In an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post this week, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad opened up about relations with China and his ideas for getting his country going again. But he deflected questions on whether he wants to stay on as premier beyond the two years he has promised to stay in office. Below is an excerpt of the interview at his Putrajaya office.

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Q: Selamat Hari Raya. We hear you had a big Hari Raya celebration (to mark the end of Ramadan) at your house?

A: ​Thank you. Yes, 80,000 people. I shook hands with nearly 50,000.

ON CHINA AND JACK MA

Q: What do you think about China?

A: We have always been in contact with China. In fact, during my time, we developed a very good relationship with China. We sometimes become a spokesman for China, because everywhere I go, people ask me ‘What do you think about China? Aren’t you afraid?’ I say, ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ We have been neighbours for 2,000 years. You haven’t conquered us yet. But the Portuguese came here in 1509. Two years later they came and conquered us. So I always tell that story whenever they ask. I have always regarded China as a good neighbour, and also as a very big market for whatever it is that we produce. Malaysia is a trading nation. We need markets, so we can’t quarrel with such a big market.

I have always regarded China as a good neighbour … we can’t quarrel with such a big market

Q: Some say you’re anti-China. Are you?

A: There are certain things, of course, which were done which were not to Malaysia’s advantage or even good for Malaysia. We welcome foreign direct investment, from anywhere, certainly from China. But when it involves giving contracts to China, borrowing huge sums of money from China, and the contract goes to China, and China contractors prefer to use their own workers from China, use everything imported from China, even the payment is not made here, it’s made in China. So, we gain nothing at all. That kind of contract is not something that I welcome.

Nothing to fear from China, says Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad

The other thing is that they develop whole cities, very sophisticated, very expensive cities, which Malaysians cannot buy. So they are going to bring foreigners to live in those cities. Now, no country in the world will accept a lot of immigrants coming into the country. You see that in America, you see that in Europe, anywhere. So we don’t want to have whole cities built in Malaysia, have them purchase a big piece of Malaysian land, and then bring in foreigners to stay there. That is what I am against. I am against it even if it is from India or from Arab countries or from Europe. Foreign immigrants in huge numbers – nobody will welcome, certainly not in Malaysia.

WATCH: Malaysian Prime Minister says he is not anti-China

But otherwise, when foreign investment and the ideas that Mr Jack Ma was talking about – he wants to train Malaysians, he wants Malaysians to do business, he wants to urge Malaysians to market in China – that’s fine. China already has 300 million middle class people. It’s a big market. He says if everything is manufactured in China, China will become polluted. So his way of talking and presenting his case is totally different from the other Chinese big contractors who want only a contract here, and are not even hiring the workers; the workers are all imported from China. That is not welcome.

Q: What specific Chinese investments will you welcome?

A: Certainly what Mr Jack Ma was [talking about] is the kind of Chinese investment we want. And we welcome foreign investment from any country, so long as they bring in the capital, they bring in the technology, they set up plants here, and they employ Malaysians, from workers to engineers, they employ Malaysians and they produce goods for the domestic market, and for export. That we welcome, coming from anywhere, China or Russia or Britain or France or America. That is what we would like. I think Mr Jack Ma’s idea, Alibaba’s idea, is what we want. He wants to train Malaysians to produce things to be exported to China.

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Q: You masterminded Malaysia’s multimedia super corridor in the ‘90s. Is it worth revisiting?

A: I was surprised that Mr Jack Ma knows about the multimedia super corridor and he has good words to say about the multimedia super corridor. But during the last decade or so, there was no focus on fulfilling the plans for the super corridor.

We wanted to bring in IT industries. But now it has become just an ordinary development with a lot of houses and things like that. It’s no longer an IT city. We want to bring that back and, hopefully, with the help of Chinese entrepreneurs like Mr Jack Ma, we will be able to once again go back to the idea that the multimedia super corridor will be a place where new ideas, new innovations are carried out in the fields of IT and electronics and the like.

