Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (left) speaks during the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Signature Luncheon in Kuala Lumpur. Also present is the programme’s moderator AmCham vice-president Stanley R. Clayton. -NSTP/SYARAFIQ ABD SAMAD

KUALA LUMPUR: Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad today answered a slew of questions, including his cabinet members’ performance, the upcoming Sandakan by-election and the whereabouts of fugitive businessman Low Taek Jho, better known as Jho Low.

In a session which was moderated by American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) vice-president Stanley R. Clayton, Dr Mahathir also maintained Malaysia’s stand as a business-and investor-friendly country, which would open its doors to positive development and growth.

Clayton also asked Dr Mahathir about Malaysia’s position on the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the country had yet to ratify pending a review on the agreement pertaining to its unique slice of economic pie reserved for the Bumiputera community.

Dr Mahathir said Malaysia would ratify the trade agreement after its terms were made congruent with its economic needs.

“We have certain policies in this country directed at trying to equalise or reduce the disparity between different communities.

“This is very special to us because we have to try to bring up the Bumiputera community to the level of other races.

“But to do that we need to have certain... well, we need to be unfair to some races, or seemingly unfair, and this has caused a lot of problems because there is a quite lot of protest against that.

“But, I think in time we will be able to ratify CPTPP.”

On the country’s administration, Dr Mahathir admitted that some of his cabinet members were initially “confused” in their approach to attracting businesses and investors.

“Well, we were in the opposition before. All we knew was how to criticise the government. But, when we became the government, we still felt like we were in our previous position. They are very confused, about having to be business-friendly, for example.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad arrives for the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Signature Luncheon in Kuala Lumpur. -NSTP/SYARAFIQ ABD SAMAD

“I think in the short time they (have been) ministers, they have proven that they can actually adjust to a new environment, but I think it may take a little time more before they feel comfortable as government and forget their past as the opposition.

“As a government, you have to do things, and immediately there will be somebody who is not happy.

“So, we have to teach our ministers to be patient and not to be angry over criticism.

“But, I think they have held together for almost a year, and I think coming from five different parties, and with different objectives, that they are still together is an achievement itself.”

Dr Mahathir also expressed confidence that Pakatan Harapan would win the Sandakan parliamentary by-election, saying that sentiments appeared to remain with the ruling party.

And, despite defeats in the Cameron Highlands, Semenyih and Rantau by-elections, Dr Mahathir said PH had so far done well at the polls.

“Well, we are going to win in Sandakan. You forgot to mention the one (the victory) in Port Dickson, so (PH’s performance at the polls is) not too bad. But in Sandakan it is quite different, we are more comfortable with it, and we think we can win there.

“The member of parliament there (Datuk Seri Stephen Wong Tien Fatt) who died was very popular. And I think the people there have not changed so much with their attitude (support) towards us.”

A member of the floor asked whether it was possible for Malaysia to once again host the Malaysian Grand Prix at the Sepang International Circuit, after the annual event was cancelled by the previous administration due to its high cost.

“The track (in Sepang) itself remains busy. Lots of people go there. They have races there, motorcycle races, and lots of people who buy expensive cars, especially Singaporeans, (since) in Singapore they don’t have the chance to drive.

“When they come on Malaysian roads they feel that being fined for breaking the speed limit is okay.

“But, some of them want to test their cars on the track, and they pay us some money for it,” he quipped.

“We intend to bring back the Grand Prix. But I don't know whether it is next year or the year after. We think that the interest in the Grand Prix is still very big, and we want to bring it back here, because the race has stimulated Malaysians to go into the automotive industry and people now buy all kinds of new cars.

“We think that by having the Grand Prix, we will be able to get spectators, more than 100,000 and that will be worthwhile for us. And when the television stations show the race all over the world, something like 200 million people watch the Grand Prix, which is a good advertisement for Malaysia.”

On tourism, Dr Mahathir said by the year 2020, Malaysia would have 30 billion visitors to the country and the bulk would be from China and Singapore.

“(As of now) we are getting a lot from Central Asia, whereas before we could not get any. Central Asia can be a good source of tourists.

“But, basically, the numbers will be provided by Singapore, China, and a few countries in Asia.

“But, for some reason, we are not getting American tourists. No American flights to Malaysia. They fly to Singapore, but not to Malaysia... I have always wondered why. We are nice people.

“Their investors come, we welcome them. Perhaps the investors can tell the American people that we are a safe country. There is no need for advisories. That is a negative thing,” he said, referring to a recent US State Department travel advisory saying some parts of Malaysia, in particular eastern Sabah, were risky due to kidnappings which occur there.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad poses for a picture arrives during the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Signature Luncheon in Kuala Lumpur. -NSTP/SYARAFIQ ABD SAMAD

The last question pertained to the whereabouts of Low, who has been on the country’s wanted list over alleged abuse of funds from 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

“Well, we suspect he is in a country, but we cannot say it aloud, because they (the country) might think us accusing them of hiding a criminal. That is not what a country should do.

“We don’t have extradition treaties with many countries, so Jho Low may be anywhere in the world, but we have some suspicions where he is. We will work on that suspicion, but we will not be able to point fingers at anybody at this moment.”

Earlier, in his speech at the luncheon hosted by AmCham, Dr Mahathir said the first year of the PH administration was focused on consolidation, rehabilitation and resetting the country following the 1MDB scandal.

“I believe we have turned the corner and we look forward to finally sitting down and pursuing our plans instead of merely (being) tied down to mopping and cleaning up tasks.”

At the same time, Dr Mahathir said Malaysia would continue working with multinationals to boost its economy.

“Therefore, we are committed to ensuring our policies are investor-friendly; to both foreign and domestic investors. As we take your viewpoints into consideration, in turn, you will continue to view Malaysia as a favoured, strategic and profitable investment destination for US businesses now and in years to come.”

In 2018, the US was Malaysia’s third largest trading partner in the world, with total trade exceeding RM155 billion. Exports from Malaysia to the US increased to more than RM90 billion, which was the highest value in more than a decade.