Mahathir defends authoritarianism in Jakarta talk


(Jakarta Globe) – In Jakarta to deliver a public lecture on relations with Indonesia, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Monday took on questioners who challenged him on his party’s longstanding repression of civil liberties and opposition movements.

In his comments, Mahathir, once known as the strongman of Malaysia, reiterated his approach to individual freedoms and democracy, often referred to as the “Asian values” position.

“To me, democracy is good. However, we must consider whether democracy should be prioritized over the good of the people. Many of us have embraced democracy like religion, even when it is harmful,” said the man who loomed large in his country’s politics for four decades, 22 of them as prime minister.

“When [democracy is] followed, we should not disregard the outcome it can bring about,” Mahathir said, arguing that the adoption of democracy has been detrimental to several countries.

“Look at Egypt, Ukraine and Thailand,” Mahathir said.

“Democracy gives the people the right to hold demonstrations.”

During the question and answer session, Roy Suryo, minister of youth and sports affairs, asked Mahathir whether he supported the right to freedom of expression, especially in social media.

Roy explained that whereas Indonesia supports freedom of expression in social media, “perhaps even too freely” in Roy’s words, the minister wondered if Malaysia was planning to do likewise.

Roy said that he is particularly concerned about the protection of the right to freedom of expression, given the looming implementation of the Asean Economic Community in 2015, after which the two countries will be more closely involved, politically and economically.

In response to Roy’s question, Mahathir conceded that Malaysia is not as liberal as Indonesia with respect to upholding the right to freedom of expression. Mahathir likened such freedom to a knife.

“A knife can carve beautiful things, but the same knife can also be used to murder somebody.”

“We must study together media freedom.”

In the midst of the discussion, Fahmi Idris — Indonesia’s former minister of manpower and transmigration — raised a question about the fate of Anwar Ibrahim — Malaysia’s opposition leader, whom he regarded as a “friend of Indonesia.”

“He was put in jail, and then released, and then put in jail again,” said Fahmi in front of Mahathir, while expressing his dismay toward the treatment that Anwar received at the hands of the country’s judiciary, widely considered to be under the government’s thumb.

Mahathir replied that there was nothing political about Anwar’s prosecution. “There are those who say it was just politics, but it’s not that.”

“Anwar was my friend. I brought him into UMNO [party],” said Mahathir. “I made him my deputy prime minister.”

“Unfortunately, he did something unacceptable to us,” said Mahathir, referring to the alleged single act of homosexual intercourse for which Anwar was convicted.

“He did something disgusting that was unacceptable among Malaysia’s leaders.”