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ATimes: Mahathir gives India food for thought
By Sultan Shahin
19/5/2001 4:25 am Sat
[Bicara Mahathir agak kurang hormat kepada tetamu dari India - patutlah
Vajpayee tidak begitu ceria dan lebih banyak berdiam dari berkata-kata.
Mahathir agak banyak menghentam tetamu negara tersebut dalam beberapa isu
seperti tariff dan duti minyak kelapa sawit. Yang peliknya dia tidak pula
sedar industri kereta tempatan dilindungi oleh tarif dan duti juga. Sikap
sebegini tidak akan dapat menyelesaikan masalah - sebaliknya ia akan
menyebabkan India semakin tidak mengalah. Mahathir telah merosakkan hubungan
dengan kerajaan India sebagaimana dia merosakkan hidup kaum India di negara
ini. Padahal kaum India amat banyak menyumbang pendapatan kepada negara dalam
sektor seperti perladangan.
Malaysia seharusnya berterima kasih kepada kerajaan India kerana sanggup
menerima tukaran secara barter - jika tidak minyak kelapa sawit akan tersadai
di dalam negara tidak dapat dijual kepada sesiapa. Cara Mahathir melayan tamu
negara sebegitu rupa bakal mengundang murka yang akan menyusahkan negara juga
disaat kita amat bergantung harap kepada mereka untuk menolong ekonomi kita...
Mahathir gives India food for thought
By Sultan Shahin
NEW DELHI - Speculation is rife in India's diplomatic and media
circles on the reasons behind Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir
Mohamad's combative tone in a banquet he hosted in Kuala Lumpur for
his visiting Indian counterpart, Atal Behari Vajpayee.
The surprise is greater because this has come in the midst of a
definite deepening of bilateral political, defense and economic ties
between the countries.
During a four-day visit that ended on Thursday, India and Malaysia
laid a foundation for stronger commercial ties through the signing of
as many as 15 business-to-business agreements and memorandums of
understanding in various fields, with Vajpayee setting a target of
doubling India-Malaysian trade in the next three years from the
present level of US$2.5 billion. The Indian leader headed a 135-member
delegation that included more than 70 captains of industry.
In order to achieve this target, India will offer a $50 million credit
line to encourage Malaysian imports of its industrial goods and
projects into Malaysia. The two prime ministers witnessed the signing
of seven agreements, including one between Ircon International and the
Malaysian Transport Ministry for the construction of a $1.8 billion
railway line in Malaysia.
Two other agreements on cooperation in developing Indian ports and
another in Information Technology were also signed. Defense
cooperation has been resumed after a period of four years and will
result in greater interaction between the armed forces of the two
countries in terms of mutual visits and training.
But though banquet speeches are seldom expected to go beyond mouthing
of sweet nothings along with the dessert, the Mahathir did not mince
his words in taking outstanding issues head-on. More surprisingly,
analysts noted "a wry note of sarcasm in some of his observations
about India". As senior journalist Chandan Mitra, editor of Daily
Pioneer that generally reflects government thinking, put it, "there
was nothing particularly sweet about the host's address which bordered
on the acerbic".
A senior Indian official was quoted as saying: "We kept quiet as we
are guests here." This has forced some observers to conclude that
Vajpayee's four-day visit to the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (Asean) major has been a setback to India's much-vaunted "Look
"I believe that it would not be incorrect to say that India has
assumed a new awareness and desire to be counted among the leading
nations of Asia," the Malaysian prime minister stated. This is being
interpreted here as Malaysia's inadequate conviction about India's
status in the world, particularly because of his description of this
awareness and desire as "new". Mahathir's tone turned almost carping
in the next sentence, observes Mitra, who quotes him as saying: "This
is a legitimate aspiration for a country that is statistically
regarded as one of the fastest growing economies of today."
The comment seemed to imply to several Indian observers that while
Malaysia did not believe this to be true, statistics said otherwise.