Q: What are your impressions of Jack Ma? How will Malaysia forge relations with China and with President Xi Jinping?

A: Jack Ma understands IT more than I think anybody else who has spoken to me. He sees a lot of ideas, a lot of new industries, based on his new technology, IT and computing etc. He talks a lot about cloud computing, for example, something that we still do not fully understand. So his ideas are ahead of the times when compared to many other people’s. And he has many ideas, including how to teach people in school. I spoke to him about that and Malaysia’s needs and he said it can be done immediately. So he has a total grasp of the new industries based on IT. And he is suggesting that we should exchange views and learn from China, about the cashless society, the avoidance of corruption and other things. In this, he has a good word to say about President Xi Jinping. And he thinks that it will be useful for me to visit China, and I will do that, and I think what he is doing in his own city, is something that people must see. I must see, because I think I can learn a lot from him. I have never felt any fear of China because as I said just now they never conquered us. But I think we will try and enhance the good relations with China.

Jack Ma’s ideas are ahead of the times

Q: Can Malaysia benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative?

A: I suggested long ago improving the Silk Road. You see, when ships had to carry a lot of oil, ships would be built bigger and bigger … 500,000 tonnes, but the trains would remain the same size so I wrote a letter to Xi Jinping, suggesting he build a super train, maybe one and a half times the size, have longer trains that can cross from China to Europe because the technology is now available.

And then of course he came up with the One Belt, One Road idea, [which includes a] sea route to Europe. Of course, the sea is very important but I am quite sure it is not his intention to prevent other ships from passing through the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea.

We need to have open passage for all ships because we trade with all nations so we need the sea to be open to everybody and we don’t need to create tensions by having battleships and all that there.

But you need to have small boats to make sure the sea is safe from pirates and that the countries in Southeast Asia and China and other countries in the East can cooperate to keep the seas safe for the ships to pass through. So that is our idea and we are not against the One Belt, One Road idea but it must also be open to all the shipping in the world.

We need the sea to be open to everybody and we don’t need to create tensions by having battleships and all that there

ON THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

Q: What’s your view on the South China Sea dispute and Malaysia’s claims?

A: In the past, [our view was that] the shelf in the sea and the area less than 200 miles from our shores … [was] our sea. So we find that, in that sea, there are certain rocks which we have developed into islands. And we hope that we will stay on those islands, because it is a part of our keeping the sea safe from pirates and others.

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So we want to retain, of course, about four or five islands that we have occupied. The rest – whoever thinks it is theirs, they can occupy. It is something if China claims the South China Sea is theirs, but those islands have always been regarded as ours for a long time. So we want to retain them.

Q: What’s the best way to keep peace in the South China Sea?

A: I think there should not be too many warships. Warships create tension. Someday, somebody might make some mistakes and there will be a fight, some ships will be lost, and there might even be a war. We don’t want that. What we want is for the seas to be patrolled by small patrol boats, equipped to deal with pirates, not to fight another war.

Q: Are these small boats to be part of an Asean-wide collaboration?

A: Asean, certainly, because the whole sea is surrounded by Asean countries. But if China wants to participate with small boats, they are welcome. Anybody, even the US, if they want to participate, but don’t bring battleships here.

Q: Will China keep the seas open?

A: I think it is to the benefit of China to have the seas open, because then, there will be more trade. You can’t expect all the goods going to China to change into Chinese ships before entering the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. Goods from Europe and America, they will pass through the Strait of Malacca, and they should be free to pass through the Strait of Malacca, and then go to the South China Sea to reach China. You can’t expect an oil tanker belonging to the Americans to stop and pump the oil out into Chinese ships, I mean, that’s ridiculous. The sea must always be open.

We have the Strait of Malacca, which is a very narrow strait, only 20 miles wide, and it’s quite shallow. We have never tried to stop ships from passing through. They are welcomed. Although between Malaysia and Indonesia, we could have named this Strait of Malacca ‘the Malaysia-Indonesia Sea’, we didn’t. We want it to be open because it’s good for trade. The South China Sea also is good for trading nations.

