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Mahathir Calls For Asian Economies to Strengthen Resilience

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in his first major address since he announced his resignation, called for Asia to adopt more independent economic strategies. Mr. Mahathir also warned that Southeast Asia's free trade area must not fall prey to global business.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pressed for regional independence, especially in developing trade and currency systems.

He said independent thinking helped Malaysia recover from the 1997 Asian economic crisis. He was speaking Saturday to business leaders in Bangkok during a three-day official visit to Thailand.

"We should explore new and additional methods and mechanisms of doing business, rather than staying with our conventional way, in order to strengthen our resilience, and to reduce the problems that surfaced following the 1997 financial crisis," Mr. Mahathir said.

Since the crisis, Mr. Mahathir has criticized the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, saying they worsened Asia's economic woes after regional currencies collapsed. "The 1997 crisis has taught us not to be dependent on standard measures that are prescribed by international institutions. They are often not workable and bring even more hardship to the people. They reduce the options for us to manage our economy and social problems," Mr. Mahathir said.

The speech was Mr. Mahathir's first since he stunned Malaysians by announcing his resignation as head of his United Malays National Organization, UMNO and, as prime minister. After that announcement on June 22, UMNO party officers persuaded Mr. Mahathir to stay on until late 2003 and allow for a gradual transition to new leaders. Saturday, he said little about his resignation, other than that he hoped to retire in good health and be able to spend time with his family.

In his speech, Mr. Mahathir urged Southeast Asian governments to keep the region's free trade area from being used by global businesses, especially in the automotive industry. The nations in the free trade area, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, pledge to reduce import tariffs over the next few years.

Mr. Mahathir said he is concerned with foreign countries taking advantage of the free trade area, and harming local companies. Malaysia wants to slow the tariff cuts on automobiles, to protect its national car maker, Proton.