TOKYO — Growing nations like Malaysia need different trade protections and, while Kuala Lumpur is not against trade pacts such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, the TPP must be renegotiated, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Monday.
Mahathir, 92, became premier for the second time last month after Malaysians, angered over accusations of massive corruption, voted out a coalition that had led the country for the six decades since independence.
Mahathir told an international seminar in Tokyo on his first foreign trip since the election that different economies needed different rules in order to compete fairly with giants such as the United States and China.
“Small countries cannot compete on the same terms as bigger countries,” he said on the second day of a three-day visit, during which he will woo Japanese investment and meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other officials.
“We are not completely against the TPP but it needs to be re-negotiated … so that smaller countries would have the chance to compete because they would be given certain handicaps,” he said.
Mahathir said the ideal would be a broad trade pact such as the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) he proposed during his previous administration.
“Yes, I am still in favor of EAEC. In the past, of course, we were not able to do this due to the objections of America, but now America seems to become isolationist again so it is not in a position to demand that we cannot form EAEC,” he said.
Such a group would also be useful in the face of China’s surging economic power.
Mahathir’s visit is seen as a sign of Malaysia’s move away from China, which contentiously pumped billions of dollars into the scandal-tainted administration of ousted leader Najib Razak.
The new government has said some Chinese companies are under suspicion of being used to cover up the graft scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) that contributed to Najib’s downfall.
Mahathir said foreign direct investment should involve bringing in capital and ideas.
“We have to deal with China whether we like it or not, we should deal with it as a group,” he said.
Mahathir did not make any reference to the 1MDB investigations.
He said Malaysia hoped to possibly start a new national car project, perhaps with help from Southeast Asia, but did not give further details.
State-owned Proton was founded in 1983 during an industrialization push in Mahathir’s first term. Its domestic market share peaked at 74 percent a decade later but Geely bought 49.9 percent of the struggling carmaker last year, marking the Chinese automaker’s first push into Southeast Asia.
Mahathir praised the peaceful transition since the election and said he would stay in power as long as the people of Malaysia wanted him.