January 16, 2021, 5:50 am
By Bhavan Jaipragas, South China Morning Post
Malaysian elder statesman Mahathir Mohamad, known for his own iconoclasm and strongman leadership during two stints as prime minister, believes the re-election of United States President Donald Trump in November would spell “disaster”.
During a wide-ranging interview with This Week In Asia programme of South China Morning Post focused on his own country’s political turmoil, the 94-year-old former premier also dismissed the Trump administration’s claim that China should take responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic.
Mahathir, who for decades revelled in his reputation as an anti-West champion of developing countries, said the US president’s “belligerence” had exacerbated tensions between the two superpowers.
“I never thought he would win, but he won,” Mahathir said during the interview, conducted via videoconferencing app Zoom. “[Now] people are saying there are a lot of people who would support him. It would be a disaster.”
By comparison, Mahathir said former vice-president Joe Biden, who is the Democratic nominee, was a more “reasonable” figure who had reacted with empathy to America’s recent race-related unrest.
“I don’t know whether he will be re-elected, but I hope Biden will be different from him,” Mahathir said, adding that he had told some Americans “I am voting for Biden [even though] I don’t have the right to vote”.
He conceded his country has endured its fair share of political dysfunction – he was unseated as prime minister in a shock political coup in March – but he remained perplexed by the White House’s revolving door.
“You know, he sacks all the staff that are not for him,” Mahathir said. “It sounds like a Third World country. In Malaysia, probably we do that – we don’t like a staff [member], we sack him. But this is America: very, very liberal and tolerant and things like that.”
Mahathir said he had been observing the nationwide protests in the US that erupted following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. He said he was taken aback by Trump’s purported willingness to deploy active-duty troops against demonstrators.
“I mean, he threatens to use the army against people who are demonstrating,” Mahathir said. “It’s unheard of.”
He added that he was appalled when Trump last week suggested Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old man critically injured by police during a demonstration in Buffalo, could be a saboteur linked to Antifa, a far-left protest movement.
“How can you say that? You must have clear evidence,” Mahathir said. “Was [Gugino] really acting or is it true what happened? The whole press says it’s true what happened.”
Trump and key figures in his administration, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have also accused Beijing of seeking to conceal the extent of the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year. Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, in May likened China’s alleged effort to downplay the severity of the virus to the Soviet Union’s cover-up of the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986.
However, Mahathir, a doctor, defended China’s initial response, although he agreed “in hindsight” the Chinese government could have handled the situation better.
He said: “If this thing happened in Malaysia, and we discovered that somebody is suffering from a strange disease, we don’t go to town and say ‘Oh, there is a strange disease here!’ [The Chinese] are threatened by [the coronavirus]. They have to find out first, and as they are investigating at that stage, they didn’t realise that it is going to result in a pandemic.”
He lauded Malaysia’s own response to the crisis, crediting its relative success to “law-abiding” citizens who largely complied with the strict partial lockdown measures imposed from March 18 until last week.
The so-called Movement Control Order is now being eased in phases, with remaining measures expected to be fully lifted at the end of August.
More than 8,400 people have been infected by the coronavirus in Malaysia, with 85 per cent of patients now discharged. The death toll stands at 120.
Mahathir said Malaysia’s lower infection numbers – compared to the US and various European countries – reflected the “discipline” among the public, which he said was vital to overcoming the public health crisis. He suggested Malaysia’s strict lockdown measures, enforced by the police and military, would not have been tenable in the US.
“This is something that is not possible to do in America,” he said. “In America it is about freedom: ‘You can’t tell me not to come out of my house. That is my freedom … you can’t stop me from demonstrating, that’s my freedom.’
“As you can see now, poor countries seem to escape – it is the rich countries which are suffering more … Like Malaysia, which is poor, but we do have some facilities and we have people who are very law-abiding.”
As for the long-term effects of the pandemic, Mahathir suggested it would further underline the realities of globalisation.
“When they introduced globalisation, a world without borders, they thought only of how they can sell their goods to the whole world,” he said.
“But now they have realised that the world is actually one. In terms of disease, it is actually just one location. You cannot escape, and say ‘well, America has got these very deep moats on the East and the West Pacific Ocean.’
“Now whether you like it or not, there is no way to isolate yourself, you are part of one village … The idea of a global village should not only be in terms of your economic access but also in terms of your need to look after the health of the whole world.”