Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister of Malaysia, joined Columbia’s World Leaders Forum to speak on multilateralism and rule of law. The University received criticism from pro-Israel groups on campus for this invitation of Prime Minister Mohamed, who has long been accused of holding and expressing anti-Semitic views, which became one of the hot topics during the question and answer session. Staff Writer Aditi Misra brings you the highlights.
Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, 93, came out of retirement last year to lead Malaysia’s first party change since 1957. Introduced by Vishakha Desai, Senior Advisor for Global Affairs and Senior Research Scholar, she explained his recent efforts to push Malaysia and other East Asian countries forward to promote their growth. After mentioning the controversy of Prime Minister Mohamed’s presence on campus due to his alleged anti-Semitism, including the expression of controversial comments last year, Desi quoted President Bollinger’s statement released the same morning – “This form of open engagement can sometimes be difficult, even painful. But to abandon this activity would be to limit severely our capacity to understand and confront the world as it is, which is a central and utterly serious mission for any academic institution.”
The rest of the conversation was moderated by Lien-Hang Nguyen, Dorothy Burg Associate Professor in the History of the United States and East Asia. On the subject of rule of law, Prime Minister Mohamad listed his priorities for his time in office as including “abolishing the draconian laws of the past government” and “restoring good governance.”
Nguyen moved the discussion to how the Malaysian vision of multilateralism has evolved over time. Prime Minister Mohamad explained that when the country became independent, it was expected that the indigenous Malaysian population would do what they can to retain their majority. He defined the concept of multilateralism through their decision to instead share with the Chinese and Indian populations in a democratic way.
A recurring theme in the talk was the need for further development in Malaysia and other southeast Asian countries, as he openly described his country as “weak.” When asked about the present challenges they face as a nation, the prime minister responded, “The strong will take what they will and the weak will yield what they must.” He expanded on this point by emphasizing their non-militarization aim and focus on relationships in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
During the question and answer portion of the session, the first question from the audience was on actions that could be taken to help the Rohingya refugee crisis. Prime Minister Mohamad responded with criticism, saying, “There is a very clear weakness in the United Nations in that when it sees a government being very brutal to its people, we can do nothing. We can preach and pray, but we cannot help because we do not invade countries.” Another student asked about his efforts to minimize racial tensions within Malaysia. He explained his policy initiative by comparing it to affirmative action in the United States and described its criticism – the poor citizens are in need of training and education to gain access to greater opportunities, while the rich feel as though they are being discriminated against.
Later, a representative of the pro-Israel campus group, Students Supporting Israel, spoke up against his anti-Semitic statements and asked for a clarification on his stance on the Holocaust. Prime Minister Mohamad replied, mentioning “nasty things [said] about me and about Malaysia.” Furthermore, he continued by echoing President Bollinger’s earlier statements regarding free speech, arguing that, “When you say, ‘No, you cannot be anti-Semitic,’ then there is no more free speech.”
On his dispute over the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, he asked, “Who determines these numbers?” The Malaysian leader continued by explaining that he was around during the war and she was not, to which she responded that her grandmother was in the Holocaust.
The final topics ranged from ASEAN to Kashmir, where his answers reiterated his aforementioned belief that the UN can take no real action. He concluded the discussion by explaining that the only solution to crises like that in Kashmir is persuading member nations to adhere to the UN’s resolutions.
Image via Bwog Staff