IT has been obvious for some time that the comments of Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, on matters relating to India have upset the Narendra Modi government. Ever since the multiparty coalition led by the veteran politician scored an upset victory in the Malaysian general election two years ago, it has not been business as usual in Kuala Lumpur. The new Mahathir Mohamad-led government has been implementing an assertive foreign policy even against powerful and influential countries. He renegotiated the previous government’s trade deals with China and even took a tough stance on the South China Sea dispute, reasserting Malaysia’s claim with greater vigour.
Mahathir Mohamad has called a spade a spade during his long stint in the political limelight. The 94-year-old, who came out of retirement to defeat the “Barisan Nasional” government that had been in power since Malaysia gained Independence, has never shied away from voicing his opinions, whether in or out of power. He is a vocal critic of the United States’ policies in West Asia, and has few nice things to say about U.S. President Donald Trump. He has refused to meet Trump on his visits to the U.S.
Unlike his Indian counterpart and most other world leaders, he condemned the “immoral” killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, called it a violation of international law and compared it with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Malaysian Prime Minister has angered the Saudi monarchy in many other ways too. His government highlighted how Saudis and Emiratis helped the previous government cover up the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, one of the biggest corruption deals in modern history. In a speech delivered at the United Nations in 2018, he blamed the creation of Israel as the root cause for the spread of terrorism and the anti-Islamic sentiment being fuelled across the world.
In December 2019, the Indian government imposed a de facto ban on the import of Malaysian palm oil. Private importers were “unofficially” told to stop placing orders by November last year. At the beginning of the year, the government officially announced that it would stop the import of palm oil from Malaysia. There is no official ban on imports, but the government has shifted palm oil from the “free” to the “restricted” list. Importers have to get government permission to source palm oil from Malaysia. India is the biggest importer of edible oils, and Malaysia is the main supplier of palm oil to India.
Other countries have also been affected by the Indian government’s decision. Malaysian palm oil is refined in large quantities in Nepal and exported to India. Nepal, too, will be affected by the de facto Indian ban on Malaysian palm oil. The Modi government’s decision followed Mahathir Mohamad’s biting comments on Kashmir and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). On the CAA, he said that he was “sorry to see that India, which claims to be a secular state, is now taking action to deprive some Muslims of their citizenship”. The Indian government lodged a formal protest against the remarks, stating that it went against the accepted diplomatic practice of “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs”.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Delhi has been upset with Mahathir Mohamad almost since the new government took over in Kuala Lumpur. The Indian Islamic tele-evangelist Zakir Naik was given asylum in Malaysia in 2018 despite the Indian government’s objections. Naik is wanted by the Indian government for alleged money laundering and “hate speech”. The Malaysian government is of the view that the controversial Muslim preacher will not be able to get a fair trial because of the political environment prevailing in India.
Mahathir Mohamad acknowledged that the Indian move to stop palm oil imports would have an adverse impact on the country’s economy as India was one of Malaysia’s biggest customers. “We’re concerned of course, because we sell a lot of palm oil to India.... We need to be frank, but when something goes wrong we need to say it,” Mahathir Mohamad said. “The fact is, what’s happening in India today is causing a lot of unhappiness among the people there, and the whole world feels that it is wrong to discriminate against others.”
Mahathir Mohamad had threatened to hit back at the U.S. when the Trump administration threatened to reduce drastically palm oil imports from Malaysia. “If you cut down on palm oil imports from Malaysia, we will cut down on some of our imports from you,” he warned. “Equal amount. We will do exactly what Trump does. Not a very nice man, but he does things and we can learn things from people who aren’t so nice,” he had said. He also insisted that the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should act as a bloc in such circumstances and retaliate with countermeasures.
Malaysia may retaliate if India is unrelenting in its decision to stop the import of palm oil. Mahathir Mohamad’s media adviser has called for tighter regulations for Indians working in the country and a reciprocal ban on the import of Indian products. The Malaysian government, however, has said that it wants a diplomatic solution to the issue. The Indian government indicated in the third week of January that it too wanted to de-escalate the rising tensions with Malaysia. More than 100,000 Indians are employed in Malaysia, constituting more than 6 per cent of the foreign workforce.
The Indian government seems to be emulating the Trump administration by imposing sanctions on countries that dare criticise its policies. But more world leaders are beginning to speak up. Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladesh Prime Minister, is the latest to join the chorus. Speaking to a West Asian newspaper, she said the CAA was “not necessary” and questioned the logic behind the move. Top officials of the Bangladesh government, including the Foreign Minister, have cancelled their visits to India in the aftermath of the anti-CAA agitations.
Mahathir Mohamad was, of course, among the first to raise his voice. He had said in September that India had “invaded and occupied” Kashmir. He was joined by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said that India had virtually imposed “a blockade” on Kashmiris. In December, he followed up by stating that the CAA was a discriminatory act. “To exclude Muslims from becoming citizens, even by due process, I think is unfair,” he told the media in December.
The Indian government has also sought to penalise Turkey by not allowing it to bid for construction contracts. Mahathir Mohamad, along with Erdogan and the Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan, had in fact agreed to organise a “global Islamic forum” to highlight the major issues facing the Islamic community worldwide, including in Palestine and Kashmir.
Many Muslim countries are disillusioned with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which claims to speak on behalf of the Muslim world and is under the control of the rich Arab monarchies. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been noticeably silent on the Kashmir issue, much to the chagrin of Pakistan. Under pressure from the two governments, Imran Khan cancelled his visit to the Islamic Forum meeting in Kuala Lumpur in December at the eleventh hour even though Kashmir was sought to be highlighted. Erdogan said that the Saudis had threatened to withdraw their financial backing to Pakistan and send back the large numbers of Pakistanis working in the kingdom.
Indonesia, too, succumbed to pressure from the Arab monarchies and excused itself from the three-day meet at the last minute. Besides Erdogan, the other heads of state who attended the Kuala Lumpur meet included President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
With Pakistan absent, the Kashmir issue was put on the back burner during the three-day meeting. The Saudi king, during his phone call to Imran Khan to dissuade him from going to Kuala Lumpur, said that important issues confronting the Islamic world, including the Kashmir issue, should be discussed only under the auspices of the OIC. The OIC finally announced recently that the Kashmir issue would be part of the agenda during a ministerial-level OIC meeting in April.
This announcement followed the hurried visit of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud to Islamabad in the third week of December. He assured the Pakistani government of Saudi Arabia’s “steadfast support to Pakistan’s core national interests”. The OIC ministerial meeting, according to reports, will also discuss the CAA.
After he retired as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad took it upon himself to mobilise public opinion in the global South against the U.S. war machine, perpetually on the rampage. He set up the Kuala Lumpur Foundation to criminalise war. In 2003, while addressing the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Kuala Lumpur, he specifically pointed out the dangers of one nation abrogating to itself the powers of waging war. “War must be outlawed. That will have to be our struggle for now,” Mahathir Mohamad said. “No single nation should be allowed to police the world, least of all to decide what action to take, and when.” Within weeks of his speech, the U.S. invaded Iraq.
Mahathir Mohamad, after leaving the Prime Minister’s office, was instrumental in setting up the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal in 2009 to try the perpetrators of the war. The tribunal consisted of five judges with a background in international jurisprudence. The prosecution was headed by two eminent legal luminaries. The defence was given an opportunity to present their case. Not surprisingly, the U.S and the British governments did not cooperate with the tribunal. The tribunal, after hearing the prosecution lawyers for over four days, ruled that George W. Bush and Tony Blair were guilty of serious war crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity.