The Malaysian Experience
Q: Ethnic balance is a priority in Malaysia. How important a factor was it in the history of the country?
A: Country called Malaysia was a Malay country with a Malay sultan with absolute power.
Then the British brought in the Indians to work on the railways, as technical people, to build roads and plantations. Then they allowed the Chinese to come in to work in the mines and to do business. That’s the reality. But because of politics, freedom started with the Chinese: We [Chinese in Malaysia] are rich but we don’t have political power. The Malays said, “we have political power but not wealth.” So we created a programme after independence.
Everybody can look at and criticise this programme. But we began to be conscious of each other. We also learned from each other, [and] yes we had quarrels.
The Malays used to be conservative Muslims. They prayed and still pray five times a day. They behaved themselves; they were not interested in business, in wealth. They said “I will go to heaven when I die.” The Chinese became very wealthy here but they don’t go to heaven. But now the Malays say, “We want to work, we want to have more money, we want to be in business.” They want to become wealthy, this is how it is happening.
Q:Looking at Asia as a whole, would you say the Chinese have a soft power? With the Americans, they say there is something like the American dream. President Obama said it gives a kind of soft power. With China, what can it provide? Is there a Chinese dream? An Asian dream?
A: That is the beautiful thing about us, sorry, about Asia. We don’t try to export dreams, we try to have democracy, freedom, we have a happy society. We just smile. And we know when we are not happy. It’s as simple as that.
Yes, you Westerners have always told us what to do. But we told ourselves one day we would turn the tables upside down and teach the West a thing or two, and this is what is happening. We do it our own way. Look at the Chinese, they do it their own way, by their 11% economic growth!
Q: Your politics is determined by your geography. Obviously Malaysia is well integrated in its region. What is your link with Africa? Do you have projects there? Africa is a rich continent because of its minerals and other natural resources, but it is not wealthy yet. Are you interested to have projects there?
A: We are more than interested to do business with Africa. For example, I am the chairman of a huge company present in 21 countries, with over 1,000 employees, and in November last year we started developing a 5,000-hectare oil palm plantation in Liberia. The Liberian government welcomed us and we are already there.
In South Africa, we have a very big plant to process palm oil into what we call “downstream”, meaning the by-product.
Let me explain: Palm oil is for cooking and frying, your French fries, everything. But if you eat a noodle, for example, the noodle contains a lot of palm oil. Your chocolate, your bread, your cookies, all your cakes, they contain palm oil. We have a huge plant in Rotterdam, in The Netherlands, doing that. We are trying to do the same in South Africa, it is a smaller plant at the moment, but we want to expand it.
Another Malaysian company is doing the same thing in other parts of Africa.
The only trouble with the continent of Africa is the perception and image. It is unstable, corrupt, etc. But the feedback we have is “Africa is improving”. Yes, if the governments can be improved to provide some basic trust, investors can have confidence and they will come to Africa. For Liberia, three ministers came to Malaysia to talk to us, we had an assessment, and we went in. I know some African students here and I know what they are thinking about the Chinese in Africa. The Chinese are almost desperate, they are looking for food and resources. Food and energy. They are everywhere. Africa is an open field for them to compete. The Chinese are very good, especially when Western countries say “don’t go to this or that country”; they keep quiet and go in.
I was so surprised on a recent trip to Senegal. There were so many Chinese living there. So it is up to the African leadership to handle the situation to their advantage or if you want “a win-win” kind of thing. They win, the Chinese win, the Malaysians win, foreign investors win. It will bring benefits to all, as it did to us when the foreign investors came.
In fact, it depends on the condition[s] for investment. In Malaysia, we now have very strict rules. If you are involved in a good industry that we like, you pay no tax in the first 10 years. But corruption – I want to emphasise – is a big factor: here in Malaysia, and in the West, and also in Africa. It is a fundamental issue and it must be fought against.