Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, known as much for his inflammatory comments as for his transformation of Malaysia’s economy into a regional powerhouse, largely set aside anti-Western rhetoric to discuss economic development on Tuesday in Phnom Penh.
Speaking before Prime Minister Hun Sen, top government officials and businessmen at the inauguration of the Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Center at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Mahathir outlined how he successfully implemented a “Look East Policy” that converted Malaysia from an agricultural to an industrial economy.
“When I became prime minister in 1981, I thought, instead of just looking at the West…we should also look at the East, where there were several countries developing at that time, at a very fast rate,” Mahathir explained.
During his 22 years in office, he said, he learned to use privatization to the government’s advantage, offering subsidies and support for infrastructure projects like highways that the government could not afford to undertake, thereby fostering an economic boom and increasing tax revenues.
Mahathir became animated when an audience member brought up the topic of globalization, which the octogenarian referred to as “gobble-ization.”
“They gobble us up,” he said, warning Cambodians to shield themselves from Western giants.
“They want us to dismantle our borders, they want us to open our market, they want us to dismantle our market. They want us to allow them to come in and out, and they want to do this without any restriction,” Mahathir said. “We have to protect ourselves, but they say protection is wrong.”
Following Mahathir’s speech, Hun Sen spoke about how the “Look East” policy would be applied in Cambodia, noting that regional cooperation could ease Cambodia’s entrance into the world market.
He said that within Asean and the Greater Mekong Subregion, plans to link tourist areas and the service sector, to create joint industrial and production zones and distribution networks and to connect infrastructure could catapult Cambodia forward.
“Japan’s success in the modernization of its economy and society has given [developing nations] hope that underdevelopment is not a ‘disease’ without cure,” Hun Sen said.
“‘Look East’ policy is gathering momentum and is rapidly evolving as a comprehensive umbrella for regional cooperation, for promoting development in the region.”