Photo: David Ausserhofer

“We need a democratic process for Gaza”

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on his ties to Hamas, Germany’s ‘China-phobia’ and why his years in prison made him an optimist.

Körber-Stiftung: Prime minister, after the terror attacks by Hamas on Israel, the Israeli military responded with war in Gaza, which left millions of people displaced and ten thousand killed. What is your view on the situation?

Anwar Ibrahim: The problem in the Middle East, particularly in Palestine and Gaza, began long before Hamas was formed. It has been there since 1948 …

When the state of Israel emerged from the British Mandate for Palestine.

… and my example here is Nelson Mandela and South Africa. When a country is colonized, or has an apartheid policy, or ethnic cleansing or is virtually dispossessed, people take extreme measures. This is the reason for the conflict in Palestine and Gaza right now.

Does this justify violence and the horrific Hamas attacks?

I do not accept violence. I do not accept the taking of hostages. I condemn any mistreatment of women, children and civilians. This is the principle.

Hamas has been on the EU’s terror list since 2001 and has been completely banned in Germany since the attacks last October. It is said that you have strong ties to the organization. Why ties with Hamas?

Because once I take a biased position with Hamas, then there is no form, no possibility to negotiate. I share this view because I want to be able to do that. But do I accept everything that Hamas does? I do not. I am very clear that our engagement is with the political wing of Hamas. And there is no reason why I should define our foreign policy according to the dictates of other countries.

There has been no ceasefire, Hamas is still holding more than 100 people hostage and the humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire. What is the way forward?

We have to find an amicable solution to the conflict. It is not for me to decide whether the Israelis want Netanyahu or not. And I do not think it is for me to decide who wants the Hamas leadership or not. It should be a representative, democratic process for the people of Gaza or Palestine as a whole, including the West Bank, to decide what is the best option.

But you do not see Hamas as an obstacle in this process?

Not if there is a proposal for a comprehensive solution. I cannot say that I can speak with certainty about the Hamas point of view. The engagement is very minimal. When I talk to them, it is about humanitarian aid or other issues of concern.

Let us broaden the picture. You have recently said that ‘Malaysia is struggling to survive in a very complex world.‘ What do you mean by that?

We are fortunate because despite all these problems, we Malaysians live in one of the most peaceful regions in the world. We have one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. In that context, I ask myself, how do we ensure that we take the economy back to the period of the 1990s when we did even better?

Malaysia is ranked 50th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2023.

Because we have inherited a semi-rotten system of endemic corruption and abuse in Malaysia. If this can be resolved, there will be greater confidence in our economy. As you have seen in the last year, there has been a huge increase in interest and foreign investments in Malaysia, even from Germany. We are becoming a hub for the energy transition and modern technology. And our advantage is that we maintain very good relations with Europe and with China.

You have condemned a rising tide of ‘China-phobia’ in the West. Our The Berlin Pulse survey shows that Germans have become more sceptical about China, and Germany’s government recently announced in its China strategy to de-risk from China, which gives more importance to countries like Malaysia. Does Malaysia benefit from ‘China-phobia’?

We do not exploit other people’s difficulties to empower and enrich ourselves. But the fact remains that with the experience of Europe and the Russia-Ukraine crisis, there is a little more concern about being too dependent on China. The result is the de-risking policy towards China.

Can you understand that China is considered a risk in Europe?

I disagree because we have not had a real problem with China for half a century. We may have differences in political ideology, but that has not affected our interests. We are very close allies of the West and we have a very close affinity with China. The Germans and the Europeans look at Malaysia and ASEAN as an attractive destination to be able to mend relations and navigate between the United States and China.

The confrontation between the United States and China is another concern in international politics. Including for many Germans, who are slowly losing their optimism in the face of so many wars and conflicts. Can you understand that?

My life has been turbulent, and I have suffered immensely for a long time. I have spent more than a decade in prison, in and out. But I remain very optimistic. Look at Germany. Not many countries in the world throughout history can manage and survive after the complete devastation and destruction it experienced. I see it very positively. The problem you are facing now is minimal compared to what you had to endure for so long.

Thank you for your time, prime minister.

The interview was conducted by Julia Ganter and Jonathan Lehrer on March 13, 2024 during the Prime Minister’s state visit to Germany.

The Berlin Pulse – Express Edition

In our online series Express Edition, we merge insights from our annual poll of German public opinion with ongoing global events in world politics. Express Edition engages in timely debates on international affairs, featuring discussions with and opinions from high-ranking decision-makers and experts worldwide.