Marking his departure after 22 unprecedented years as the longest-serving elected leader in the world, numerous media interviews were sought with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad. On the eve of the official opening of the 10th Summit Session of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) today, The Star Associate Editor Bunn Nagara was invited for a one-on-one interview with Dr Mahathir on the OIC in his final, exclusive media interview as Prime Minister.
IN LAUNCHING Malaysia’s incoming chairmanship of the OIC, this interview was beamed simultaneously to all 57 OIC member countries. (In Malaysia, this was shown as Special Focus on the OIC on RTM1 at 9pm last night.)
The following is the full transcript of the interview, covering key areas of OIC concern including unity among members, trade and the international currency of trade, the image of Islam and terrorism, threats to the Muslim ummah and oil as a defensive weapon, the promotion of science and technology, and Dr Mahathir’s own experience in administering Malaysia which could apply to and benefit the OIC.
How serious do you see the threats today to the OIC as a cohesive and effective voice of the Muslim world, and what are some of these main threats and challenges?
The threat is not directed at the OIC but is directed at Muslim people in the world. The OIC has still the capacity to act.
The problem, of course, is that the OIC has not got the will to act. That is, the threat actually is within – not coming from outside.
The lack of effectiveness of the OIC is widely seen as due to the lack of unity among member countries. How would Malaysia’s chairmanship of the OIC seek to overcome the differences to help forge unity?
I don’t think we should aim for total unity of 1.3 billion Muslims in 57 different countries. That is not achievable.
But if we can achieve unity of a significant number – a small minority even, we can act and produce results.
Do you have any particular plan at the moment?
We have some ideas about how we can go about these things, but of course we need to have a few countries to subscribe to these plans and to act.
OIC leaders such as yourself have mentioned before the possibility of using oil as a weapon in defending the rights and interests of members like Palestine. Yet when Iraq announced doing that in April last year, it was attacked 11 months later. How can defensive methods work without inviting further attacks in response?
There are judicious and prudent ways of using oil as a weapon. But that does not necessarily mean that we should cut back on the production of oil, deprive the world of oil.
We have to think, if you have a weapon – you can use it many ways. So, we have to think of other ways rather than just merely cutting back on the production, depriving the world of its supply.
In recent years, Islamic extremism has grabbed world attention and associated Islam with political violence. What should OIC members and other countries do to dispel this negative image?
In the first place, we should make an assessment as to the results of terrorism.
We should step back, we should think and find ways of doing things which are more effective then merely retaliating, merely expressing our anger and bitterness and just killing people because they kill us.
The question of image has to do with media portrayal, especially in the international news, which seems to be dominated by western agencies. Is there a way for the OIC to counter that?
We should project ourselves in a different way. There are many ways of projecting yourself without just merely allowing people to make their own interpretation.
Of course, if you do things that are obviously wrong, then we get a bad press. On the other hand, there are ways of projecting our problems to the rest of the world which can win the sympathy of the rest of the world where we will not be accused of terrorism.
Three years ago, you found that the anger of some OIC member countries at Israeli aggression was such that some of them considered cutting ties with the United States, but nothing of the kind happened. Frankly, how do you see the future prospects of the Muslim ummah?
Well, if we handle things correctly, I think 1.3 billion Muslims can be effective because of our numbers. Because we are rich, because we control some of the essential supplies to the rest of the world.
We are a big market. All these things are assets we have – which we have not really thought of making use of.
Now if we think carefully, we might be able to use our assets in order to project a better image of ourselves in order to win the struggle.
Several OIC member countries are immensely rich because of their oil wealth, yet a third or more of them are among the poorest countries in the world. What should be done with this wealth to help the poor develop their communities?
The rich countries are very charitable. They have given aid to neighbouring countries.
But on the other hand, the manner of support is not productive. We know even the Western countries, when they give aid to a lot of countries, the aid is misused and has produced this result.
Similarly, Muslims are charitable. They do give away ... rich countries do give away a lot of money to support the poorer Muslim countries, but there is a need to structure the aid in such a way that it would contribute towards reducing poverty, for example, and helping the countries develop.
Would a plan to help OIC countries develop be part of Malaysia’s leadership of the OIC?
No, we are a Muslim country and I think we have as much role to play in leading the Muslim ummah, together with the others.
It would seem that among the tasks of the OIC is to lend a hand to the downtrodden around the world, a task that overlaps with organisations like the Non-Aligned Movement currently chaired by Malaysia. Are there possible synergies where like-minded organisations can act in certain areas of common concern?
Yes, certainly there are. For example at this WTO meeting, we can act together. It doesn’t matter whether we are members of NAM or members of the OIC.
We are all developing countries. And if we lend our voice to a single struggle for a single objective, I am quite sure it will strengthen us.
To many people in the world, especially in North America and Europe, Islam is almost synonymous with West Asia or the Middle East. Yet Asian Muslims form a sizeable proportion of Muslims in the world. What do you see as the contributions Islam in Asia can make to the Muslim ummah worldwide?
I would say quite a lot, because we are not troubled with the baggage of history.
We have a different background, we have a different perspective, we see perhaps more clearly the problems that are faced by the ummah – and our solution to it is actually to develop our country to gain strength.
The OIC still has prospective members waiting to join. Would new members add to the strength of the organisation, or dilute it and even create new areas of disagreement and disunity?
I don’t think new members will have very much (impact). The problem is, we have enough members but we are not using the strength of the members.
Prime Minister, you have spearheaded the development of Malaysia based very much on promoting science and technology. If the OIC members can gain similarly from technological advancement, how would you overcome the fear among some Muslim communities of science and technology?
