Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Citibank in Kuala Lumpur

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Source: Thatcher Archive
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3531
Themes: Civil liberties, Commonwealth (general), Economic policy - theory and process, Trade, European Union (general), Foreign policy (Asia), Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (USA)


There can be no more challenging place to give a speech than Malaysia. One is in the ring against one of the world's formidable and trenchant speech-makers in the person of Prime Minister Mahathir. But I will take up the challenge, partly because I never refuse them, but also because I intend to deal with some of the important issues which Dr. Mahathir has himself addressed.

The Leadership of Dr Mahathir

First, however I want to pay tribute to him as a truly remarkable national leader, who has brought Malaysia to the forefront of both regional and world affairs.

Our own relations when we were both Prime Ministers got off to a bit of a sticky start in the early 1980s. He thought Britain was being unreasonable about student fees and was not treating Malaysia as a fully independent country — and he may have been right. Malaysia for its part was pursuing a buy British last campaign; and Dr. Mahathir was not exactly an enthusiastic admirer of the Commonwealth.

But together we overcame those difficulties, forged a firm friendship and inaugurated a new age of cooperation and equal partnership between Malaysia and Britain. We opened the way to a great expansion of trade and air services between our countries. And the decade ended with Dr Mahathir chairing and hosting the best organized Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting which I ever attended, the meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 1989.

Dr. Mahathir never shrinks from giving a lead, however difficult the issue. His uncompromising stand against the evil trade in drugs is one example. He has spoken out forthrightly against the self-appointed intellectual elite who absurdly want to keep the tribal people in Malaysia's remoter regions for ever in a primitive state for history's sake. By rejecting soft options he has made possible the spectacular take-off of Malaysia's economy. Leadership involves many lonely decisions, but Dr Mahathir has never faltered or ducked them.

The result is that Malaysia has been able to provide its people with very much higher living standards, while at the same time assuming a world role as a spokesman for south-east Asia.

You will find in history that it is not necessarily the biggest countries who exert the most influence, it is those with the strongest leadership and the clearest vision — and it is those qualities in their Prime Minister which have propelled Malaysia in a very brief time to its present fortunate position. Few leaders earn the title of statesman — certainly not as many as are commonly accorded it. But in Prime Minister Mahathir's case, there is no doubt that the accolade has been won by his achievements.

Malaysia's Economic Miracle

People are inclined to talk about this or that country benefitting from an economic miracle. Well, the results may sometimes be miraculous: but it's not miracles which produce them, it's determination, hard work and the right policies for growth. They are what have brought Malaysia success.

The record is remarkable indeed. Statistics in a speech can be boring, but these are calculated to make you sit up straight!

first example:

—growth over the last five years in Malaysia has averaged 8.8 per cent annually, which compares very favourably with other fast-growing Asian countries, let alone with Europe or the United States.

second example:

—that growth has been achieved without giving in to inflation. Growth in consumer prices over the same period has averaged only 3.5 per cent.

third example:

—Manufacturing now contributes thirty per cent of gross domestic product and Malaysia is, for instance, the world's largest exporter of room air conditioners and ranks among the top three countries in the world for exports of semi-conductors. You have also built the PROTON car, which is selling very well in Britain. Indeed I am told that when Dr. Mahathir travels in Britain, he passes the time by counting the number of PROTONS on our streets.

fourth example:

—on the back of this manufacturing growth, Malaysia has become the 16th largest trading nation in the GATT, a phenomenal achievement for a country with a population of only 18 million.

and a last example — for now:

—since last year Malaysia has moved from being a debtor to a creditor nation, with reserves of US$20 billion.

Policies for Growth and Prosperity

Malaysia's example offers many lessons for others to follow.

First, the Government's policy has been to build a framework within which enterprise flourishes and foreign capital is attracted to invest in Malaysia. Particular praise is due to Dr Anwar Ibrahim, the Finance Minister, for the prudent monetary and fiscal policies which he has pursued, and indeed for making Malaysia such an open financial centre. If Finance Ministers could be transferred like star football players, I could think of several very much larger countries who would pay astronomic transfer fees to get him!

Secondly, Malaysia recognizes that nobody has an automatic or inalienable right to be kept by the state and to have everything provided for them. But they do have a right to opportunity and to an education which enables them to make the fullest use of their talents and abilities.

