How about MFN, Dr Mahathir?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 March, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 March, 1994, 12:00am

HERE we have a fine row over British press reports suggesting that a whiff of corruption occasionally hangs over the deeds of the Malaysian Government.

I really wonder how British reporters could have picked up such an idea. All those who know the Malaysian Government are aware of the remarkable standards of probity in that country. And of course the personal purity and poverty of Malaysian politicians are widely-known - this being no doubt the only reason why people rarely bother to report it.

I would like to make it clear from the outset, for the benefit of readers in the Malaysian High Commission, that in this column's view all Muslim politicians are men of unimpeachable integrity, and Datuk Sri Dr Mahathir Mohamad in particular combines Gandhian asceticism with the incorruptibility of Robespierre.

And since Dr Mahathir's personal perfection is perhaps slightly marred by a certain sensitivity to the writings of large, white, more-or-less Christian journalists, let me add that no other resemblance to Robespierre is intended.

Having paid this trifling tribute to the good doctor's probity, statesmanship and many other personal qualities we may perhaps, with the deepest respect, consider a small matter of logic.

About a year ago the doctor, along with a number of other gentlemen of similar unimpeachable integrity and honesty - such as the leaders of Burma, China, Thailand and other enlightened nations - produced a thing called the Bangkok declaration.

The gist of this (a long document) was that Western countries should desist from attempts to impose their own ideas of human rights on Eastern countries where such things as torture, censorship, and arbitrary imprisonment were an important part of local culture.

It all sounded rather like the Spanish defence of bull-fighting. NOW some people have no time for this argument. They say that countries which join the United Nations have agreed to abide by the charter thereof, and it is dishonest to seek exceptions from its human rights provisions after joining.

Some people believe that human rights are a universal value, and that Dr Mahathir was rubbing shoulders in Bangkok with some notorious villains who wished merely to continue their villainy with a minimum of foreign interference.

This is the sort of effete reasoning often found in Western newspapers, and we shall have no truck with it today.

Let us suppose that Dr Mahathir is entirely right in saying that countries should mind their own affairs, that the state of human rights appropriate to one culture is not appropriate to another, and that what goes on in his political paradise is no business of Western do-gooders.

Does it not surely follow that this principle of non-interference should work in both directions? We are enjoined against any interference in the Singapore Government's desire to flog vandals and hang deluded girls caught in transit with heroin hidden in their false bottoms, because this is interference with sovereignty.

An attractive principle, non-interference. Why does it not apply to the British press? The Malaysian press is not free. The reason usually given is to avoid inflaming racial tensions. The foreign press in Singapore is frequently chided, and indeed chastised, for printing anything interesting about Singapore because this is interfering in Singapore affairs. It follows, surely, that it has nothing to do with Malaysia if the British press is not similarly curtailed, in its coverage of Malaysia or indeed in its coverage of Britain. All countries do, as the doctor occasionally observes, have different traditions in these matters.

The British tradition is that the newspapers can print what they like, subject to the right of aggrieved victims to sue them for printing falsehoods.

Now we need not ask Dr Mahathir whether this system would be right for Malaysia, a subject on which his views are well known. But he does not, I suppose, seek to impose on Britain the Malaysian system for regulation of the press.

Yet it is difficult to find any other explanation for a ban on British firms seeking government contracts, which is apparently intended to coerce the press, or the government, or both, into providing the prime minister with the sort of coverage to which he is accustomed at home.

I await Dr Mahathir's contribution to the upcoming MFN debate with extraordinary interest. Something along the lines of not mixing trade matters and politics?