. He must analyze and understand the priorities of his country to develop and prosper and know the needs of his people and how to meet those needs.

Q: You just seem to be hinting to your experience when you said that a leader may sometimes be far ahead of his people. Does that truly imply to you?
A: During my time as Prime minister, some people did tell me that they couldn't follow me concerning my ideas for development and progress, so when they used to tell me that I would usually slow down so then people would be able to understand what I am doing and hence can then follow me in this respect.

Q: This is your second visit to Yemen in the last few years. How do you assess the progress of the country since your first visit?
A: Yemen is making some progress. But by comparison to other countries in the region, especially oil-rich countries, Yemen's development pace is somewhat behind. Yet I believe that Yemen has the same potential as the other Arab countries, and should make better progress.

Q: What is the main purpose of your current visit to Yemen?
A: I am here to help bolster Yemen-Malaysia cooperation in fields of trade and training, which I hope will help in Yemen's development process. I am here together with several businessmen and investors to explore the opportunities of cooperation and expansion of relations between the two countries.

Q: What do you believe should be done to bolster Yemen-Malaysia relations?
A: Firstly, Yemen and Malaysia should have closer relations so we can exchange our views and experiences and learn from each other. If there are successful steps taken by one country, then experience of this country can be used by other countries, including Yemen, for their own progress. If some countries have succeeded -such as Malaysia- then they should be followed by example. I personally believe that learning from others is vital for the progress of any nation.

Q: Of course Yemen is one of the least developed countries of the world, and is suffering from so many challenges from illiteracy to slow development. What do you believe the priorities of our president and government should be to bring about the desired change in the country?
A: In order to develop, there needs to be concentration on good governance. Yemen already has so many natural resources such as oil and gas. But even if you had tons of gold beneath your house and you didn't work properly to bring it up and use it, you will not develop. If you cannot do it yourself, you have to work with others. Others can help you bring out your resources, but you also must make sure you are not exploited by others, but through enhancing your own skills to develop.
In Malaysia, we first started to grow when we invited foreign investors to the country and start industries in order to create jobs for our people. They were not even told to pay taxes, but simply to provide employment opportunities. Today, Malaysia has become so industrialized to the level that, unlike before when we didn't export manufactured goods, we now export 82% of our industrial goods worth more than USD 100 billion a year. This in turn enabled us to grow quickly and develop to the level we are in today.

Q: Do you mean that developing the economy and specifically industrial sector are the priority?
A: Well you also need security and stability for investments to flourish. Without a stable country and government, you cannot carry out economic development policies. This is also a major priority as stability is necessary for economic development.

Q: I have been at the lecture you presented in Sana'a in your earlier visit and you concentrated on education to enable the public be more productive and hence build an active civil society. How can we in Yemen convince the president of the importance of communicating with the civil society to achieve greater development?
A: We cherish freedom of the people -including civil society- and must do so all the time. We can enjoy freedom when it is responsible and within the boundaries of the law. There should be freedom for example for laborers to go on strike and express their opinion to the authorities if they are mistreated or not given their rights. But if freedom to go on strike is not regulated and defined properly, such strikes will lead to disruption of services, which will discourage investors, and will hence damage the economic progress.
We in Malaysia have always said that civil workers and organizations must have their freedom, but they should also be aware that if they go on strikes too often, that will result in no investments and would damage the country's economy, and consequently their own standard of living.
The same applies for the press too. It is healthy to have freedom in the press, but being free doesn't mean being irresponsible, as that will have many negative consequences on the press and on the nation as a whole.
On the other hand, I agree with you that the civil society should assist in finding ways on how to develop the country.

