Twenty-five years since Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s last official visit to Cambodia, the oldest-serving state leader has returned to renew and strengthen relations between the two countries. In an interview with Khmer Times, Mr Mahathir shares his vision for the future direction of bilateral relations, including a focus on increasing trade and investment between the two nations.
KT: It is more than a decade now since your last visit to Cambodia as Prime Minister. What were your views then and how have these views changed today?
Mr Mahathir: There has been a great deal of change, certainly in Phnom Penh. I don’t know about other parts. And the city has grown very fast. Now we have all the modern buildings, etcetera. I still remember the first time I came here was when I was still Prime Minister in ’94, and at that time, there were elephants on the roads. Now there are motorcars, lots of motorcars here. And there is an obvious increase in prosperity in Cambodia.
KT: Some of the leading Malaysian businesses in Cambodia are here because of your “Prosper thy Neighbour” policy. Do you still hold steadfast to this and how can this assist Cambodia moving forward?
Mr Mahathir: Well, we still believe in prospering our neighbours because when neighbours are prosperous, they don’t cause many problems. Otherwise they might want to migrate, etcetera. And of course when they are prosperous, they make good trading partners. So, to the extent that we can help any country, neighbours in particular, become prosperous, that will still be Malaysia’s policy.
At the same time of course, the country themselves wants to grow and to become more prosperous, they want to become the Asian tiger, or become fully developed. But it goes through phases. You have the middle income group. And certainly to become a middle income country is a progress for many countries.
KT: Malaysia and Cambodia both look upon China as an investing giant, especially in reference to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. How can Cambodia complement Malaysia and vice versa in this regard?
Mr Mahathir: China BRI project is something that is important in the sense that it opens up the routes by sea and by land to, basically, to the West, to Europe. So for that, we are fully supportive because Malaysia also wants to use this passage for trade with the East and the West. And it is important of course that these trading passages should be kept open so that more trade would be possible. And then, we’ll have to engage all the countries along the route. So by then, Central Asia is cut off from the sea, but if they have good communications system, then they will also prosper.
KT: How does it feel to be the oldest sitting Prime Minister and one with a long history of service?
Mr Mahathir: I could have been a long serving Prime Minister, but I decided after 22 years it was enough for me. I stepped down. But unfortunately the succeeding government was not very popular. And lots of people asked me to come back. So I am back. Had I not resigned, I would have been a Prime Minister about the same length as the Cambodian Prime Minister.
How does it feel? Well, it’s a great responsibility because the first time I became Prime Minister, the country was in good shape. This time around, the country has been spoiled, financially as well as administratively. I wish I did not have to come back, but it’s a duty.
KT: Cambodia has maintained a steady GDP growth of about seven percent per annum. What would you tell Malaysian businesses looking to invest in Cambodia given the change it has experienced over the past couple of decades?
Mr Mahathir: Malaysian businessmen have been doing quite well here under the system that is practised here. But the system is different from Malaysia. But I have always told Malaysian businessmen that they have to adjust to local conditions, local practices. Looking at the trade war between China and the US, this is very bad. It doesn’t benefit anybody. Everybody will suffer. But for Asean countries, if you work together, we can build a good market for ourselves. And that will mitigate the cost of the results of the trade war.
KT: Malaysia has been one of Cambodia’s closest friends, stretching back to Cambodia’s transitional period in the 1993 elections, providing helicopters to ferry ballot boxes and humanitarian assistance. Has anything changed since then?
Mr Mahathir: Well, I don’t think Cambodia would need such facilities now. But in those days, when Cambodia was just implementing democratic processes, they did not have the means to implement. So at that stage, we needed to help them, and we did. But now I think they are quiet able to manage their own elections.
KT: Is Cambodia still on Malaysia’s radar as a trusted friend and partner in facing regional and geopolitical issues?
Mr Mahathir: Yes, it is very much on Malaysia’s radar. We are concerned about what is happening here. And we think that to the extent that we can, we should help. And certainly, our businesspeople will be encouraged to come here to do business here, but also to think about their responsibility to the Cambodian people.
KT: What would you hope to achieve during this visit and how will this translate to actual results in the years to come?
Mr Mahathir: One thing is to renew the whole relations between us – strengthen that relation – to identify problems and resolve them, and in general, actions in order to prosper both Malaysia and Cambodia.