Thereafter, without any reference to terrorism in South Asia, Mahathir
remarked, "We trust and hope that India will stay committed to the
process of peaceful negotiations in the settlement of conflicts in the
Mahathir also referred to his concerns on nuclear proliferation,
spelled out Asean's opposition to the presence of nuclear armaments
and specifically pointed to India's "public commitment to become a
legal party" to the Nuclear Free Zone in Southeast Asia. This was in
stark contrast to Vajpayee steering clear of the nuclear issue
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar had earlier poured cold
water on India's hopes of enhancing its current status of a dialogue
partner to the level of a summit-level interaction with Asean. He
stated in diplomatic language that his country was "very happy" with
India's current status. Asked by Indian correspondents if Malaysia,
which is the country coordinator for India in Asean, was upset by
India's opposition to Pakistan's entry into the Asean Regional Forum
(ARF) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation
(IOR-ARC), Hamid said: "No. I think in our decision-making process
there is always consensus. Whatever decisions we want to make are
based on dialogue and consensus. Therefore, we will go along on that
basis." Malaysia is known to support the entry of Pakistan both into
the ARF and the IOR-ARC. It is also known to have opposed a
summit-level meeting between India and Asean.
Other irritants in India-Malaysian relations could be the issue of
India's policy on Kashmir, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and the
national missile defense policy recently announced by US President
George W Bush. Mahathir stated that he was in favor of a peaceful
solution to the Kashmir problem. Talking to newspersons after the
conclusion of his meeting with Vajpayee, he also made it clear that
Malaysia did not support any kind of terrorism, including state
terrorism. This reference to state terrorism is being viewed in New
Delhi as a criticism of human rights violations in Kashmir by India's
security forces, and obviously India doesn't like it.
India failed to obtain Malaysia's support for a separate summit
meeting with Asean as Kuala Lumpur linked the issue to "improved
relations between countries of South Asia" - a clear reference to the
Similarly, Indian spokesmen are hard put to explain why a much
expected extradition treaty could not be signed. This would have
facilitated Indian investigators' efforts to bring back fugitive
Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi for trial to India in the
Bofors gun deal scandal. All that officials could say was that the
legal fine-tuning could not be completed in time.
Albar said Malaysia was keen to know the Indian position on the
controversial National Missile Defense (NMD), especially since the US
specially chose to brief New Delhi on it. He also made it clear that
his country had a "very negative" response to the NMD. India has
already given its enthusiastic support to NMD.
At core, the real difficulty in India-Malaysia relations seems to stem
from India's recent decision to increase the import duty on palm oil
to 75 percent and that on its refined variant to 85 percent. It is
learnt that Mahathir raised the subject forcefully during his meeting
with Vajpayee on Monday morning.
At the banquet itself, Mahathir expressed his bitterness: "No product,
however efficiently produced, can bear indefinite tariff increases. It
will also be unproductive and retrogressive if better and cheaper
goods produced by developing countries themselves should become less
accessible and more expensive to the ordinary people due to increasing
tariffs, especially when such tariffs favor similar import from
This was an obvious reference to the relatively low duty charged by
India on soybean imports from the US on account of a bilateral
agreement. Also, Indonesian palm oil is available in India at cheaper
prices. With India being the biggest importer of Malaysian palm oil,
Kuala Lumpur is feeling the pinch. Though the Indian delegation has
merely offered to review the duties, Malaysian officials and media are
making out as if India has already agreed to reduce, the duties.
Incidentally, several Indian newspapers also have reported that India
did announce a reduction in the tariff.
Another reason behind Mahathir striking a discordant note at the
banquet, Malaysian analysts say, according to Chandan Mitra, is that
Malaysia's ironhand premier is displeased with Vajpayee expressing
concern about the safety of the Indian community in Malaysia in light
of the racial violence in Petaling Jaya some weeks ago.
The clashes were sparked off by a Tamil marriage procession coming
face-to-face with a Malay funeral procession. Although people of
Indian origin constitute nearly 10 percent of Malaysia's multi-ethnic
society, they have lived in tranquility for more than a century. There
is speculation that Mahathir was annoyed by the reference to a
domestic issue during the official talks earlier in the day and,
consequently, decided to discard niceties in his banquet speech.
