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AR: Anjali Rao
Hello Im Anjali Rao in Putrajaya Malaysia, this is Talk Asia!
My guest today is the Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
As leader of this multi-racial state, he's seen as fostering a free-er Malaysia and is something of an ambassador for Islamic understanding.
AB SOT UN Speech
"I am afraid the schism between the west and the muslim world will grow even deeper unless the international community is prepared to accept certain facts as the truth!"
Prime Minister Abdullah also has a fight on his hands -- a bitter dispute with his country's most famous political force, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
He has been saying a lot of things, I have decided to keep quiet and go on to do what I what to do. I still command majority support today.
AR: Prime Minister Abdullah welcome to Talk Asia. (Thank you)
The first thing that I'd like to discuss with you is the role of Islam in the world at the moment. You've spoken recently about a schism between Islam and the west. You said that you think it will grow even deeper unless the international community accepts certain things as true. What is it that you think the non-Muslim world is missing?
AB: What they are missing is that Muslims have not been really able to portray faithfully in their country's development, and the development of Muslim xxxx (???) that reflect the true teaching of Islam. Through the activities of so-called Muslim terrorists, they have created bad name for Islam, and the Muslim. And it so happened that the September 11 incident, has caused, since then, has caused a lot of unhappiness, sadness. And even the view of the non-Muslim towards Islam has changed dramatically since then.
And today, there doesn't seem to be any kind of understanding, enough understanding, to create a better rapport, better relations between the two. And that to me, is the cause of what we are seeing today.
There's always been a lot of suggestion that there should be more and more and more, inter dialogue, inter-faith dialogue. There should be more discussions of how to bring together, than talking about terrorism.
AR: But when we see things like September 11, and you know, the Bali bombings perpetrated by these Islamic extremists, it must of course be even more difficult to try and persuade the rest of the world that your faith is one of peace and unity despite a small minority of Muslims carrying out these atrocities. But certainly when the bombs go off their voices are the loudest?
AB: Of course when an incident like that has happened, it is going to be very, very difficult for us to explain. And especially if those who are involved are saying that "we have done it in the name of Islam." That becomes a real problem.
AR: What is it that you think that extremists that, you know, perhaps look at the holy book or study the holy scriptures and this is what they take away from the holy scriptures. Is there something within these teachings that says that violence against non-Muslims is ok?
AB: No. Violence, in the Koran, there are very specific, very specific commandment by God, that one should not create violence, one should not cause violence. One should not cause violence, especially when that leads to destruction of what you've already achieved. You've done, you've brought about development, you've brought about progress, and you should not be destroying all these.
AR: Something else that you've also said recently is that, you've spoken of the humiliation that Muslims feel. Why is that an overriding emotion among the Islamic community and is it something that you yourself, as a Muslim feel?
AB: I do feel that way too. There's one thing that the west has failed to understand. That, to a Muslim, religion is very important. Religion to the Muslim is not kept at home. It is not a matter for the relatives. For the Muslim, religion is important. In the corporate sector, in his business, in the government, in whatever he does, he is very much dictated by the teachings of Islam.
So really it is the interpretation of the Koran. Some people said if you have to defend yourself, you have to use all sorts of weapons, you have to make sure that if you have a right for self defense. And you have to act even if it appears that your action appears to be violent. But that will be done. Everybody does it , right? When there is an aggression against their country, or against their people, they tend to react in ways that could be regarded as violent. But what do we see? Do we see violence here that one has to resort to that kind of role, that kind of action? I don't know!
AR: Speaking of violent reactions, there was, recently such a response to the comments made by the Pope in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor who had referred to the Prophet Muhammad's teachings as evil. The Pope did follow that up by saying that the comment was rather marginal to religious dialogue itself. Why didn't Islamic people around the world hear that last bit of the sentence? Why did they only listen to the first part and react to that? Are Muslims being over sensitive?
AB: Well when it comes to religion we are always very sensitive. Many people, when it comes to race, we are always very sensitive. Not just us, anybody else become very, very sensitive.
The Pope need not bring it up! Why did he have to say it considering the present situation? Considering that between the Muslim group and non-Muslim group there is a state of tension, there's a state of perhaps, not perhaps, a state of unhappiness, a lack of trust and confidence. That's very important. So don't bring it up!
AR: One group that has shown itself to be a threat to this region is Jemaah Islamiah. It wants to create a pan-Islamic state, encompassing Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore as well. With the level of resentment at the moment that exists among Islamic communities towards the west, in what they perceive to be western aggression, do you see JI's vision of this ever coming to fruition?
