2018 in review

Southeast Asian leaders’ most controversial quotes

This year has been a whirlwind of surprising news and geopolitical drama in Southeast Asia, with three elections, infamous imprisonments and a meeting in Singapore of two of the world’s most caricaturesque political figures. One constant though, is the propensity of the region’s leaders to serve up memorable quotes. Southeast Asia Globe offers these shocking, funny, bizarre and sometimes sad remarks from different leaders in our neighbourhood as a parting glance at an eventful 2018

Lily Hess
December 25, 2018
Southeast Asian leaders’ most controversial quotes


Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he speaks during a visit at a drug rehabilitation center in Las Pinas city, south of Manila, Philippines, 13 December 2018 Photo: Francis R. Malasig / EPA-EFE

Adam ate it (the fruit from the forbidden tree), then malice was born. Who is this stupid God? You are really a stupid son of a whore if that is the case… You created something perfect, and then you think of an event that would tempt and destroy the quality of your work. How can you rationalise a God… would you believe that? – 22 June

The Philippine president has been running a long-standing verbal battle with the country’s Catholic Church, a powerful institution in a nation where four in five people are Catholic. The church is opposed to Duterte’s extrajudicial “war on drugs”, which has seen thousands killed without trial.

These bishops that you guys have, kill them. They are useless fools. All they do is criticise… I never said I do not believe in God. What I said is your God is stupid, mine has a lot of common sense. That’s what I told the bishops. I never said I was an atheist – 5 December

In a speech at the presidential palace, Duterte said these words, an apparent reference to June statement where he called God “stupid” and a “son of a whore”.

While unveiling the marker of a hotel in Las Piñas City on 14 December, he claimed that a bishop had wished for his death:

If you priests, bishops, if you can say that to me, wish me the… to die in a mass, why will I not talk? You should too. Anyway, who will believe that you will go to heaven? You’re dreaming. All of us, we’ll see each other in hell


Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen takes a picture with garment factory workers in Phnom Penh. This year he claimed a landslide victory in the country’s general election after the main opposition party was controversially dissolved in late 2017 Photo: Mak Remissa EPA-EFE

Let me remind you… don’t be rude. People who were recently released… don’t defy me. Do not think that we cannot imprison you again. In Cambodia, there are no laws that prohibit people who were already in prison, to go to jail again for the second or third time. That is not to say that we are shutting your mouth. You can still speak, as long as what you say doesn’t violate other peoples’ rights – 24 August

 The Cambodian prime minister’s comments, reported by the Phnom Penh Post, were directed at activists, journalists and other figures that were released from prison after a pardon from the Cambodian king. Many were imprisoned last year following the Supreme Court’s order to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, including its leader Kem Sokha. The crackdown on opposing voices is viewed by many as a major step in the country’s slide towards authoritarianism as Hun Sen continues his 33-year rule.

Overhearing a nurse wonder aloud why a lightning strike in May killed five people in Koh Kong province, Hun Sen said in a speech to garment factory workers:

To the nurse I would like to say … it was members of the opposition who got hit by lightning. I heard [of the incident] and I said it happened because [they] insulted Hun Sen so many times.

Sometimes, their fortune is not as high as Hun Sen’s. Sometimes [the opposition] insult Hun Sen then die in car crashes, get struck by lightning, get electrocuted, or perish in a home fire – 23 May


Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha deals with the media in his own unique way

If you want to ask any questions on politics or conflict, ask this guy –  8 January

Thailand’s prime minister caused a stir on social media when, instead of ending his speech in the normal manner by taking questions, he took out a life-sized cardboard cut-out of himself and placed it in front of the microphone, before walking away.

Prayuth, the general who was instated as prime minister following Thailand’s 2014 coup, has a hostile relationship with the media. In 2015, he said he would execute journalists who “did not report the truth” about his government.

Could you please stand up. Stand up please. Sleepy. It’s Japanese style… It’s Japanese style – 10 October

The prime minister also tends to lead exercises, such as during a visit to a forum in Tokyo, where he led the mostly Japanese audience in a stretching session, which was caught in a video and caused mixed reactions among Thais on social media. Prayuth also once ordered public servants to work out once a week – “Workout Wednesdays” – after hearing that Thais were becoming more sedentary.

Prayuth also writes songs. Diamond Heart, which he released just before Valentine’s Day, was a flop. As of the time of writing, It has just over 8,000 “likes” and 47,000 “dislikes” on Youtube.

Make your heart a real diamond, unrelenting,
Side by side today together, obstacles mean nothing,
The lessons we learn are new every day,
We have to build our hearts’ dream together so it’s resilient


Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi surrounded by security and attendees as she leaves after her keynote speech at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit on the sidelines of the 33rd Asean Summit in Singapore Photo: How Hwee Young / EPA-EFE

Our [Aung San Suu Kyi’s government’s] relationship with the army is not that bad… Don’t forget that we have three members of the cabinet who are in fact military men, generals, and they’re all rather sweet – 21 August

The Myanmar State Counsellor and de facto head of the Myanmar government said when asked if she feared another military coup during an event in Singapore. The military had placed her in house arrest for more than 15 years before she gained power in 2012. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s reputation has taken a drastic downturn since the country’s military began a violent crackdown against the Rohingya people, which the UN has decried as a genocide. There have been many accounts of massacres, rape, torture, and destruction of entire villages. Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the crisis has drawn widespread international condemnation.


Mahathir Mohamad (R), now Malaysia’s prime minister, helped former PM Najib Razak (L) to power in 2009 before turning against him and running in opposition to him at the general election earlier this year Photo: Shamshahrin Shamsudin / EPA

I’m not party to the yacht, the paintings… I’ve never seen those paintings whatsoever… I was not aware of these purchases. This was done without my knowledge. I would never authorise 1MDB funds to be used for any of these items. I’ve been in government so long, I know what’s right and what’s wrong – 19 June

That was former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaking to Reuters shortly after being defeated at this year’s general election. He was unseated during elections in May, allowing investigations into the quasi-sovereign wealth fund 1MDB scandal to progress. Najib is accused of having funnelled almost $700m from the fund to his personal accounts. Money siphoned from 1MDB has allegedly been used to purchase luxury property and a superyacht as well as fund extravagant shopping sprees and Hollywood films.

So what does Mahathir Mohamad, the wily 93-year-old who this year replaced Najib as prime minister, think of his former-ally-turned-foe:

The biggest mistake that I have made in my life is choosing Najib. Ladies and gentlemen, I want to fix this mistake so I am trying my best – 1 May

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