I am quoting the interview by Malaysia Chronicle with John Mallot, former Ambassador to malaysia whose recent article ” The price of Malaysia’s racism” attracted a lot of attention, and was quoted in this blog a few posts earlier. For the full article of the interview, pls go to Malaysia Chronicle here.
Appended below is the full text of the Q&A conducted through email:
(1) Chronicle: You have been accused of writing your WSJ op-ed for ulterior purposes – spinning was the word DPM Muhyiddin used. Is this true and why?
Malott: I had no ulterior motive. I have been thinking about this subject for a long time, and I wrote the article out of growing concern for Malaysia’s future. I don’t think I was spinning anything. I tried hard to keep it factual. Years ago, when I wrote speeches and memos for the State Department, I learned that you will be challenged, so be sure that you are accurate and can prove everything you say. It is interesting that people say I was spinning or had my facts wrong, but no one has pointed out anything that was incorrect. People can disagree with the analysis and my conclusions, but the examples and statistics I gave are all documented.
It is not at all unusual in the US for former government officials to write or comment on their areas of expertise. When you watch CNN today, there are plenty of former US Ambassadors and State Department officials talking about the situation in Egypt, for example. There is no ulterior motive. They just want to help people to be better informed.
(2) Chronicle: Both the DPM and Ibrahim Ali have accused you of having links or being sponsored by Anwar Ibrahim. Is this true? If not, why do you think they made such conclusions?
Malott: I am not sponsored by Anwar, I do not lobby for him, I am not his advisor, he does not tell me what to think and say, and no one pays me to do what I do. I never consult with him or anyone else before I write about Malaysia. He sees my articles when everyone else does.
My wife and I became close to Anwar’s family after I left the State Department, during the time that Anwar was in jail. We stayed in touch by phone and email, but it was all personal and not political. We wanted them to know that someone cared and that they were not forgotten. I am sure that the Special Branch was monitoring Azizah’s phone and emails, so we would never talk politics. I did not want to put her in a difficult position. We would call up the daughters on their birthdays and send cards and so on. My wife even wrote a book about Azizah, called “Struggle for Justice.”
As most people know, I was very vocal in those days, supporting the call for Anwar’s freedom. As the Ambassador at the time he was arrested and beaten up, I knew what the truth was, and when I became a private citizen in 1999, I decided that I would speak out. To my mind, Anwar was a political prisoner, and I knew that a great injustice had been done. I was not going to remain silent, especially at a time when so many others were afraid to speak up. Nobody could arrest me, because I was in America. I would tell people that my goal was Anwar’s freedom, but it was up to the people of Malaysia what his political future would be.
When I was Ambassador, I knew Anwar only on a professional and official basis, just like the other Ambassadors did. When he came to Washington to be a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown, it was the first time that I got to know him personally. Anwar was traveling a lot in those days, making speeches, so we did not see him as much as we did the family. Sometimes the girls would come over and we would barbeque chicken together, or Hiroko would teach them how to make sushi.
Anwar refers to Hiroko and me as “family friends.” But we have no professional or official relationship with each other. Since some people in Malaysia like to call him an American agent, I think the last thing he would want is to be connected to me in other than a personal way. We are friends, but I do think we share a common vision of Malaysia’s future and the kind of country it could be.
(3) Chronicle: What was the real motivation for your article? Given the responses so far, do you think you have achieved your objective? Did you have an objective when you wrote the story?
Malott: As I said earlier, I am very concerned about developments in Malaysia. The growing racial and religious tensions are one part of that. I had something that I wanted to say, and I said it. I also think that the Malaysian economy should be growing faster than it is, that its competitiveness is declining, and it is losing its attractiveness for foreign investors.
If anyone is spinning today, it is the Malaysian Government. There are few foreign experts on Malaysia, and it is rare for the foreign press to report on Malaysian developments. I thought it was important for people outside Malaysia to know that there is a real gap between the image they are trying to convey overseas and the reality on the ground. There are religious and racial tensions in every country, but I wanted people to know that in the case of Malaysia, the Government itself is condoning and even provoking those tensions. Even today I read that the Government’s Islamic Affairs Department wants to ban Valentine’s Day because it is a Christian celebration. I don’t know any Christian who thinks that Valentine’s Day – exchanging cards or giving someone chocolate — is a religious ritual.
I have been surprised by the positive reaction to the article. It has gotten more attention than anything I have ever written. And I am very pleased to see so many Malaysians engage in a good discussion of the issues in the comments sections. Of course there are a few cybertroopers who are bashing me, but just like Ibrahim Ali, they just rant and rave and call names, but they don’t have anything to say about the substance of the issue, and they can’t point out anything that is incorrect.