Third, Malaysia has a rule of law which is the essential foundation for successful business, because it means that firms and foreign investors have the assurance that agreements will be honoured and rights respected. That is what gives them confidence — and it is confidence as well as the rate of return which determines where people put their money. Its marvellous to find British business so well represented in Malaysia, including some of our great trading houses.

And fourth, Malaysia has benefited very greatly from free world trade under the GATT. That is absolutely within Malaysia's rights: the GATT exists to provide growth and prosperity. But as countries progress — and particularly when they progress as fast as Malaysia — they also have an obligation to accept more of the GATT's disciplines as well as the benefits. In Malaysia's case this would mean binding more of your tariffs, joining more of the GATT voluntary codes of trade practice, and reducing unreasonably high tariffs as rapidly as possible.

The Asia-Pacific: Fulcrum of World Growth

The future is brighter still: and, in this, Malaysia's central position at the cross-roads of the wider Asia-Pacific region gives it a crucial advantage.

Once again to take just a few statistics at random:

—the area stretching from Burma eastwards has one third of the world's population, and increasingly it will be a better-off population able to afford more of the good things of life.

Meeting their consumption needs will create a gigantic market

and Malaysia with its timber, oil and gas, rubber, tin and palm oil, as well as its manufacturing, will be in a unique position to benefit.

—but its not just a growing population and higher consumption that will make the difference. Asia is constantly becoming more efficient, and saving and investing more. Across Asia, output per person is doubling every ten years, a quite remarkably short time. Saving rates are typically running as high as 30 per cent of GDP. And Asian banks now hold over one third of the world's foreign currency reserves. No wonder that in a time of recession in the US, Europe and Japan the Asia-Pacific economies have been able to maintain their growth.

—the result is that trade and investment within the region are growing exceptionally fast and will continue to do so. Nearly 50 per cent of all Asian exports now go to other countries in the region. Some 40 per cent of all the world's major infrastructure projects over the next decade will be here in the Asia-Pacific. And within little more than a decade 40 per cent of the world's fast expanding air traffic will be concentrated in the region. That is a remarkable vista of future growth opportunities.

—there is also the special case of China. What has happened there since Mr. Deng Xiaoping threw his weight whole-heartedly behind opening China to market forces is a transformation without precedent in the annals of economic growth. I know there are problems with over-heating and speculation at present but they are the problems of success. I do not believe it is possible to turn the clock back on economic reform even if anyone should want to do so; rather I would expect to see Hong Kong's return to China in 1997 speed it up still further. All the indicators point to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan becoming the main powerhouse of world growth in the opening part of the next century.

—the political consequences of this cannot be evaded. When the market is allowed to work and prosperity spreads, you create a society where people are more educated, have more contact with foreigners and foreign ideas, have more money to spend as they wish, travel more widely, speak more freely and work for individual firms not for the state. Communists can denounce democracy as much as they like now, but as recent events have shown, democracy follows economic freedom sooner or later and no-one can stop it.

Examples Not to Follow: or the Case of Europe

But the crucial test in the future will be whether the Asia-Pacific continues to have a global vision rather than just a parochial and regional view.

I support the plans for a free trade area in ASEAN of which Malaysia has been one of the champions. But if I may give you one word of warning and advice; for heaven's sake do not make the mistakes which the European Community has made! Even though it is a continent, Europe is becoming ever more insular.

Keep clear of bureaucracy, of centralizing power, of unnecessary institutions, of crippling social costs loaded on your businesses, of charters for this and charters for that, of plans for monetary and economic union and goodness knows what else besides! Because it is the ambitions of the bureaucrats to build a federal Europe, which will be the main drag on Europe's future growth, making it unable to compete effectively. If we give way to that, Europe will be on the back-burner while the rest of the world is forging ahead.

You have been wise enough so far to avoid these self-inflicted obstacles. Instead of handicapping yourselves you have freed Asia to compete and you must keep that advantage.

