BANGKOK, Nov 2 — Malaysia and its regional neighbours can take a leaf from US President Donald Trump’s playbook on dealing with troublesome trade partners who threaten to stop buying their products, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said at the Asean Business and Investment Summit (ABIS 2019) here today.
The prime minister said the regional bloc of 10 countries with its combined population of 650 million people — about half of China’s total population — was a formidable and significant market.
He said that Asean does not want to be dragged into a trade war, but will not be “bullied” and could prevail if its member states rallied together and spoke as one voice against some of the old, developed nations where protectionist sentiments were gaining momentum against the new economic producers, which includes Malaysia.
“Asean is quite a big market for the world. We don’t want to go into a trade war, but sometimes when they do not so nice things to us, we have to be un-nice to them,” he said during a dialogue session moderated by Arin Jira, chairman of the Asean Business Advisory Council.
The ABIS was happening on the sidelines of the 35th Asean Summit in the Thai capital.
Dr Mahathir cited as example the calls to boycott Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil products.
He said that if Asean took a common collective stand by responding with a similar promise to cut down equal amounts of foreign imports in response to those threatening its individual members, the regional bloc will be able to withstand these external pressures.
“We do exactly what Mr Trump does. Not a very nice man but we can learn from people who are not so nice,” he said, to laughter from the packed hall.
He added that if Asean member states stood together, the world will have to listen “because we speak in a louder voice”.
“We have to make full use of our strength. And our strength lies in our market. And we have a market of 650 million people, poor people, but still a good market and we can identify what will hurt them if they hurt us.
“So that is the way to go. And in the meantime, our economy grows. And when our economy grows, we will have a stronger voice. But always, try to speak with one voice. You go it alone, you will be bullied,” he said.
The Malaysian PM said there was movement in the West calling for a restriction in trade in response to the emergence of smaller countries that were levelling up to become more competitive new producers of higher quality goods at cheaper costs.
He noted that this was a reversal of the free trade principle pushed by globalisation advocates previously.
“There is a fear now that competition this time will benefit countries in the East rather than developed countries in the West.
“That is why there is a resistance expressed by the people and politicians are responding to that by listening to their people to restrict trade,” he said.
Dr Mahathir said the negative mindset change would only hurt the world market in the long run as free trade was the way to go for all countries to prosper together.
“That’s why we now see popularism is mounting in Europe and in America, where there are talks about limiting trade, about trade wars and applying higher taxes for imports and all that.
“But I think this will not last very long because they will understand that if they cut off the new producers, they tend to lose a lot. They can’t really stop trade from expanding and becoming multilateral with new technologies in place,” he said.
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