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Malaysia in transition

Mahathir eyes Japan-style self-defense force

Malaysian leader sees neutrality as only defense against big powers

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad spoke at a number of think tank events during his week in New York. Photo by Don Pollard for Council on Foreign Relations.

NEW YORK -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Friday that he is considering joining Japan in restricting the nation's military to self-defense-only capabilities.

"We are thinking about following Japan's current constitution, which does not allow" that country to go to war, Mahathir told a news conference at the United Nations after delivering a speech to the General Assembly. "We don't want to go to war, either."

The 93-year-old noted efforts in Tokyo to revise this part of the Japanese constitution but said any such move would be "regressive."

If its forces are allowed to participate in wars, "instead of promoting peace, Japan will join all the other countries in the world" in "using war to settle problems," he said.

In his U.N. comeback -- Mahathir's first appearance there as prime minister in 15 years -- the outspoken Malaysian leader was an unreserved critic of the world's major powers.

"When I last spoke here in 2003, I lamented how the world had lost its way," he recalled. "I bemoaned the fact that small countries continued to be at the mercy of the powerful."

"But today, 15 years later, the world has not changed very much," he said. "If at all, the world is far worse than 15 years ago."

He noted the trade war between the two most powerful countries, the U.S. and China, and said that "the rest of the world is feeling the pain."

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivered a speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Friday.   © Reuters

At Friday's news conference, Mahathir criticized the veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the U.S., the U.K., France, China and Russia -- as "hypocritical" and said he hoped they could be shamed into giving up their veto privilege.

"People must tell them, 'Look, it is very undemocratic; don't talk about regime change in other places, don't talk about democracy in other countries if you can't even give us some democracy in this international body,'" Mahathir said.

"On the one hand, you say we all must be democratic, you cause regime change and lots of civil wars ... to achieve democracy. But here [at the U.N.], all you have to do is to just give up your veto power," he said, alluding to democracy-spreading tendencies, particularly of the U.S. and allies.

Mahathir also condemned the use of sanctions as a tool to pressure North Korea. They extend beyond the targeted countries and restrict the trading abilities of unrelated actors, he said.

"You try to starve the people" to make them "submit to your wishes," he said of sanctions -- "it's a modern version of sieges against certain countries." He joked that "we would like to sanction some of the big powers, but that is impossible."

Mahathir said he will seek to reopen the North Korean Embassy shuttered after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half brother, via nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Malaysia's relationship with the North also came under international scrutiny in recent years after a Malaysia-based company was found by a panel of experts to be helping Pyongyang skirt sanctions.

For all of his defiant comments toward major powers, Mahathir is surprisingly optimistic about his ability to maintain positive relations with all countries.

"We are neutral" and not participating in any disputes between any countries, he said of Malaysian policy on the South China Sea, where Malaysia has had contentious exchanges with Singapore and where Chinese expansion has unsettled a number of his country's neighbors.

"We are not going to have a huge fleet there," the prime minister said. He explained that "we cannot ... protect Malaysia from very powerful countries."

"Malaysia's government is very simple in terms of foreign policy: We want to be friendly with everyone," the prime minister said. "On the other hand, we claim a right to speak our minds."

He added that he hoped his speech had not offended anyone.

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