SINGAPORE: ASEAN countries should engage in multilateral dialogues to resolve trade issues instead of adopting inward-looking protectionist measures, said Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad during his keynote address at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit on Tuesday (Nov 13).
Speaking at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Dr Mahathir asserted that trade tensions between the two world powers, referring to the United States and China, are bound to create a “domino effect” that will affect trade reactions.
He said that the trade tensions will be a reason for developed countries to adopt protective measures against developing countries, including ASEAN countries.
These measures include technical barriers to trade such as quotas, embargoes, sanctions, levies and other restrictions to regulate markets, as well as discrimination against imports in order to protect big domestic industries.
“The rise of trade protectionism, resurgent nationalistic movements and inward-looking policies also seems to be slowly taking place within ASEAN itself,” said Dr Mahathir.
“However, this is not the time to close our doors by invoking trade protectionist measures but, instead, we should be actively engaged in finding amicable solutions and resolving trade issues through multilateral dialogues such as between ASEAN countries.
“It is now that we must continue to expand our intra-trade and deepen the economic integration within ASEAN.”
Dr Mahathir said the Malaysian government is prepared to take a “leading role” in expressing concerns over rising trade tensions and risks of escalating protectionism at the various World Trade Organization (WTO) bodies.
He said this will ensure that the WTO remains a rules-based, open and non-discriminatory platform for meaningful progress towards the development agenda of developing and least developed countries.
“For Malaysia, free trade must also mean fair trade, taking into account the economic levels of all trading partners. This is to ensure that trade relationships would not descend into new forms of colonialism, and to prevent trade being used as weapons to dominate,” said Dr Mahathir.
Speaking to foreign media after his speech, Dr Mahathir was asked to clarify the term “colonialism” he used in the speech and which country it referred to.
He said that the term was in reference to “neocolonialism”.
“Colonialism through economic power … that was the basis,” said Dr Mahathir.
“The US is also a colonial power. Every now and then they employ sanctions to countries using economics in order to force people to obey them.
“Sometimes even innocent countries have to pay the price because when there are sanctions we cannot trade with our normal partners because of sanctions applied by the US.”
He said that the US “seems to be above the UN” because “when it applies sanctions to any country, other countries are prevented from doing business with that country”.
“So this kind of using … economic pressure to cow people – this is very bad. People should be free to trade. You want to punish people you can punish but find some ways where it doesn’t affect other people,” said Dr Mahathir.