I think it is through explanation, education and interpretation. For example, they assume that science would undermine your faith if you reveal a lot of natural phenomena that we see.
Some people think that they should be a mystery. God’s creation must be a mystery to us before we can believe.
But actually, science reveals how much more powerful God is, because if you study science you will find that matter is created from very minute electrons and protons and the like, which accumulate to form the molecules and so on.
And then we have the universe which we thought consisted of merely the sun, the moon and the stars but we found that the universe is made of many suns, and it is so huge that it will take many light years to travel from one point to another.
So God’s creation is actually much bigger, much more complex, much more intricate than what we used to believe before. And therefore our perception of God is that much enhanced, and apparently God is much greater than what we thought He actually is.
And this should increase our faith in God. There’s another thing that I always tell people: that whereas a scientist can explain to you how things happen, he cannot explain why things happen.
He cannot explain, for example, why hydrogen combines with oxygen to create water. Why not some other elements?
But hydrogen and oxygen make water. Why? Because that’s the way God created it. We can’t explain ? there is no other explanation.
Would you say that the promotion of science could be part of the contribution to the leadership of the OIC by Malaysia?
Well, I think to the extent that we can do for science. As a doctor, well of course, I’m also a scientist.
As a doctor, I find that my knowledge of science, my knowledge of medicine, has in fact strengthened my faith in my religion and my faith in God.
During your tenure as Prime Minister, not only has Malaysia developed significantly in technological terms, but also in other areas like Islamic banking. What other Islamic business practices would you like to see adopted more widely by members of the OIC?
Islam is the only religion that prescribes everything that you do in your daily life because Islam is not only a religion, it is also a way of life. In the practice of business, there is guidance in Islam.
If we follow this guidance properly, we will become very transparent, we will do things very honestly, and we will not cheat if in fact we adhere to the teachings of Islam.
Not only will Muslims succeed in business, they can show the world the quality of business that they do, and this will contribute towards more ethical business for everybody, not just for the Muslims.
It would seem that OIC members can do much more to trade among themselves and therefore enrich one another. What are (some of the things) that the OIC should do or will do?
One of the things resulting in our not trading much with each other is not knowing our capabilities. Not knowing what we produce.
At this expo for example, I was very surprised to find that Kuwait produces paper. Now Kuwait doesn’t have a single tree to speak of.
They cannot possibly produce paper, but they are producing paper. How they do it, I’m not going to question, but the fact is that it is entirely possible for many Muslim countries to produce goods that are good and of quality.
But unfortunately because we don’t know, we tend to source our supply from traditional sources, mainly Japan, South Korea or Europe. So expos like this I consider very important.
They should be held not only at every OIC meeting, but in between and in many other countries to acquaint the Muslim countries of their own capability and products that they have to supply to other countries.
Malaysia has proposed the use of the gold dinar in international trade, and not only that, but also done the research to show the viability (of doing this).
I would stress gold rather than dinar. What you call the currency is really not important, but the fact is that you have a gold standard against which you value the goods you are going to buy or sell.
Paper has no value at all. You can write any number on a piece of paper and call it money, but it has no value and because it has no real value, it can be appreciated and depreciated.
But gold has got a specific value in any country, so we know that when we compare to gold we’re comparing to something that has the value as such. That is why we propose that we should use gold as the reference currency.
Not in domestic business, but in trade between nations. Today, trade between nations use the US currency. We don’t use US currency in Malaysia but when we trade (it is) with US currency.
Now the idea is instead of the US currency, which is a piece of paper that has no value, we use gold – and we can call it the gold dinar or whatever, but we use gold of a specific weight, specific size or specific value, and we can use that as a reference currency to pay for what we buy and to receive for what we sell.
So it is a much more stable currency. Not subjected to manipulation by (George) Soros, for example. If Soros wants to sell gold at half the price, people will snap it up and if you snap up gold at half the price, the value will go up and it does not go down.
You see whereas (with) paper, if you sell and sell, the value goes down. So that is why we propose we should use gold.
Not to carry gold from one place to another, but to use it as a reference currency only. To make it easier, we have a bilateral payments arrangement where the trade between two countries is settled by taking only into consideration the balance.
You don’t pay for the whole... I mean if you buy 100mil dinars worth of goods, you don’t take 100mil dinars and pay because when you buy, you also sell.
So when you buy you have to pay but when you sell they have to pay, so you just contra the amount and you pay what is the balance. If the balance is in your favour, than you receive the payment, which is a small sum, the difference between the exports and imports, and vice-versa.
How far are OIC members taking this up at the moment?
Well, it is working now. We are not too ambitious to want to launch it worldwide.
We’ll begin with two or three countries and see how it works, and correct all the mistakes. And I’m quite sure other countries will come on board one by one, and eventually it will be a currency that is accepted by all for the settlement of trade.
Would you say this will happen soon?
Yes, it will be soon. We have already lined up two or three countries which are willing to use the gold dinar.
As Prime Minister of the country for 22 years, you have been credited with running an effective government. What areas of administration in Malaysia that you have experienced may now be applied to Malaysia’s chairmanship of the OIC?
I think it is wrong to say that it is all my doing. We are a collective government, and what we do is decided by the Cabinet and the Cabinet’s philosophy is that we will ensure that things are not just decided, they are carried out.
And for this, we have things like post-Cabinet meetings, we have what we call a hands-on government where ministers make sure that decisions are carried out on the ground.
This has ensured an effective government that is able to carry out development and produce results. Perhaps, this might be a useful way for ensuring that Muslim countries also develop in the same way.
The Star, 16/10/2003