"Of course in Malaysia, because we are an Asian country, we don't have fair trials, so you can report that all over the world: that we don't have fair trials. Fair trials can [only] be had in European countries."
So began the latest diplomatic tiff in one of the more uneasy of the relationships left over from the British Empire.
It began on Thursday, when Mr Cook met Abdullah Badawi, the Malaysian Foreign Minister, at the UN General Assembly in New York. Among the subjects discussed was the fate of the Malaysian opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, and on the face of it, Mr Cook's remarks appeared fairly mild.
According to a British official, the Foreign Secretary expressed concern about Mr Anwar, the sacked deputy prime minister, who had been locked up since Sunday when he lead a large demonstration against Mr Mahathir. He said that it was important that due processes of law be seen to be followed, and asked that Mr Anwar be granted access to his lawyers.
Mr Abdullah appears to have taken Mr Cook's remarks calmly, but for Dr Mahathir, touchy about patronising remarks from the former colonial power, it was a red rag to a bull. At the latest in a series of increasingly emotional press conferences, he raged against Mr Cook, Mr Anwar and the "lies" being propagated against him by the foreign media.
"Why don't you tell the truth once in a while?" he demanded. "Even in Britain they detain people under the Prevention of Terrorism Act or something like that.
"Osama bin Laden's men, seven or eight of them, were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act ... it seems this is a universal law in many countries."
He also accused Mr Cook of hypocrisy for not mentioning the matter last Monday, when the two men met in Kuala Lumpur during the Queen's state visit. "When he was here it is strange that he never asked me about anything," Dr Mahathir observed. "He could have had it from the so-called horse's mouth."
Dr Mahathir's ample scorn has often vented itself on Britain. In the 1980s, after a row over fees charged to Malaysian students, he mounted a "Buy British Last" campaign. In 1994, the Pergau Dam affair provoked another boycott. In a Malaysian newspaper yesterday he accused the foreign media of harbouring a desire to "hand [Malaysia] back to the colonial masters so that they run the country better".
But Britain is not alone in expressing concern about the state of human rights in Malaysia where more than 140 people have been arrested for demonstrating against the government, and where riot police chased protesters the precincts of the National Mosque yesterday.
The US State Department expressed similar concern about Malaysia's Internal Security Act which, unlike the Prevention of Terrorism Act, allows indefinite detention without charge or access to lawyers.
John Howard, Australia's Prime Minister, earned an official complaint when he accused Dr Mahathir of drifting toward authoritarianism.Reuse content