Encourage democratic, multi-ethnic tolerance.
Malaysia, a sterling model of economic development in Southeast Asia, is moving toward its first leadership change in 20 years.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 76, has been a strong leader of his country since 1981 and he has formally announced he will retire in October next year from all public positions within the government and his political party, the United Malay National Organization (UMNO).
Mahathir's retirement has been rumored for years. His protege and supposed successor, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, challenged him, was fired, arrested and convicted of abuse of power.
In neighboring Singapore, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew named himself ``senior minister'' after his official retirement. Mahathir, however, has promised he will not follow Lee's example. His intentions are not entirely clear, but considering his age and the state of his health, it is understood he intends to fully retire.
Mahathir exercised authoritarian powers and measures for a long time to advance the nation through economic development. Through a succession of five-year plans, Malaysia's manufacturing base broadened, and the nation became highly industrialized. Mahathir is surely to be commended for transforming his nation from an agricultural economy dependent upon commodity exports to a modern, industrialized economy.
Mahathir's ``Look East Policy,'' urging Malaysia to learn from the Japan example, inspired some self-consciousness here. But we were encouraged that the leader of a former European colony would forsake worship of the West to assert the nation's Asian identity.
Mahathir left his mark on international diplomacy by promoting many regional cooperation programs, among them the East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) in the early 1990s. He also addressed the Asian currency crises with originality.
Mahathir was constantly at odds with the United States, which feared its influence in the region would be eroded. But Mahathir emerged from the currency scare on his own. His vision for regional cooperation evolved into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus three (Japan, China and the Republic of Korea). Now it is time to re-evaluate his vision and his initiatives.
At the same time, the prolonged authoritarianism left increasingly clear problems. The income gap kept widening. Suppression of free speech and other undemocratic policies persisted; criticism of government emerged from several elements of Malaysian society.
The bumiputra (sons of the soil) policy, Malay-inspired self-improvement through preferential education and business policies, has, significantly, fallen flat.
Malaysia is typical of the multi-ethnic populations of Southeast Asia. While Malays dominate in politics, Chinese and Indians control trade and industry. There is no end to their bickering.
In ``The Malay's Dilemma,'' Mahathir chided his own people's laziness and tried to prod them forward. Those objectives inspired his bumiputra policy. But the income gap remains, despite the favored treatment, and ethnic Chinese are increasingly unhappy with what they regard as racist policy.
Mahathir achieved reforms and development through authoritarian means. But authoritarianism has its limits. When Mahathir retires, Malaysia needs to move toward a future of democratic coexistence of many ethnic groups.