NEW YORK -- Accompanied by security agents in black suits, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad walked into the conference room, smiling at everyone. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Thursday, Mahathir shared his feelings on being prime minister again.
"I was the only 'dictator' that resigned," Mahathir joked, referring to critics who labeled him a dictator when he first held office from 1981 to 2003. The 94-year-old leader said he has returned to put Malaysia on the right track.
Mahathir, in town for the United Nations General Assembly this week, was invited to speak at the council. The event on the Upper East Side was moderated by Christopher Hill, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state focusing on Asia.
The conversation quickly turned to Malaysia's relationship with China -- specifically, the Belt and Road Initiative. Before Mahathir took office in May 2018, he criticized predecessor Najib Razak as selling out to Beijing to build costly infrastructure financed by loans under the Belt and Road. But he has warmed to China.
"We are forced to, because we just couldn't afford it. We have to do something about it," Mahathir said of working with China to build infrastructure in Malaysia.
"Our approach is to save our finances," he said. "We cannot afford to build these very expensive railway lines. Whether we like it or not, we have to go to the Chinese and appeal to them, point out that we are ready to partner and, in the end, I think they will consider that the best way out is to somewhat reduce the cost."
In June 2018, Mahathir suspended the 688 km East Coast Rail Link project, along with two planned gas pipelines that also were backed by China. He said the terms were unfavorable to Malaysia.
Since then, Mahathir has praised the ECRL deal and renegotiated the construction of the rail link, with the price slashed by $5 billion from the original $16.4 billion plan. The new deal was made possible after the original line was shortened to 640 km by avoiding the construction of a tunnel. Both countries agreed to operate the line jointly as part of the deal.
China's ambitious Belt and Road projects have drawn scrutiny from the West. Critics accuse Beijing of creating "debt traps" for partner countries in order to serve Chinese political purposes rather than bolster communities. China has tried to ease these concerns by highlighting the quality and benefits of these projects, as well as the international cooperation.
Southeast Asian countries need to work with Beijing, Mahathir said.
"We all realize that we have to deal with China jointly, because that gives us more strength," he said. "We are not really strong enough to tell the Chinese, 'No, you should not do this kind of thing, it is the international law,' or whatever."
Though Beijing has made territorial claims in the South China Sea, Mahathir said, the government is not very aggressive at present as China wants support from Southeast Asian countries.
The prime minister discussed other issues as well, including civil servant capacity in Malaysia and affirmative action policy in the country.
The nonagenarian leader also gave lifestyle advice at the end of the event.
"Not to eat too much. To live, and not to live to eat," he said. "The brain and the muscle must always be used. So be active and, I think, you may survive to 94."