(4) Chronicle: Some commentators have said you wrote from the point of view of only the non-Malays and did not take into account the sensitivities and struggles of the Malays? Do you think there is some basis to this view and why?
Malott: I agree with criticism that I did not focus on the attitudes that some Chinese and Indians have towards Malays. But that is all at the private level. We cannot stop people from believing what they believe. But what I was talking about, and the examples I gave, were the words and actions of the Government and its senior officials. They were not speaking as individuals or like a “man on the street.” They are the Government. In addition, the government, as a matter of policy, has institutionalized some forms of discrimination, like the two examples I gave — the 30% set-aside for stock and housing discounts.
Toward the end of the article, I pointed out that there are now two clear and different visions of Malaysia’s future – are we a Malaysian country or a Malay country. Those differing views are also held within the Malay community. In a way Mahathir represents both views. Years ago he was Mr. Bangsa Malaysia, and now he talks about Tanah Melayu.
When I read the comments on the different websites, I saw that there were many Malays who wanted me to know that it was not just Chinese and Indians who are leaving the country, but also Malays who feel that their personal future is bleak. But I don’t know whether that is because of the economic slowdown, or because getting ahead is still all about connections and who you know rather than what you know, or because they side with the opposition and not the Government.
As for the struggle and sensitivities of the Malays, I have been following that discussion. But it seems that just as not everyone can agree on Malaysia’s future, people also cannot agree on Malaysia’s past. I don’t think I could contribute much by jumping into that kind of internal discussion. I am not an expert on that part of Malaysia’s history.
(5) Chronicle: Given the feedback that you have received in the past two days, do you still stand by your story and would you retract any particular part or make any amendments?
Malott: No, I am very happy with the article. I would not take out or change anything. Like any op-ed, there is a limit on the number of words you can write. In some places I wish I could have said more, but there wasn’t enough space.
I saw that the New Straits Times had an op-ed criticising what I wrote. I read it three times but still don’t understand what the writer was trying to say. But I did send an email to them saying I would be happy to write an op-ed for them, explaining my views. Of course, I am sure they will never agree. But I do feel like I would like to say something more on this subject, at the right time. I already have a title in mind – “There Once Was a Dream Called Malaysia” – that’s a takeoff from the movie “The Gladiator.” But the editors always write the titles, not the author. The editor at the AWSJ wrote the title over my op-ed. I thought he summed up the article very well. There will be a price to pay if the Government doesn’t change its actions.
(6) Chronicle: You spent several years in Malaysia and we understand you keep very close contact with the country and the developments in the neighboring nations as well. What sort of immediate political future do you see for Malaysia when the next GE takes place? Who do you think will win? Also, a lot of people have predicted Egypt and Tunisia scenarios happening here, do you think so?
Malott: There is an American baseball player, Yogi Berra, who is famous for saying, “I never make predictions, especially about the future.” There also is another saying, “a week is a lifetime in politics,” meaning that things can change very rapidly. So I really don’t want to predict the outcome.
I think that BN and PR present very clear alternatives for Malaysia’s future. Even between the two Malay parties, UMNO and PAS, I think there is a clear difference. All Malays are Muslims, but I think UMNO is more about race and being Malay, and PAS is more about being Muslim. Race is the starting point for UMNO, while Islam is the starting point for PAS.
Malaysia now has a credible opposition for the first time in its history. I think the Malaysian people will be given a real choice about their country’s direction. It is up to the Malaysian people to choose.
As an outsider, my concern is that the elections should be fair. I have seen and studied elections in many countries. I think it is hard for the opposition in Malaysia, because they have to campaign with one hand tied behind their back. The Government controls the airwaves, and opposition newspapers cannot be sold to the general public. The police can deny permits or harass political gatherings, as we have seen. The Election Commission is not truly independent, and so on.
I don’t see a Tunisia or Egypt scenario playing out in Malaysia. In general I think Malaysians are a very patient lot, and other than 1969 there is no real history of political violence. If anything starts to happen, I think the RMP would not hesitate to crack down, as they have in the past.
(7) Chronicle: Lastly, could you tell us if you hold any official role currently?
Malott: No, I do not hold any official government position. I left the State Department in 1999, and I don’t have any intention or desire to return to government. I am happy with what I am doing today.
(John Malott, who was U.S. ambassador to Malaysia from 1995 to 1998, is now the President and CEO of the Japan-America Society of Washington DC)