"Before we have been very restrained ourselves, you know, but whatever he says he wants reply, we reply. He ignored the reply we have been giving so far. Now he says he has not had any reply and he's not happy. But in Malaysia, we are answerable to the people, not just one man," Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said of Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister.

Abdullah told Aljazeera that the dispute dispute began when he cancelled a proposed bridge to replace the causeway linking Malaysia to Singapore – one of several big projects initiated by Mahathir and cancelled or postponed by the present government.

Abdullah said he was not running scared of Mahathir, who was prime minister for 22 years before relinquishing the reins to his hand-picked successor.

"Well, I must say that in our kind of democracy he can say what he wants, express his views on anything he wants, but as far as I'm concerned, me and my team are united and focused on what we can do. In any kind of development there might be some problems, shortcomings, but as we go along we continue to improve and overcome these," Abdullah said.

He also disclosed that Khairy Jamaluddin, his son-in-law and the deputy youth chairman of ruling party Umno, was no longer in business, adding: "My daughter is not in business either."

Abdullah: we are answerable to
the people, not just one man

Mahathir has accussed Khairy of exerting influence over the government and questioned how Khairy managed to buy shares in listed company ECM Libra Avenue. Last month, Khairy sold all his shares in the firm after explaining that he had been given a loan by the company's owners to purchase shares in it.

Abdullah also denied that he had helped Scomi, a company in which his son Kamaluddin has a controlling stake, secure government contracts.

Said the prime minister: "I've not given any kind of help that can be considered as nepotism. His business does not need to be built up."

Asked whether he would consider a second meeting after the first session ended with more attacks from Mahathir, Abdullah said: "I don't know. That is a speculative question."

Thai peace building

But he did encourage a move by Mahathir to negotiate a peace deal between the Thai government and various groups in Thailand's troubled southern provinces.

"We are not against it. Dr Mahathir has already spoken to some of them. We will see what happens, we are not in the way, we will be happy to encourage this process and  bring peace to that area, and encourage it , between the various groups and if they are willing to co-operate and help create a state of stability and peace."

Abdullah said he was reassured that Surayud Chulanont, the interim Thai prime minister, was keen to engage the various groups in the South.

"The new PM promised me he is going to engage the people, establish contact with the people, open channel with the people. This is a good move. When he engages these leaders, hopefully there will be a better understanding between him and the people in facing these difficulties. There are so many problems so I said if that is what you want to do then that is the best thing to do."

Chulanont (L) has been meeting
Muslim leaders in the south

However, Abdullah admitted that the problems in the Thai south were significant and would require much work to resolve.

"This feeling of alienation, this feeling of not being cared for creates resentment, from resentment to dissent to demonstrations, ugly demonstrations, trouble all the time. That is why I believe the onus is on the government, the leadership of the government. The PM today is willing to come down and meet the people, go to the villages and talk to them and he will try to understand what the problems are and I think that is the kind of leader that people will respond to."

Abdullah spoke of the close links between ethnic Malays in Malaysia and south Thailand.

"The people of southern Thailand are Malays like me, they are closely identified with us, culturally, religiously, ethnically they are more identified with us but they are Thai nationals and we accept the fact that they are Thai nationals but we cannot cover the family ties that existed for a long time. We allow them to come in."

He added that his government would not force the 131 refugees who fled across the border to Malaysia in 2005, claiming to be fleeing a military crackdown, to return to Thailand.

Development plan

Abdullah also highlighted a new multibillion-dollar development plan to build business and leisure facilities and attract foreign investors to its southernmost state, Johor, which borders Singapore.

The South Johor Economic Region (SJER) will be Malaysia's largest of its kind, with the government and private sector expected to invest about $13 billion over the next five years.
"It's not too far away from the Middle East, it's about 6 hours [away], 4 hours from India, and the area of land is 2 ½ times that of Singapore. It will be generating a lot of development."

"Ultimately, the people will decide what we have done not on the outcome of this dispute, this debate. People want to see how if they have any money in their pocket, their children are in school, there is security, that's what people are looking for"

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi,
Malaysian prime minister

Abdullah said Malaysia has "adequate infrastructure, very good roads, three city ports, international city ports and airports, a good population, also key people – professionals".

"Our cost will be five to six times lower than Singapore, cost low and infrastructure that can be increased, this will showcase what Malaysia truly is."

The SJER is part of the 9th Malaysian Plan, which was launched in 2006.

Although there have been differences of opinion between the state and federal governments over the SJER, Abdullah said that these had been resolved.

Mahathir has criticized the SJER project, but Abdullah believes that it and four other developmental regions are key to Malaysia's success.

"In spite of his criticisms, figures are good and we still develop, growth has been positive as far as we are concerned, we have enough money to spend, to develop.

"Ultimately, the people will decide what we have done not on the outcome of this dispute, this debate. People want to see how if they have any money in their pocket, their children are in school, there is security, that's what people are looking for."