Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Monday hailed Cambodia’s prosperity, praising its “hard-working” and “skilful” people for rebuilding the Kingdom.
The 94-year-old leader was speaking to university students, government officials and diplomats at the Royal University of Phnom Penh as he began a three-day visit, which is to conclude on Wednesday.
“I have been here three times before. And each time I come here, Phnom Penh has changed. Now, of course, it is like any other big city, with many high-rise buildings. And I see that this is a very busy city with many shops and many people going around obviously shopping.
“This is a sign of prosperity. And I believe that this is due to your hard-working people . . . highly skilful people who have contributed towards rebuilding Phnom Penh and Cambodia,” Mahathir said in his opening speech.
He was later asked questions on a wide range of issues, including democracy and the rule of law, the South China Sea, the US-China trade war and Asian values.
On the South China Sea, Mahathir said China claims the sea belongs to it, but that was just something asserted by Beijing.
He said freedom of navigation is important.
“China needs the three passages in the South China Sea as well as the Strait of Malacca, and China must guarantee there is freedom of navigation through these seas because this benefits China. And when it benefits China, it also benefits Asean countries,” he said.
Mahathir said the US-China trade war was not constructive and did not contribute to the economic growth of either country.
He said trade wars also impacted smaller nations, making them suffer.
To counter this, he said smaller countries needed to have good access to the markets of the world.
He said Asean should come together on industrialisation so that its members could produce their needs largely for themselves.
Trade wars, he said, were a waste of time and money, and were unproductive. He expressed hope that the US and China would negotiate, or resolve the issue through arbitration or a court of law.
“After all, these are the people, especially the US, who have been urging us to accept the rule of law. But trade wars are not in accordance with the rule of law.
“So I hope those who preach democracy and the rule of law abide by the same rules that they propose for other countries,” he stressed.
Answering questions about Asian values, Mahathir said Cambodians, who have a very old civilisation – older than some Western civilisations and older than America – should be proud of their culture.
Belt and Road Initiative
On China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Mahathir said the idea was the revival of the old Silk Road linking East and West and nothing new.
He said with BRI, China was ensuring trade routes would not be blocked.
“Certainly, the East and West should become closer. But don’t stop ships, examining them, asking for documents and things like that. That would be very negative. But as long as the seas are free for navigation, the Belt and Road Initiative serves a good purpose,” Mahathir said.
He went on to criticise certain unnamed powerful countries that he said ensured they had no wars at home but caused conflict elsewhere to sell arms and make money.
“They look after themselves, but not weaker countries. This is what is happening in the Middle East. They said they want democracy, regime change, and you know what happens with regime change.
“Today, Syria is almost wiped out. Iraq is in a bad state and Yemen is fighting. That is the effect of regime change on countries not ready for democracy. So the powerful countries look out for their interests … they are not looking after our interests,” Mahathir said
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday took to Facebook to welcome his Malaysian counterpart, saying Mahathir’s visit “will significantly contribute to further strengthening and deepening the excellent bond of friendship and close cooperation between Cambodia and Malaysia in bilateral, regional and international frameworks.”
The prime ministers would discuss various aspects of bilateral cooperation and exchange views on regional and international matters of common interest, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said.
Several documents would be signed and the two leaders would hold a joint press conference on Tuesday morning at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh, it added.