Q: An initiative – from Yemen Times and a number of national figures – has recently been presented with the goal of extending a helping hand to the President in developing the country. This group expressed its willingness to provide advice and assistance in helping the country develop more quickly to eventually lead to a modern Yemen. How do you believe the president should respond to this initiative?
A: In this respect, I would like to say that the government and the president must always listen to the views of their people. They should not necessarily accept them, but they must carefully listen and have dialogue.
In Malaysia for example we always have dialogue with the private sector, civil society including NGOs, etc. Representatives from all those people will have at least one direct dialogue with the government, and sometimes more frequently. This is necessary because the government wants to know what those people think it has to do in order to enhance the standard of living and develop the country.
Because we are a democracy, the government has to do this, as those who do it will be voted back again to the government if they are in close touch with their people and know their needs.

Q: What about the media. As part of civil society, how can they play an important role in the development of the country?
A: Free and responsible media that is self-regulated to ensure they carry their professional duties in society should have a major role to play in your country's development. Media should enjoy a lot of freedom, because basically you are committed to assisting the government in development of your country. Of course you have to criticize negative phenomena, and that is important, but it should be done out of care for your country and its development.

Q: What about the developments in Iraq? How about the future?
A: The Iraq war was a big mistake. We already said before and I repeat again that the Iraq war would result in more terrorism rather than the opposite. I once said that invading Iraq may be easy, but to rule Iraq is not easy. You can defeat a government, but you cannot defeat the people. If the people don't like you they will fight you. And this is what is happening in Iraq. Unless the occupying forces understand this and realize the need to allow the Iraqis to rule themselves, this will continue.
Our view is that Iraq needs a strong government, a very strong government. If you think that everything can be solved by democracy, than that may not be right. This is quite evident when through democratic elections; a majority wins and then oppressed the minority. For example in Serbia, when through democratic elections Serbs won the majority, they oppressed the minorities.
In Iraq, we must have Iraqis understand the limitations of democracy; otherwise, it will not result in a peaceful and stable Iraq.

Q: In the last Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting held during your last days as prime minister, you were applauded by Muslims everywhere in the world for your courageous statement on the influence of the Jews and the biasness of the US to Israel. As pressure is increasing on the UK and US governments to abandon the extra biased stance in favor of Israel, do you have hope in the future that the two governments will have a more balanced stance?
A: It is unfortunate that when they dealt with my speech at the OIC meeting, they only focused on my words concerning the Jews, but in fact I also criticized the Muslims. In fact, even Muslims focused on my commentary on the Jews. Because this was a biased outlook, my speech was not useful for many people and not much was learnt from it.
I appealed in my speech that we should sit down and think before we do anything.
Now I think people are beginning to realize that I was not being anti-Semitic in my speech. I think that the Jews made mistakes. They can be wrong, and we have the right to criticize them.
But the USA continues to support Israel irrespective of what they do, even when they assassinated Sheikh Yassin and Dr. Rantissi. In other words, the US is supporting assassinations, and that is extremely dangerous because it is against International law.
So, the US must rethink its support for Israel. When you support Israel irrespective of what it does and against the Palestinians even when they want peace, then you are not helping the peace process.

Q: What about the prospects of change in UK and US policy in the Middle East. Do you see any prospect of change?
A: At the moment I see no prospect of change. But we can see more and more voices being heard criticizing the policies of US President George W. Bush.

Q: As a prominent Muslim leader, and a supporter of the OIC, what are in your opinion the potentials of unifying the stance of Muslim countries in international issues and in support of their causes?
A: There are certain things that we, as Muslim, can do without requiring the approval or support of all the 53 Muslim members of the OIC. Maybe two Muslim countries can come together and do certain things that are good for the Muslim world. For example, we have proposed the use of the gold dinar in trade. Even if not all fifty three nations are involved, but just three or four countries at the beginning, this would be a significant step for the Muslim world. But there are definitely many other things that Muslim countries can cooperate in, which will be reflected positively on the Muslim world as a whole.

Q: Any final comments you may have?
A: I am very glad to be here in Yemen. I noticed that there has been some progress made in the last two years. I think that there is great possibility and potential for Yemen-Malaysia cooperation and investment and training, which will result in not only more trade between the two countries, but also will speed up the development of Yemen. I hope that there will be a good outcome as a result of this visit. I am keen to help the government of Yemen speed up the process of development in the country.