At 93-years-old, Mahathir Mohamad was the world’s oldest elected leader to address the recently concluded 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Returning to the podium as Malaysia’s leader for the first time in nearly a generation, the veteran politician’s address lamented worsening political, economic and social conditions around the world.
His closely-watched and highly anticipated speech, which promised to set the direction of his new administration’s foreign policy, included a scathing appraisal of global power relations and a call to check the dominance of the UN Security Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members.
“When I last spoke here in 2003, I lamented how the world had lost its way. I bemoaned the fact that small countries continued to be at the mercy of the powerful,” said Mahathir, who served as Malaysia’s premier from 1981 to 2003 and last spoke at the UN’s General Assembly nearly a month before he stepped down as prime minister.
“But today – 15 years later – the world has not changed much. If at all the world is far worse than 15 years ago. Today the world is in a state of turmoil,” he told the assembly, citing an escalating trade war between the world’s two most powerful economies, rising acts of terrorism and militarism, and deteriorating social values that “undermine the stability” of nations.
During his first premiership, Malaysia’s longest-serving leader earned a reputation as a strident voice for the developing world. Then as now, the notion that Malaysia should not stay silent on important global issues has arguably come to define the country’s self-image and sense of global relevance under Mahathir’s new tenure.
Mahathir’s ongoing bid to recalibrate ties with China has seen his government push back against costly Beijing-backed infrastructure and property projects amid his warnings of the risk of a “new colonialism.”
Watched with interest in the region and beyond, his defiance of China has in part helped to rehabilitate his image in the West, one that had long been sullied by his frequent anti-Semitic statements, including notably at the height of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.
Speaking in defense of “small countries” and their role at the UN, the premier launched new barbs at the Security Council’s five permanent members, saying they “cannot take the moral high ground, preaching democracy and regime change in the countries of the world when they deny democracy in this organization.”
On democracy, Mahathir pivoted to Malaysia’s own peaceful transition of power following elections in May this year that ousted his protégé, scandal-plagued former premier Najib Razak, and brought an end to the uninterrupted 61-year rule of the ruling coalition he previously headed and had governed the country since independence in 1957.
Malaysians, he said, wanted their country to uphold principles of fairness, good governance, integrity and the rule of law while pledging that his government would ratify all remaining core UN instruments related to the protection of human rights. Doing so “would not be easy,” he said, adding that certain protections would need to be deliberated.
In subsequent remarks, the premier added that Malaysia’s thinking about human rights differs from Western notions, an apparent reference to his administration’s conservative stance toward same-sex relations. The premier has publicly affirmed the need to “determine some limits” on civic freedoms in keeping with supposed national values.
The nonagenarian leader said the “New Malaysia” he represented would “speak its mind on what is right and wrong, without fear or favor,” while striving to be a “friend to all and enemy of none.” Malaysia would practice an independent, non-aligned foreign policy he said, adding that his government did not believe in joining military alliances.
In recent months, Mahathir has railed against the over-proliferation of warships in the South China Sea’s disputed waters, calling their presence the biggest threat to regional peace. Amid worsening relations between China and the US, the Malaysian premier has proposed that major power warships be kept out of the contested maritime region in favor of joint small-boat patrols.
Describing his country as one that “detests and abhors wars and violence,” the premier told a press conference his government was considering the adoption of a pacifist constitution similar to Japan. Revising the constitution requires a minimum two-thirds approval in both houses of parliament, numbers the government is reportedly working to achieve.
His anti-war ethos also extended to condemnations of Israel over its suppression of Palestinian self-determination, as well as the Myanmar government for its treatment of its Muslim Rohingya minority, issues that Muslims in Malaysia, along with both current and former governments, have taken an activist stance on.
Though reluctant to endorse the idea of a supranational military intervention to prevent acts of genocide, Mahathir said the world should “think about the limits of noninterference” during a dialogue session at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“If we in Malaysia, we massacre all the Chinese and Indians, I think you have a right to move in,” he quipped, referring to his multiethnic country’s main ethnic minority groups.
“Mahathir’s views are long-held and remain fundamentally unchanged on the big foreign policy issues,” said Prashanth Parameswaran, a Washington-based editor for The Diplomat. “His views may not have changed much, but the world has, along with Malaysia’s position within it and his own domestic position in the country.”
“That will affect the extent to which he can actually implement the change he has spoken about,” he said, adding that “it remains to be seen what he can accomplish in the foreign policy realm” given the slew of domestic challenges he faces and amid expectations that the premiership will be handed to veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim within two years.
Even if actionable achievements are limited, “Mahathir’s idea of pushing for Malaysia’s original stance to keep Southeast Asia neutral and non-aligned will find resonance among Malaysians, and probably among most Southeast Asians,” says Ooi Kee Beng, executive director of the Penang Institute, a think tank.
“Malaysia should be a voice to curb major power ambitions in the region,” Ooi says. “The economic strength that Malaysia had which lent credibility to [Mahathir’s] stance in the old days, is, however, not there at the moment. What he will rely on instead is Malaysia’s newfound significance as a democratic power bent on reforming its governance.”