ON US-CHINA TRADE WAR

Q: How will the mounting US-China trade war affect the region?

A: I think any idea that you can protect through threats of war is wrong. War doesn’t solve any problem, it creates problems, it kills people and destroys the whole of civilisation. If ever there is a war, then I think not only will China and US suffer, the whole world will also suffer. So we should think in terms of making the sea safe, not to have confrontations between Chinese battleships and aircraft carriers and American battleships and aircraft carriers, each trying to beat each other, building bigger and bigger … and wasting a lot of money.

Nowadays, to buy an aeroplane is not cheap. At one time, an aeroplane like a Spitfire cost one million ringgit only. Today one plane costs 200 million ringgit (US$50 million). We can’t afford those kinds of things. So the lower production of weapons is something that is good for the economy of the world. Of course weapons traders will not be happy, the weapons producers will not be happy, but they will soon make use of their facilities to produce peaceful tools.

War doesn’t solve any problem, it creates problems

ON MALAYSIAN POLITICS

Q: A recent survey showed the Malay vote is split three ways, between your Pakatan Harapan, Malay-based Umno and Islamic party, PAS? How can Pakatan gain Malay votes?

A: In the 13th general election, Malay votes did not go at all to the opposition. In the 14th general election, a certain number, a sufficient number of Malay votes went to the opposition to give them the victory. So there is a swing among the Malays. But the Malays are divided into three: urban, very sophisticated people, very liberal people, suburban, and then rural, deep rural. In the deep rural area, they go only by loyalty to the party. They don’t care about what is happening and maybe they don’t understand what is happening. But in the urban area, suburban area, these people know the wrong things done by the government and they turned against the government. It is their vote that gave us the victory. But the rural voters still need a lot of explanations.

WATCH: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir says perception of the government divides Malays

They understand high cost of living, but they don’t understand one trillion ringgit. What is one trillion ringgit? A lot of zeros. Twelve zeros. It’s not easy for them to understand. (Editor’s Note: One trillion ringgit is the amount of debt racked up by former premier Najib’s government, according to Mahathir’s administration.) So they don’t care. They believe all governments are corrupt anyway. So I would have been very corrupt also when I was in the government. That’s their perception of things. So perception is what divides the Malays – rural, suburban and urban.

Q: What can Pakatan do in future without the Tun Mahathir factor helping them?

A: Well, I can’t always be popular. One day I will become unpopular because when you are in the government, you have to do unpopular things. So that is not something permanent. But at the moment of course, by comparison, with my period and Najib’s period, they prefer the life that they led during my time.

Q: When can we expect charges over the 1MDB saga?

A: We know 1MDB has a very big scandal. We know that money has been stolen, we know that we have lost billions of ringgit, that we know. But we go to a court of law, you have to come with evidence that cannot be disputed. So the prosecutors now are gathering that evidence so that when they go to the court of law, the judges don’t base their judgment on sentiment, they base their judgment on facts and evidence shown in the court of law. So that is why we are taking a little bit more time than we expected.

1MDB probe needs time to be watertight: Malaysia’s Mahathir

Q: Any timeline?

A: I wouldn’t know. These are done by other people.

Q: Where do you get your energy?

A: I get asked this question everywhere I go. Fortunately I don’t suffer from such diseases as cancer, although my heart has gone through two operations. But I think simple things like not putting on weight, not eating too much, proper sleep, a little bit of exercise.

Q: How much sleep do you get?

A: Enough. About six hours.

Q: You have a lot to accomplish within the two years you have set for yourself as prime minister. Do you think you can do it?

A: Well, I hope I can. I will try.

After Anwar’s pardon, when will Mahathir let him take power?

Q: Will you stay beyond two years?

A: Well, I don’t know whether people will permit me to stay longer.

Q: Will you want to?

A: If there is some work I can still do, if I am still healthy, I can think and talk.

Jack Ma is the co-founder and chairman of Alibaba Group, which owns the South China Morning Post.