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In speech at Columbia, Mahathir cites free speech for anti-Semitic remarks

Koh Jun Lin

Published
Modified 25 Sep 2019, 4:17 pm

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has defended his remarks that have deemed anti-Semitic, claiming that he was exercising his right to free speech.

He said this during his talk at the World Leaders Forum at Columbia University in New York today, after a member of the audience confronted him about his remarks.

“I am exercising my right to free speech. Why is it that I can’t say something against the Jews when a lot of people say nasty things about me and about Malaysia and I didn’t protest? I didn’t demonstrate.

“We have to be willing to listen to views which are not in our favour because of free speech. Free speech is about free speech.

“When you say, ‘No, you cannot say this. You cannot be anti-Semitic’ then there is no more free speech,” Mahathir said in response.

The talk was broadcasted live over the Internet through various channels, including via one of RTM’s Facebook pages.

The audience member, who introduced herself as a member of the "Students Supporting Israel" movement at Columbia University, took Mahathir to task for supposedly questioning, during a BBC interview, the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust 

“Columbia University is a world centre for Jewish studies. When you come to a place like Columbia, this kind of remark either makes you racially provocative or astonishingly ignorant. Please address and clarify your standing on the Holocaust,” she said.

Mahathir claimed he was not disputing the number of people who died but was noting that different sources had given different estimates on the death toll depending on whether they are “in favour” or “against”.

“So I accept that there was a Holocaust and there were many Jews killed. In fact, at one time, I was very sympathetic towards them […] during the war, when you were not around but I was around,” he said.

The audience member shot back that her grandmother was alive during the Holocaust to which Mahathir thanked her and ended the exchange.

Mahathir’s presence at the university has sparked controversy due to his anti-Semitic remarks although the university defended its decision to invite Mahathir to speak while noting that Mahathir's anti-Semitic views deserve condemnation.

In introducing Mahathir at the beginning of today’s talk, a university representative took stock of Mahathir and Malaysia’s anti-Semitic remarks and actions.

Vishankha Desai, who is senior global affairs advisor to the university’s president Lee Bollinger, noted that Mahathir had made offensive remarks during a tour of British universities earlier this year and Malaysia itself had banned Israeli swimmers from participating in an international meet that was being held in Kuching.

“Clearly, such attitudes are absolutely contrary to what we stand for.

“In a letter to several student groups which had expressed their concerns about Mahathir’s visit to Columbia, Bollinger offered this useful perspective: ‘Open public engagement can sometimes be difficult, even painful. 

'But to abandon this activity would be to limit severely our capacity to understand and confront the world as it is, which is a central and utterly serious mission for any academic institution,’” she said.

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