AB: No, I don't see it ever coming to fruition in our region. In fact we've been able to contain their activities. Not that we don't have JI people. We do have the people who believe in JI philosophy, or JI ideology, whatever you may call them. But they are not getting any following. But we have to be very careful. We cannot allow them to just be going on, and campaigning and promoting their ideas, because their ideas, as far as Malaysia is concerned, are not acceptable. And Indonesia is also finding it unacceptable. And Brunei doesn't accept that sort of ideas.
AR: Prime Minister we're just going to take a short break at this point. But when Talk Asia returns, we'll discuss Prime Minister Abdullah's relationship with George W Bush -- though here's a clue, it's a lot friendlier than his relationship with his own predecessor, Mahathir Mohammad!
AR: Welcome back. We're speaking with the Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Prime Minister you recently met with George W Bush. Remind us of your conversation with him.
AB: Well we talked about many things. International issues, issues of the Middle East of course, Middle East, of Iran, of Asia, of terrorism, of democracy. Many things, many issues!
AR: One of the things I know you were also talking with him about was the desire to really create global peace. But you said that your approaches to it differed. How important is it for heads of state to really be in step in order to achieve that?
AB: Well I think it's important. I would put it this way that if we want global peace, then it must be all of us, must more or less have the same ideas of how to do it. If it's not exactly the same, the ideas must be compatible. And that also applies to the strategies and approaches.
AR: How well do you get along with President Bush on a personal level?
AB: Well by the conversation we had, nothing confrontational. He was willing to be frank, I was willing to be very frank about a lot of things that we say. And I didn't hide anything that I want to tell him. When I was with him, I spoke as a Muslim, as a man from the East, a Malay, as a leader of a Muslim country, as the chairman of OIC. And I would like to reflect our feelings, our concerns and views on many things. Because President of the United States, whoever he is, is a big man. He decides a lot of things and we all suffer because of that. Or sometimes, we benefit!
AR: Another of your relationships which is getting a lot of press at the moment is your relationship with Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, your predecessor. Things look extremely testy at the moment. What's it all about?
AB: What's it all about? Well he doesn't, he has not, he didn't agree with some of the things that I'm doing. Some of it has to do with some of the projects that he decided that he should, we should implement. And that's all there is to it, nothing more. That's how it all started.
AR: Still though he was the Prime Minister for this country for 22 years, he's still got a lot of people who respect him and hold him in the highest regard (Yes, that's true.). Do you worry that by taking him on in this fashion, that you might be committing political suicide yourself?
AB: No, no no I don't think it's political suicide. He has been saying a lot of things, I have decided to keep quiet and to go on doing what I want to do. And people want me to do what I want to do. And I have, I still command majority support today.
AR: Do you ignore what he says and his criticism of you?
AB: Well of course I can hear! If he comes to the press, I read. If there's something that I am doing, I continue to do what I want to do. And then some of his criticism, a relevant criticism, I'll make whatever adjustments I need to make. And some, I can't accept.
AR: One of the things that he said against you is that you've turned Malaysia into a gutless nation. Not least because you've pulled out of this plan of the construction of a bridge linking Malaysia and Singapore. Do you think he's got a fair point there when you know, he might see you as rolling back everything that he put into place?
AB: Not everything he put into place. No! Vision 2020, his biggest achievement, that's my target too! That we share, I share the vision. I have developed what I call a national mission. The mission is very big, in order to achieve that vision. My plan is not just for the ninth Malaysia Plan, my plan is for the ninth Malaysia Plan, the tenth Malaysia Plan, for the eleventh Malaysia Plan.
AR: But huge construction projects, like the bridge for example, you know, that was one of his babies, it was something that he worked for many years on. Now he's seeing you ditch it.
AB: Well I have decided that I'm not going to continue with the bridge. We discussed in the cabinet, we feel that no, we'll not do it. We're very practical about our approach, and the bridge has nothing to do with the life and death of Malaysia. It has nothing to do with the issue of integrity, it's a very practical issue. And for that reason we feel that we won't have the bridge. We can do other things to develop Malaysia.
AR: If he had not been in power, if he hadn't ruled the country the way he did, do you accept that Malaysia might have been less of a success than it is today.
