Clinton’s 24-hr talking holiday
By WONG CHUN WAI
Bill Clinton was in Kuala Lumpur for just 24 hours. In that time, the former US president met Malaysia’s leaders, several VIPs, shopped, visited some interesting sites – and talked.
FORMER US president Bill Clinton loves to talk. That should not come as a surprise for most politicians but seriously, the man just loves to hold court and to be listened to.
He spent almost an hour on stage at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre last week, where he lectured on a broad range of issues from the need to help poor countries to the global financial crisis.
"Dr Mahathir did the right thing (in pegging the ringgit) during the 1997 financial crisis. His model worked, not necessarily elsewhere, but certainly he did the right thing." - Bill Clinton
The audience included Bank Negara Governor Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz, Cabinet members, opposition legislators, businessmen and students. It was even televised live via the Awani channel on Astro.
An hour later, at the home of his host, Datuk Vinod Sekhar, in Bukit Tunku, he spent another two hours talking. He did not even take a seat.
It was his first visit to KL and all he had was 24 hours. He had flown in from Hong Kong where he had attended the Clinton Global Initiatives conference.
I first met Clinton in New York in September, where I managed to interview him. I was allocated 15 minutes but the interview dragged on for another 20 minutes.
This time, I was luckier. Together with 15 others who included US Ambassador James Keith and Selangor Pewter boss Tan Sri Yong Poh Kon, we had the whole evening with Clinton to ourselves without the aides.
Clinton preferred to stand and talk, holding his plastic plate over a spread of Indian food.
“I love Indian food, besides Mexican and Middle Eastern food,’’ he said, as he piled food on his plate.
He had spent the morning visiting the bird park at the Lake Garden, bought wooden craft work at Karyaneka and Selangor pewter ware at the KLCC shopping mall.
He stunned shoppers when he walked into a watch shop to check out the items.
It was then off to Putrajaya for serious business where he met the Prime Minister and his deputy. The leaders had asked Clinton the same question – would president-elect Barack Obama, who has been close to the trade unions, be protectionist in his trade policies.
Clinton had replied: “This is my guess. Obama has been trying so hard to reach the rest of the world. I don’t think he would be protectionist.”
For Asian countries, where many goods are produced for the American market, the loss of jobs and the US$200mil (RM727mil) contribution from powerful unions have been a cause of concern.
They fear new regulations would be imposed on Asian manufacturers, making it difficult to enter the US market.
In the past, developing countries have experienced Democrat governments using human rights, child labour and environment issues, often egged on by unions, to impose trade rules.
But what Clinton revealed about Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was more interesting. He listed down the names of leaders he admired during his term as US president.
They included South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Palestine’s Yasser Arafat and China’s Jiang Zemin.
“And certainly, Dr Mahathir. He did the right thing (in pegging the ringgit) during the 1997 financial crisis. His model worked, not necessarily elsewhere, but certainly he did the right thing.”
Clinton said he used to discuss about Dr Mahathir at the White House with his advisers and sometimes told them that they were not practical (when they touched on politics and economics) “because you guys have never run for office.”
Interestingly, even during my interview with Clinton earlier, he had shared with me his admiration for Dr Mahathir, particularly the impressive economic growth then.
Ironically, his vice-president Al Gore irked Dr Mahathir, when he used the word “reformasi” – the rallying cry of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his supporters – during the Apec summit dinner in KL in 1998.
Clinton’s stay has been short but the Malaysian trip was something he had always wanted to do.
“It took me more than 30 minutes to travel from Putrajaya to KL. The roads were jammed. That means Malaysia is doing all right,” he joked.
From the window of his Mandarin Oriental suite, Clinton had an impressive view of the KL skyline, which included the Petronas Twin Towers.
At midnight on Friday, he left on his private jet to New York, promising to be back again.