I am not saying that on altruistic grounds: I believe that Asia's example will force Europe to change, because without fewer barriers to trade, fewer burdens on business, less regulation and bureaucratic interference Europe will simply not keep up. The United States has responded much better than Europe to the challenge of Asia's growth by being more flexible and more competitive. You see it in the way that it has begun to win back its own car market from the Japanese by producing better, more reliable and now cheaper cars. There is nothing like competition in your own country to smarten up your own industry.

Free Trade for a Prosperous and Free World

A global vision means thinking not just about regional markets but the world market. And that can only lead you to one conclusion: more free trade.

It is no accident that the present wave of prosperity is coming much more from the East and South-East Asian economies which are opening their doors than from the wealthy western economies who are closing theirs — and it is a fact that in the last few years 60 developing countries have reduced their trade barriers, while 20 out of 24 industrialized countries have increased theirs.

The GATT trade talks must succeed, we cannot accept anything less; and agreement must cover agriculture and services as well as visible trade. The GATT is an unsung organization but one of the best of the international institutions. It does not have a flag or an anthem, but it gets things done.

If we let the GATT negotiations fail, or even worse take refuge in protectionism, our hopes for future economic growth will be dashed. That would be little short of criminal; and it may be that, if a tiny handful of countries in Europe continue to be obstructive, they just have to be left behind.

There is an even more radical option as we look further ahead. If the US Congress takes the necessary action we shall soon have a vast new free trade area in the form of NAFTA, covering the United States, Canada and Mexico. Should we not, as a long term vision, see that extended to the Asia-Pacific region? And if that happened, could Europe afford not to join as well forming a vast free trade area? A distant prospect may be, but I hope such thinking lies behind President Clinton's recent call for a conference of Asia-Pacific nations.

The Pacific: Pivot of the Future

But sparkling as the economic performance of the East and south-East Asian economies is, it should not blind us to the shifting political currents of the area. As the centre of gravity of the world economy shifts ineluctably from the European-Atlantic area to the Pacific, so the relationships between the principal countries within that great basin — Japan, China, Russia and the United States — will preoccupy all of us more and more. So too will the problems of rogue states like North Korea with its ambitions to develop nuclear weapons, which must be stopped.

It would be offensive to talk of calling in the new world to redress the balance of the old, since Asian civilizations are older than their western counterparts. But just as the scene shifts in a play, so I think the next Act in world history will be played out more in the Pacific than the Atlantic.

I believe that the Pacific is rapidly becoming America's first priority as it looks out at the world, and it is of course in the fortunate position of being both an Atlantic and a Pacific power. Henry Kissinger recently compared late twentieth century Asia to nineteenth century Europe. His point was that there are no collective security institutions like NATO or the CSCE in Asia: instead there is a balance of power, which the United States itself has a crucial role in holding. Indeed in that respect, its role is rather like Britain's in nineteenth century Europe.

Every nation has the right to defend itself and its legitimate interests. But for the smaller countries of the area the crucial consideration is that neither China nor Japan should dominate: and so long as the United States maintains an effective military presence, there is no incentive or reason for either of them to seek to do so. It is vital to maintain that American presence. It is in no-one's interests for the United States to feel rejected or unwanted.

Human Rights Out-rank Cultural Differences

These broad strategic issues should not be muddled up with the debate on democracy and human rights. These can and should be encouraged, but cannot be imposed from outside. And anyway the West is in no position morally to preach to anyone else after its vacillation over Bosnia which has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and the uprooting of two million more. I rage at the inadequacy of Europe's response to what is happening there:

the callousness which has left thousands to suffer

and the lack of will which has held us back from using air power to stop the extermination of Bosnia's Muslims, the awful process of ethnic cleansing and the dismemberment of a member of the United Nations.

If we can allow that to happen in the heart of Europe, our credibility in defending democracy and human rights elsewhere is gravely undermined.

But Europe's failure should not be an excuse for others. One hears talk of something called 'human rights imperialism'. That is a nonsense.

There are fundamental rights — freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of movement and freedom of association — which are not the property of any group of countries, nor the hallmark of one culture as opposed to others. They are basic and they apply universally. Combined with the rule of law and representative government they are the core of democracy.

