Talk to Al Jazeera

Malaysia’s Mahathir on trade wars and his promise to step down

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad discusses multilateralism, his vision for Malaysia and the challenges the country faces.

Mahathir Mohamad served as Malaysia’s prime minister for 22 years from 1981 to 2003. But the 94-year-old veteran politician returned to frontline politics a few years ago to oppose the political force he was once a part of, the Barisan Nasional coalition, which had ruled Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957.

During Mahathir’s first tenure as prime minister, the country experienced rapid economic growth and the country’s diverse population – mostly ethnic Malay Muslim, but also significant minorities of ethnic Chinese, Indian and indigenous people – enjoyed rising incomes and improving living standards. 

“In order to grow a country, to develop a country the first need is for stability. Ours is a multiracial nation and normally multiracial nations are not stable. So the first job that I had to do was to make sure that all the races were together for the country. That means, of course, that all the different races are represented in the government and they can speak for their own race and also for the nation,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Because everybody has a fair share in the governance of the country, they feel satisfied that their problems will be taken care of and that leads to stability where development becomes possible.”

Mahathir’s life achievements were recognised at the opening session of Doha Forum 2019. During his acceptance speech, he did not hold back from expressing his views on the modern world.

“Today’s world is confronted with increased concern over the sustainability of global economic growth in the face of rising political, social, and environmental challenges,” Mahathir said.

And he initiated a talk about his country’s foreign policy and need for global markets, noting that Malaysia lost out on a big market when the United States applied sanctions against Iran.

“We don’t believe in applying sanctions to force countries to accept certain ideologies and to change governments. It is not only the particular country that will suffer, but all the trading partners also will suffer economically. In a way, it is a form of dictatorship. A dictatorship that is worse than that in a country, it is international,” he said.

The Malaysian prime minister also discussed the state of the global economy and its interconnectedness. He argued the US is leading the world in the wrong direction when it comes to multilateralism. 

Commenting on the US-China trade war, Mahathir said, “Trade wars do not solve anything. They only antagonise people and other people not related to the war. There is too much politics involved … if you follow economic rules … perhaps you can solve the problem in a much much better way than confrontation and trying to destroy each other.”

“Becoming very nationalist is good. But not at the expense of other people. Every country should care about itself but that needing to be protective or secure doesn’t mean confronting others. It’s better if we learn to work together,” he told Al Jazeera. “We were going a long way towards multilateralism. But now nationalism seems to affect many countries.”

For any leader no matter how great a run they have had in the office, one of the issues is when they will leave the political stage and what will happen next.

When Mahathir joined the now ruling coalition, he was expected to hand the reins to new leadership two years after the May 2018 election. 

Now, the Malaysian leader has suggested he may seek to stay in power beyond 2020 and said he could not guarantee who would succeed him as prime minister. Asked if he would step down in 2020, he said he wanted to fix problems created by the previous government before resigning – with a new economic plan slated to be achieved between 2025 and 2030.

“This time around we want everybody to benefit, and not any particular group only,” he said.

Could the modernisation of Malaysia have happened without Mahathir? Is the Malaysian prime minister going to step down in 2020? And who would he endorse to be his successor?

In this special edition of Talk to Al Jazeera at the Doha Forum 2019, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad discusses his achievements, his vision for Malaysia, and the challenges the country faces.