Whatever the interpretation for the Malaysian prime minister's
combativeness, worries are bound to grow regarding the immediate
future of mutual relations. Although commercial ties are set to
strengthen, the political aspect of the relationship between the two
do not seem to have taken a quantum leap forward during the premier's
visit, concludes Mitra.
On his part, though, Vajpayee was reassuring. He told his counterpart
in the formal banquet speech: "India admires the rapid growth of the
Malaysian economy under challenging conditions. We are also struck by
its tremendous resilience, as shown by the speedy recovery from the
recent Southeast Asian financial crisis. You surmounted this trying
situation without dependence on external borrowings and without
following policy prescriptions given by outside bodies."
Vajpayee also expressed India's appreciation of the fact that the two
countries often find themselves taking common positions in the World
Trade Organization and in other global fora on such important issues
as the reform of the international financial architecture.
Despite all the difficulties in bilateral relations with individual
countries of the region, there should be no doubt that India is
genuinely looking East for inspiration and new light. Tremendous media
interest in Vajpayee's Malaysia visit and his earlier forays into
Indonesia and Vietnam is evidence enough.
Senior journalist Prionka Jha recounts the background of
India-Malaysian relations in a newspaper article. Relations with
Malaysia, he says, have been a continuous process since 1946 when
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visited this country. Unfortunately, the ties
took a dip in 1979 when India recognized the Heng Samarin regime in
Kampuchea with Malaysia expressing "deep disappointment" at it.
Despite this isolated instance of strain between the two, the overall
relationship has remained cordial and friendly. Only last year, both
Singapore and Malaysia were instrumental in accepting India as a "Full
Dialogue Partner" of Asean and its participation in ARF. This has
provided an important platform for the two countries to cooperate on
areas of interest.
There is no doubt that in recent times, Malaysia has acquired a lot of
clout in the Southeast Asian region. Last year in Bangkok it took over
from Singapore as the country coordinator for India. Besides, it is an
important member of the IOR-ARC, and one must concede that India has a
lot of stake in it. In this emerging order, the "Look East Policy"
surely intends to "engage" Malaysia in a much more constructive
Indeed, India has played a significant role in the process of
broad-basing the Malaysian economy. It was the first country to set up
industries in Malaysia when it decided to move away from an exporter
of primary products to build a strong manufacturing sector. Most
importantly, it must be kept in mind that both India and Malaysia have
had broad ranged strategic defense ties - and this relationship was
given shape by the signing of an Indian-Malaysian MoU on defense
cooperation between the two way back in 1993.
Jha's backgrounder mentions certain irritants that remain. The
Malaysian government's policy to introduce work permits for
non-Malaysians has badly affected non-citizens, and Indians in
particular. The introduction of the quotas for different races in
educational institutions has also adversely affected the Indian
community. As Indians are the third largest ethnic group in Malaysia,
they are unable to display the same economic clout as the Chinese, and
have suffered on this count in a big way. So far, the Indian
government has done very little on this front.
Another irritant is the visa regime between the two countries. Though
a multiple entry visa policy towards Indians has been introduced under
this growing pressure, there is much left to be desired, as with the
lack of an extradition treaty, as mentioned above.
Disappointed with its immediate neighborhood in South Asia, India has
high expectations from the Southeast Asian region and hopes Malaysia
will provide a gateway to this region. It would not be surprising if
on his return Vajpayee makes announcements addressing some of the
expectations of his Malaysian counterpart.
It seems he was on the verge of doing that in Kuala Lumpur, but felt
he should not do so on Malaysian soil as it would attract criticism in
the country. The Times of India has reported that the prime minister
did want to announce the reduction of duties on crude palm oil, for
instance, from 75 percent to 65 percent as a gesture to his Malaysian
counterpart in the banquet speech itself. But he dropped the idea as
he was advised that doing this on foreign soil would not be
politically appropriate as oilseeds growers in India, particularly
coconut producers in the south, have been agitated over "cheap" edible
oil imports into the country.