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Interview

Mahathir on Biden and China: It 'couldn't be worse' than Trump

95-year-old talks APEC, Twitter controversy and Malaysia's next election

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks with Nikkei Asia in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo by Wong Ying Xian)

KUALA LUMPUR -- U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will take a "more rational" approach to China, benefiting smaller Asian economies, two-time former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad predicted in an exclusive interview with Nikkei Asia.

Mahathir, 95, has long been a vocal critic of the U.S., especially over American support for Israel versus the Palestinians. But in Biden, he sees a man ready to rebuild ties that he says were damaged under President Donald Trump.

The next presidency "couldn't be worse than Trump," Mahathir said. "Under Trump, relationships between countries were totally destroyed as he quarreled with China, Europe, Mexico and even with Canada."

The veteran politician said there is no escaping the fact that China's prosperity is vital for Asia's overall growth, especially less-developed economies. "Biden would have to have some normalization in the relationship with China, as it's very important to us," he said.

Mahathir was Malaysia's leader for a combined 24 years, including a roughly two-year stint that ended in February with an internal coup led by current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. In the interview, he touched on everything from Malaysia's turn as host of Friday's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting, to his own recent controversial comments on terrorism and his potential role in the next Malaysian election.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks to reporters on Nov. 19.   © Reuters

Before Muhyiddin's takeover, Mahathir had been determined to host APEC himself before transferring power to foe-turned-ally Anwar Ibrahim. This would have made him the only world leader to have chaired APEC twice.

Instead, he could only offer advice from the sidelines, stressing the need for ways to quickly address the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and increase worker productivity. "One thing about the pandemic is that it stops people from working and when people don't work, they are not productive and do not contribute to the economy."

As host, Mahathir stressed Malaysia needs to make concrete proposals while it has the world's attention. "You can be a chair, but if you come to the meeting without some ideas on how to make use of this collaboration, then the APEC will yield nothing and be good for nobody," he said.

Mahathir himself attracted the international spotlight recently for a very different reason -- a series of tweets in reaction to Islamist militant attacks in France and the government's response. He wrote that Muslims have a right to "kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past."

Mahathir, who has a history of incendiary statements, including calling Jews "hook-nosed," was quickly accused of promoting violence. Twitter deleted the post. But Mahathir insisted his remarks had been taken out of context, and he told Nikkei Asia that he has no regrets.

"What I said, I stand by, but what they interpret is their business, that was done deliberately," he said. "They just want to blackmail and demonize me. I've been fighting against war and terrorists for the longest time."

Now he is gearing up for his next political fight, as speculation swirls that Muhyiddin may call an election once an ongoing wave of COVID-19 infections subsides. Mahathir said he intends to present a "third force" that "might not be big, but can be the deciding factor."

"Our experience is that although a party is small, when there are clashes between giants and none of them succeed, there is a role for a third force to determine which of the two should win."

This force is likely to comprise his new political outfit, the Homeland Fighters' Party, and some other Mahathir loyalists.

He ruled out cooperation with the current ruling parties -- Muhyiddin's Malaysian United Indigenous Party, the United Malays National Organization of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, and the Malaysian Islamic Party.

Anwar Ibrahim, left, now Malaysia's opposition leader, and Mahathir attend a news conference in November 2019.   © Reuters

On Anwar -- who leads the opposition but says he has parliamentary support to become premier -- Mahathir said it was his former protege who rejected a partnership after the change of government in March.

Mahathir said he had been willing to work with Anwar again for the country's sake. He said that was conditional, in part, upon him returning as prime minister for six months before handing the reins to Anwar.

Anwar "did not agree to this and ignored the fact that I can bring the support of the Malays to the coalition," he said.

In the next election, Mahathir said he does not intend to run, but said his supporters might force him to do so for name recognition.

"I've already stepped back, but people still come and consult me," he said. "If the party says I need to be a part of the leadership, I don't think I can just dismiss them, that's why I'm still active. But of course, for me, being active is very important for my health."

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