AB: We wouldn't know, we wouldn't know, we wouldn't know. How can we...I think this is a theoretical question. He was our Prime Minister, he was our leader, he ruled for 22 years, was a leader for 22 years. He has done, achieved considerable success for Malaysia. We are proud of his achievement. That's a fact, that's a fact. But today, when he begins his criticism, not everybody appreciates it, not everybody.
AR: Prime Minister we're going to take another short break at this point. Stay with us though, on Talk Asia. When we come back, we'll talk about the prickly issue of racism in Malaysia. For instance, the ethnic Chinese population here says that they feel like they are treated like second class citizens. We'll find out what the Prime Minister has to say about it, after this.
AR: We're back on Talk Asia with the Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Prime Minister, Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew says that the Chinese population here is systematically marginalized. He's now sent you a letter explaining his comments. What do you want to hear from him?
AB: I will know what I can hear when I read his letter. But certainly I wouldn't want him to raise an issue like that. No, he doesn't have to.
AR: Are you saying that his accusations are groundless?
AB: Yes, it's groundless. And it is an issue that can cause unhappiness to many people. Why? Some may even regard it as tantamount to interfering with what we are doing. The Chinese in Malaysia are doing well. They are better off than the indigenous people, than the Malays.
AR: That's what he was saying though wasn't it, that because they're so successful that's why they're marginalized.
AB: No, they have been so successful because we give them opportunities to be successful. We allow their people, we allow their children to go to Chinese school, vocational school, to learn Mandarin.
And they practice their cultures. Their Chinese New Year is celebrated not only by them, but also by the Malays, the Indians who are...the Malays the Muslims, the Hindus. We have respect, mutual respect. That is growing in Malaysia, that's true.
AR: Still though the last time that we saw you on Talk Asia, you said that, I'm quoting back at you here, your government is making every effort to make sure that Malaysians are united, that there will be no racial prejudices among them. Yet in that time there has been a survey which was released saying that many Malaysians of all ethnic background actually buy into the stereotypes that are leveled against them. With that in mind, do you think that you might have underestimated the situation here of the differences that do exist amongst the various communities.
AB: The differences do exist, that's a fact because of the cultural diversity. In a situation where there is cultural diversity there'll be differences. But we celebrate these differences. But what we would like to see, that we all desire to be together, to live a life that is peaceful. We want to respect someone who doesn't belong to our own ethnic group, who's not of the same religious faith. A desire to be friendly, and to do things together. And most importantly that all of us love this one country that belong to all of us, that's Malaysia!
AR: Malaysia is thriving on so many fronts. It's successful socially and economically across the board. But one of the accusations that continues to be thrown up against it as a democratic state is that the free press here is not actually free. Reporters San Frontiers has last year put your country 113 out of 167 on the number of countries who have a free press. 167 being the least free press. Why does it need to be so tightly controlled if it's truly a democracy here.
AB: It is not very, it is not tightly controlled. The Malaysian press have freedom, but they are very responsible press. They understand the situation in which they operate. That is Malaysia. They also have a role to what I call self censorship. But there are other press. The main press self-censor but there are other little ones, who exercise I don't know what kind of freedom they have, to print all sorts of things and to say all sorts of things. And I think it's wrong to say that we are right down there. I have not known of any country where the press is truly free.
AR: You yourself have said that freedom of press has its boundaries and that unbridled freedom could also lead to the chaos and suffering for everybody. (Yes it's true I still hold to that view.) In what sense? Why would there be such chaos and suffering?
AB: Because press can be irresponsible, can incite feelings, can also create mistrust, can also create a state of tension. What happens is, for example, you remember the caricature of Prophet Muhammad? Yes, nobody forgets about it, you see how the muslims feel about it. If I have the same thing here in Malaysia, my god, you know what is going to happen!
AR: But then where are you going to draw the line between freedom of expression and clamping down?
AB: The drawing of the line comes from an understanding of those people who are in the press, understanding of our society, of our sensitivities. That is very important, they understand the society, our cultures, our values, our sensitivities and political sensitivities. That's very, very important. If they understand, they'll know what to say and what not to say.
And there are occasions when the press did something which many of us thought, oh my god what has happened? We have to deal with it. We have to deal with it, we have to cope with it, we have to understand but they cannot be doing that all the time. We can't, because I want to say there is no such thing as absolute freedom. The degree of freedom that one exercises varies from one country to another. This is the truth.
AR: Prime Minister it's been fantastic having you on Talk Asia. We thank you very much indeed for your time today.
My guest today has been the Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. I'm Anjali Rao, for Talk Asia. Until we meet again, good bye!