Exclusive Interview with the Prime Minister of Malaysia

Johan Candelin, WEF Religious Liberty Commission Chairman, interviews Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohammad on religious freedom in Malaysia and the region.

Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad

Your Excellency, we live today in a new situation in our world. Earlier conflicts were between states, but today many conflicts are within states. And in most cases, these conflicts are religious. Malaysia has a very good reputation in this regard. What is the secret of the good situation in your country?

It is because we recognise there is a problem. When you recognise that there is a problem, you then proceed to make the necessary adjustments. In Malaysia we have not only racial differences, but also those races are followers of different religions.

If you put pork on the table, the Muslims will not eat. But on the other hand, the Hindus will not eat beef and the Muslims like beef. But we compromise, so we are aware of each other’s sensitivities. Apart from that, we live and work and play together; we celebrate each other’s festivals together. Everyone joins in and we visit each other, and that helps to cement relationships. Mostly we are sensitive toward each other’s differences.

How do you see the future in Asia when it comes to the co-existence between religions? In what direction is Asia going, and what should be done to keep national and regional harmony?

The most important thing is to help (people) respect the true interpretation of each religion, not only between people of different religions, but also among people of the same religion. (That’s) because even among people of the same religion, there are various interpretations and some of them deviate very far from the true teachings. That is why among Muslims, for example, there is a tendency to make a lot of comments about so-called "fundamentalism." But we believe that if you stick to Islamic "fundamentals", you will do well.

When you describe people as fundamentalists, you are actually wrong, because these are not fundamentalists; they are people who have deviated from the teachings and have become extreme. So an understanding of these differences—in any religion there will be people who deviate from the (true) teachings and who are extreme. That really is not the real religion, even among Muslims, so we would like to see people not describe them as "Muslim terrorists" and things like that, because we have "terrorists" from any religion.


What are the three most important challenges in the future, both for Malaysia and for the region, and why do you see these three as so important?

First of course is the destabilisation of the countries due to sudden attacks on the economy. Secondly, there is the need for us to understand the rapid changes taking place and to make the necessary adjustments. Not just to accept, but also to contribute toward the interpretation of these changes that are taking place.

And thirdly, we still think that we should not identify enemies, because when you identify enemies of the future, they become your present enemies. So we feel that the better solution to the tension between countries is to meet and talk with people rather than to confront, or worse still, to apply sanctions.


There seems to be a growing need for dialogue between religions. With the good reputation of Malaysia, would you see a role for your country on the international scene in this regard?

I think we can play a role. In fact we are trying (to do so) at the moment because of a lot of misunderstanding on the religion of Islam. We have an institute that specialises in explaining Islam to the non-Muslims as well as to the Muslims. This is because a lot of the common perception of Islam is wrong.

I think that if we can stop calling each other terrorists, and taking the extreme manifestation of these religions as the real religion, we will be able to get along better. Our experience in Malaysia is that we have to be tolerant with each other. Otherwise we are going to fight each other and we are not going to get anything out of it.

Johan Candelin