It is the totalitarian societies which have tried to suppress them and they have turned out to be the biggest blind alleys of all, as we saw with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The successful societies are those — including Malaysia — in which people enjoy basic freedoms. It does not matter which route you take away from totalitarianism towards democracy: China is clearly following a different route to the former Soviet Union, by giving priority to economic reform. But the end result will be greater freedom, and we should not weave a fiction that anything less than that is justified by so-called cultural differences.

There is nothing wrong in countries and peoples being proud of their individual culture and civilization: what is wrong is when a nation falls into the wrong hands, into the hands of a dictator or tyrant. Bold nation states have been called on time and again to defend freedom. It is my belief that we should preserve and treasure our individual national characteristics and institutions which has been at the heart of my opposition to the Maastricht Treaty, which attempts to suppress the institutions and traditions of the European Community countries. Equally I find it absolutely natural for nations in Asia and elsewhere to want to defend their civilization from imported influences which threaten their religious and other values.

But what we have to avoid is constructing an artificial sense of hostility between cultures and civilizations, which pits them against each other. You have demonstrated in Malaysia how it is possible for several different cultures and religions to live and work peacefully side by side. That should be a model for the rest of the world.

Future Choice, Future Opportunities

Only just over six years from now we shall cross the threshold of a new century, indeed a new millennium.

We shall have high hopes and ambitions, indeed we must have, because a complacent humanity will never make progress. Yet it is sobering to recall how many of the dreams which inspired our forebears as they entered the twentieth century were disappointed or confounded, above all their belief that war was outdated and unnecessary.

Today many of our preoccupations are very different from only ten years ago. Then our thinking was dominated by the need to defend ourselves against communism. Now that threat is much diminished and the system which spawned it is humbled.

But the consequences of the end of the cold war and the collapse of the former Soviet Empire are very much with us. The conflicts and national passions and ambitions which were so long suppressed, have re-emerged. Borders drawn artificially by tyrants or bureaucrats across natural divisions are being challenged. Peoples without states — Palestinians and Kurds — find no relief or hope.

All this is a reminder of how little human nature changes. Churchill once wrote with his matchless eloquence:

“While men are getting knowledge and power with ever-increasing speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvement. The nature of man has remained hitherto practically unchanged. The modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds” — and I suppose that I must complete the quotation: Churchill added “and his modern woman will back him up” .

There is indeed a lot of clearing up of the past to be done: and the new world order which we hoped to see emerge from the Cold War has been a disappointment to say the least. Indeed we seem recently, and particularly in the case of Bosnia, to have forgotten what is surely the most important lesson of the twentieth century: that an aggressor must never be appeased, because it only encourages him to increase his demands and redouble his violence.

As we look ahead some of the most acute problems will be as much within our societies as between them. The days of states which sought total control over men's thoughts and actions are thankfully over, although North Korea remains a lone and unappealing survivor of this unnatural doctrine. Individual freedom, diversity and choice have proved not just morally superior, they are also essential to making a free enterprise system work efficiently. The values and virtues which we prize in free countries are honesty, self-discipline, a sense of responsibility to one's family, a sense of loyalty to one's employer and staff, a pride in the quality of one's work. All these flourish in a climate of freedom.

But that freedom is threatened, in the West certainly but I believe also more widely, by a lack of respect for the rights and freedom of others which manifests itself most clearly in rising crime and violence. The truth is that you cannot have freedom without order: and order requires both justice under a rule of law and moral and social authority. We have to re-establish the balance between freedom and order and strengthen the institutions — the family, the courts, democratically-elected governments — which provide authority. That means recognizing that people's role in democracy does not end when they cast their votes. They have to live up to and apply in daily life the standards and values which are the foundations of democracy. Otherwise democracy itself will disintegrate and decay.


At the beginning of this century the advance of science and of democracy gave cause for optimism about the future.

No-one could have forseen the events which happened.

Some would call it the Century of two terrible wars, of concentration camps and the Gulf, of totalitarian enslavement.

Others would see it as the time when freedom fought back, when 100 more nations became independent and took their place in the United Nations, when democracy extended its frontiers and former enemies began to build the structure of friendship.

We must not assume that the danger of conflict is over. Just as in medicine, viruses develop new virulent strains which have to be overcome, so in politics new tyrants await to test our resolves.

Stay vigilant and resolute; we owe that to the future, and to past heroes who gave their lives that we may enjoy ours today.