Manuscripts/Mixed Material Interview with Donald McConville
McCONVILLE: When I first got there, it was a guy named Ron Palmer. He was there for two years, and then the final year - I'm trying to remember the guy's name; it was Tom. He was an old Japanese hand. He had actually been the consul general in Hong Kong. It was his last tour and he became ambassador to Malaysia. Both of them were career officers. In any event, it was an unusual relationship. Economically Malaysia was doing very well. They're very blessed with natural resources, particularly rubber and tin, although rubber and tin were becoming more of a problem area at that time than they had been, but also with petroleum, and petroleum might have been particularly significant. It wasn't produced on the scale of Indonesia or any of the Arab countries, but it was generating a lot of resources. One of the legacies of the British colonial rule in Malaysia had been to leave in place a very capable civil administration. The civil servants and so forth were of pretty high quality. Now, they were almost all Malays under this sort of arrangement that Malaysia had this understanding between the races that the Malays would dominate the political situation as long as the Chinese were left to pursue their economic interests without too much interference. The Indians, being a much smaller minority, also had to carve out their own role. But it was, in appearance at least, a democracy, but it was a democracy in which the Malays ran the government and the elections were open and fair, but the Malay political party was pretty authoritarian in its own right and could pretty much dictate what happened within the country. The press was free up to a point, but if they overstepped their bounds at all, they could quickly be controlled. At this particular time, tin was still important in Malaysia, and Malaysia was the world's largest tin producer, but Mahathir, in his early days as prime minister, shortly before I had gotten there, he and some of the people around him had been enticed by one Mark Rich into a scheme to corner the tin market. They had done this all covertly, of course, and the attempt ultimately had failed. They hadn't succeeded in cornering enough of the market, and what really had thrown the real wrench into it was that the U.S. had significant stocks of tin in its GSA (General Services Administration) stockpile and the U.S. began making releases of tin from that stockpile, and this had undercut this effort to corner the tin market. Mahathir never admitted that the government of Malaysia was in fact involved in this effort, but he was personally intensely angry at the U.S. for what he considered had been this effort that had scuttled his plans. So literally during the first year or so I was there, Mahathir never failed to mention, whenever he spoke to anybody, whether it be a group of little old ladies that came by or the visiting prime minister of the UK (United Kingdom)or whoever it was that had any kind of meeting, that he would denounce the USA GSA tin sales. Some of the people who were very pragmatic and also very pro-American within his inner circle saw this as being harmful to Malaysia's interest but they still had to deal with this quirky sort of personality of Mahateer. So they had been approaching us, and we had done a little ferreting on our own, we in the embassy, Ambassador Palmer and myself and some others, and they indicated to us that they would like to find a way to develop a better relationship between Malaysia and the United States but we had to find some way of finessing this tin issue and to come up with some sort of agreement on U.S. tin sales. The most important tin producers, other than Bolivia, which was sort of a wild card, were Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, so this was to be a U.S.-ASEAN agreement on tin. Also, GSA at the time that was like a black box. They would absolutely refuse to discuss their policy about releases and so forth. What the ASEAN countries — primarily Malaysia; Indonesia and Thailand were willing to settle for almost anything that Malaysia would be — wanted was to just get some kind of agreement with us that GSA would just consult with them, just give them an opportunity to have their say. They weren't expecting any promises or any commitments but simply just to be able to have annual consultations. Fortunately, about this time there was a new man named to head GSA in the United States, and when he came to understand this, this made eminent sense to him because he saw the importance to the U.S. of having good relations with these ASEAN countries and there was practically no cost to this. We simply had to go through the motions of having a consultation, letting them have their say. So we ultimately were able to work out an agreement, and we in the embassy were largely the instigators of this. We were dealing with some inner circle of Mahathir's that was outside of the regular foreign policy establishment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and so forth, in Malaysia, and we ruffled a few feathers there.