War shattered Malaysia's illusion of 'white superiority': Mahathir


KUALA LUMPUR - On the day "the bomb" was dropped on Hiroshima, we got the news. Although [it was] controlled by the Japanese military at the time, we got the news - because some people kept radios and listened to outside broadcasts. I thought this event would end the war and the Japanese would be defeated. It was shortly after this that Japan surrendered.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and also raided the peninsula of Malaysia, we felt it would never win, because we believed that Britain was very powerful. I was convinced that Britain would return, especially as the US had entered the war. We knew the US was very powerful.

[But] we saw them retreating before the Japanese invasion. And of course, we were very surprised that they [would do this] right in front of our eyes. Eventually, the whole of the peninsula was occupied by Japanese armed forces.

I learnt many things from the Japanese invasion. One thing is that white people can also be defeated. We saw them retreating when the Japanese invaded. We used to look up to [them]. We thought that they were very powerful and nobody could defeat them. But the Japanese proved otherwise.

We weren't happy with the Japanese invasion. Most of the population were quite happy to live under British rule ... and seemed to think they had good lives. During the war there wasn't enough food, and also lots of [other] things that we were used to having available. And so we felt that if the British returned, we would live good lives again.

I missed my English school, because at the time the war broke I had taken an examination set by Cambridge University. But I didn't get the result. I [also] went to a Japanese school, but mostly we learnt only the language and not other subjects. I was there for quite some time. I was the "fukucho" [vice class president] and another man was the "kimicho" [class president]. So I was number two. And I learnt how to do radio taiso [exercises].

My father was an unpaid pensioner, so I decided to earn a living by opening a small restaurant, and I [also] worked in a weekly market selling bananas and things.

We were quite happy when Britain returned. But they proposed making the whole country an appendix of its colony ... We thought that we would continue to be a British protectorate. But they stated that they wanted to [colonize us], that all the powers of Sultan would be removed and that there would be no local political party.

At that stage, as a schoolboy, I became involved in politics. I was fighting firstly for defeating the British plan, which was to [render] Malaysia ... completely under British rule. We objected to that. We wanted to continue as a British protectorate.

After we defeated the British plan, they allowed the formation of local politics. [But] as a schoolboy, nobody listened to me when I talked about politics. I thought that if I had a university degree, people would show me more respect. I decided that I must obtain a university scholarship [and received one] to study in Singapore after I finished school. It wasn't my choice [of subject], but I went to study medicine in 1947.

After graduation, Mahathir became a medical practitioner and was also active in politics, joining the movement for Malaysian independence. The Federation of Malaya achieved its goal of independence in 1957 and became the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.

In 1961, I closed my clinic for two weeks and visited Japan. I saw how the Japanese were working. They were building a highway to Haneda for the Olympics. The Takeda Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. [now Takeda Pharmaceutical Co.] hosted me and showed me [various] Japanese industries. I visited Matsushita (now Panasonic Corp.), a glass factory and many others. They were working very hard; I admired them. I thought the Japanese were good at management [and] I forgot the war. [I felt that] we had to learn something from the Japanese.

Mahathir was elected to the House of Representatives in 1964 and became prime minister of Malaysia in 1981.

By the time I became PM I had already been minister of education and minister of trade and industry. During those periods I visited Japan several times. And I looked at how they were rebuilding.

I learnt how the Japanese worked and we followed Japanese work ethics, [such as] loyalty to the company. I read [the cofounder of Sony Corp.] Akio Morita's book about how Japanese workers after the war would eat bowls of rice and some soy sauce.

As PM, I had the authority to make use of my observations and help Malaysia grow. I found the best way was to copy Japan. You lost the war but you rebuilt your economy. You must be doing something right. We introduced a "Look East" policy to learn from Japan. At that time Japan was growing rapidly. I saw Japan rebuilding.

We don't want to copy the British or American way. We will never grow if we copy them. We think America [and] Britain have forgotten how to manage economic growth. Also, British workers and [other] Western workers have become very lazy.

They go on strikes and demand higher pay. But productivity doesn't increase.

Firstly, many people were unemployed. We wanted more jobs but we had no industry, no technology, no capital and no knowledge of the market. So we invited foreign companies to come here to start creating jobs for our people. And among the first companies to come was Matsushita.

[Matsushita] started doing assembly work and created a lot of jobs. After that we encouraged more companies to come and offered them tax-free holidays. Foreign investments helped the economy grow. And it grew and grew. The local people also learnt how to grow the economy.

Mahathir served as prime minister for 22 years and successfully oversaw the modernization of Malaysia.

[Modernizing] was very simple. You have to provide a good government. You have to stabilize the country. And you have to be friendly towards business.

Only these three things. The government must be fair to everyone and rule through the laws of the country. [And] you have to be very business-friendly, because you want them to come.

We are very disturbed by the [friction] between China and Japan. All these [issues] should be settled either through negotiations, arbitration or code of law.

China knows it can only grow and prosper in peace. In war you can never be certain you will win. I think even China doesn't like war. But when you start threatening China by joining America, what will the Chinese do? They prepare for defense. So now they are building battleships because you are threatening them. When you see them building, you also build. So in the end, what will happen? You spend so much money. The problem is still there.

Going to war is wasteful - even if you win you don't gain anything. With international relationships, you must not fight.

Rich China will have an influence everywhere. We have to accept that. This is the situation. If you try to stop China, you have to contain China. [And its] reaction would be to fight. So let us think about taking advantage of China's wealth so that we can grow together.

Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer Tetsuya Tsuruhara conducted the interview.

■ Mahathir Mohamad

Mahathir was born in 1925 in the state of Kedah in British Malaya. He became the fourth prime minister of Malaysia in 1981 and helped bring about the economic development of the country during his time in office. Mahathir believes the style of democracy employed in the United States and Europe is not suited to Asian countries. He is currently the honorary president of the Perdana Leadership Foundation, which compiles and disseminates information regarding the former prime ministers of Malaysia. He likes historical novels.