NEW YORK: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Wednesday (Sep 25) defended remarks he made previously that were deemed anti-Semitic, saying he has the right to exercise free speech.
“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, about Malaysia, and I didn’t protest, I didn’t demonstrate,” said Dr Mahathir.
He was responding to a question at a forum at Columbia University in New York. A member of the audience had asked him to address his past comments about Jews and the Holocaust.
Identifying herself as a member of the Students Supporting Israel movement at the university, the student asked Dr Mahathir to clarify comments he made about the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust.
"In one BBC interview, you said you cannot even mention that in the Holocaust, it was not 6 million Jews who were killed," she said.
The Malaysian prime minister responded: “I have not disputed them, but I have said that ‘who determined these numbers?’ If it is somebody who is in favour, you get one figure; if somebody who is against, you get another figure.
“So I accept that there was a Holocaust, that there were many Jews killed, and in fact at one time I was very sympathetic towards them during the war, when you were not around, but I was around at that time.”
He added that people have to be willing to listen to different views.
“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," said the 94-year-old, who is in New York for the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.
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Dr Mahathir had reportedly said in June, during a visit to the United Kingdom, that he had Jewish friends who "are not like the other Jews".
He had also described Jewish people as “hook nosed”.
In January at the Oxford Union, Dr Mahathir was repeatedly challenged by students over his anti-Semitic comments. In response, he had said: “I cannot understand this. We talk about freedom of speech and yet you cannot say anything against Israel, against the Jews. Why is that so?”
Later that month, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) stripped Malaysia of the right to host the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships because the country had banned Israeli athletes.
Malaysia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.