It is not often that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is candid in his opinions on a host of controversial issues confronting the country. Perhaps the Malaysian students whom he met in London last Sunday are more prone to ask him the kind of questions that local journalists dare not ask. LEE TSE YIN, in the final part of the series, reports on how Mahathir cleverly dismissed his bugbear - Anwar, homosexuals, the West - in one single swoop.
More questions. Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad gets a politely couched plea for help from the London School of Economics Malaysia Club, which announces it is planning to organise an information technology event and a fund- raising ball this summer, and wants to know what his views are on the matter.
This gives Dr M another chance to bring up the dangers of IT in moving large sums of money around the world at increasing speeds. He mentions President Bill Clinton recently praising free trade, but reminds the audience that while America has been doing extremely well, many countries, Malaysia included, of course, have been suffering. He admits though that Malaysia does have to be on top of the information age and tells the student he would like to know more about the event in order to be of some help.
There are questions on the pegging of the ringgit, Malaysia's re-entry to the Morgan Stanley index and why mega projects are given to foreign architects to design. In his answers, Dr M manages to criticise the International Monetary Fund, explain the need for exit taxes, and defend the mega projects as cheap in comparison with what they would cost in the future and as infrastructural necessity.
"We have built the Twin Towers. It is the cheapest twin towers of that height anywhere in the world," he says.
" Kalau nak buat di negara lain, kosnya lebih daripada 10 billion ringgit. Kita buat two towers for the cost of three to four billion ringgit. Cheap - very cheap!" This draws a lot of laughter from the audience.
"Even if they build another tower which is taller than our tower, it will be only one tower. We have two!" It is impossible for Malaysians to resist this rhetorical nationalistic pride and the audience applauds along with its laughter this time.
In talking about Putrajaya, which is "only half the size of Kuala Lumpur International Airport", he repeats that it is not just for the use of one prime minister, but for those many more to come. Then his voice goes a bit deeper and takes on a conspiratorial and more playful tone. You can see the dig coming a mile away.
" Ia besar bukan kerana saya. Ia besar kerana ada kepentingan orang lain ," he says. " Ada enam bilik. Dan bila saya pergi ke situ sekarang ini, saya jumpa satu lagi benda yang saya tak minta tetapi disediakan - iaitu special passage for wheelchair.
" Seluruh rumah itu ada special passage for wheelchair. Saya hairan, siapa yang nak guna ? Rupa-rupanya ibu kepada timbalan saya (Anwar), dia bergerak menggunakan wheelchair. Jadi disediakan untuk dia ... Saya tak tahulah beberapa puluh ribu ke ratus ribu dibelanja - special passage - daripada tempat ini ke tempat ini, semua ada wheelchair (passage).
"So that to me is a waste, because you can move around in a wheelchair without having to have a special passage for your wheelchair. But otherwise we have been very, very careful about money management."
Even though Dr M appears to have realised belatedly in his tirade that a future prime minister, if not visitors, could be grateful for a special wheelchair passage in this house, surely a bit of political correctness in this matter is not too great a deal to complain about? Even if it was meant to benefit one former deputy prime minister's old mother?
But political correctness, as we have seen from history, is not Dr M's favourite cause. In a last question to him, a pretty girl with long flowing hair in a fitting red T-shirt stands up. After congratulating him and thanking him for putting Malaysia on the world map, she airs her thoughts.
" Saya fikir negara kita patut take an open approach to sex education sebab many people, especially teenagers, who are rebellious, are really curious about certain things. They may not prefer to become a homosexual, but they are always involved because they want to try." (Laughter.)
"So, like the advertisement which says, 'you will not know until you try', why not, since we have many sources in Malaysia like Internet or many books to know about sex education, why don't the government take the initiative to give this education in a more positive way. To show that this activity is really disgusting. Sorry if I have offended any of you guys." (More laughter although no one seems to realise the hypocrisy of the apology.)
"As a Malaysian we shouldn't follow this, which is against the values of our Asian people. So probably the government should consider this sort of taking a more open approach to the sex education in Malaysia."
Dr M agrees on sex education because, he thinks, children are no longer able to depend on their families. "But what I am afraid is that this positive promotion of a way of life. This is what is happening here now. They are saying that people should actively promote homosexuality, that you should try.
"It is not necessary that you should try. There are certain things which are bad. That you needn't try. Just accept that it is bad. We are not made that way. Relationship between man and woman is for the purpose of procreation. Every religion teaches us that. And what is wrong with that? There is nothing wrong with that. But today we have different ideas. Well, if I feel like marrying a man, why shouldn't I? I'm a man, but I'd like to try-lah. And then they don't have a baby. Man and man living together and they don't have a baby! That kind of thing breaks down the moral fibre of our society. I feel very sad.
"So we find suddenly lots of people are gay and those who are not yet gay would like to be gay. Why not? I mean, he is gay, why shouldn't I? And then of course gay causes some problems. Official invitations to Istana Negara, for example. Oh, if you want to invite me, you must invite my partner. I'm sorry, even if it is a minister from abroad, we'll not invite your partner, unless of course it's from the opposite sex, to Istana Negara. There is a limit to what we can put up with."
"But this information must be given to our children. That this is bad and this is good. You don't have to try this. Should you try marijuana for example?
"My friend tried smoking: after smoking, it is marijuana. After marijuana, well, a little bit of sniffing cocaine. 'What's wrong with that? I want to stop, I can stop.' But I know people who have tried and couldn't stop. And if you try homosex, I don't. I'm not so sure even if you're going to be the deputy prime minister and prime minister you find it difficult to stop, and then you get caught, and then you say there is a conspiracy against you.
"If I want to accuse a person of something, I would find something that is more easily accepted. I don't intend to accuse people of something that even I find difficult to believe. So while I would subscribe to this idea of sex education, we have to think very carefully what is it that we want to tell our children. We must never tell, 'well, this is bad, you can try and you will find it is bad'. In fact they find it is quite good and then what happens?
"So please, we have a different culture. They want to have it here, they are welcome, this is their country. But in Malaysia we don't need that. We don't need drugs. We need a very commonsensical society, able to evaluate between good and bad, and always choosing what is good. Thank you very much."
Dr M has cleverly summed up the themes of his talk: homosexuality, like drugs, like Anwar, like the West, is bad. We have to be better than that - and we can be if we listen to him.
He has not bothered to explain exactly how it is that homosexuality is addictive. He obviously has not felt its call so far, but nor has he taken into account possibly biological, possibly undeniable, factors for being gay. He also has not realised, or cared to take into account, the implication of this argument for the status of gay people in the country.
He implies, blithely, that they are worth less, simply because they are, apparently, products of western culturisation. Even if they are, they are people. But Dr M, and it would appear, a large part of his audience, do not care. They are Asians, not Westerners. They also appear intolerant.
They have also taken the Clause 28 argument, which is a hot issue in United Kingdom, one step too far and exaggerated the arguments of only some of its supporters. If Dr M read the last couple of paragraphs in the Sunday Times[#4] article [/#] (a news report that he referred to during his talk), he would have read that the video he cited has been described by teachers as "[promoting] the values of tolerance and understanding and that everyone has a right to be accepted whatever their sexuality".
Health authorities - not gay movement spokesmen - say "it treats a difficult subject with great sensitivity. Local teachers consider it a valuable resource and we fully support its use in schools".
I catch Jimmy Choo, a shoe designer whom Mahathir announced would be returning to Malaysia, after the talk as well and I ask him what he thinks of Dr M's speech. Stereotypical as it is, in his line of work, I ask, does he have gay friends? Does he agree with Dr M's views that they are lesser members of society?
Mr Choo is diplomatic in his answer. "Everyone has a right to their own opinions," he says. "I have a lot of gay friends and I go out with them to gay places. Sometimes people have thought I am gay as well, but they have never pressured me to join in any of their activities or tried to make me gay."
So he doesn't agree with Dr M then? Mr Choo smiles. "Everyone has a right to their opinion," he repeats.
Well I'm sure the good doctor knows best. I doubt Dr M is as intolerant as his speech would make him appear. What I do doubt though, is his simplistic intention of educating Malaysia to be non-homosexual. The link to Anwar and his continued demonisation of gays is simply too, too obvious.