July 18, 2001

Staying Young and Hungry
Congratulations, Mahathir Mohamad

As a lifelong social anarchist, I have always taken delight in not being consistent and never being committed. If you spot the oxymoron in that sentence, stop reading now. The rest of you, listen. This morning, over morning tea in my cramped Bangkok office, an article from the New York Times provoked a sublime mental reverie. It was about the actor Chris Noth, star of a T.V. show called Sex and the City. I rarely watch television, so there is little I can tell you about the program. But I know a bit about actors, having been the theater critic on a newspaper in Canada for several years. I can tell that Mr. Noth is a different kind of guy. My kind of guy, you might say.
"People are so phobic and crazed about this word ‘commitment’," says Noth. "It’s weird. When I was a kid in the late ‘60s, we talked about politics and world events and free love." Ah, the naïve musings of a fellow sentimentalist. If you talk about politics and world events and free love at a gathering these days — at least, if you do so in a way that runs counter to the antiseptic, politically-correct herd view and if you do it with any degree of intensity — then prepare to scratch out your social calendar for the rest of the year. It is simply not done. An even worse gaffe is to disparage commitment. It is akin to mocking motherhood or extolling paedophilia.
But I am not commited to anything or anyone. The thought of being so gives me the shivers. Like Noth, I find the notion of commitment "weird." Likewise, the idea of being consistent. Anyone who is consistent is stunted and mentally etiolated. A trio of book titles sum up my anti-credo: Previous Convictions by the British writer, Cyril Connolly, Stay Hungry by the American Charles Gaines, and Loyalty Demands Dissent by the Thai social activist Sulak Sivaraksa. Combine these and you have a recipe for remaining young at heart. Never get complacent and loyally committed to any job, place, person or principle. If you feel nicely satiated and comfortably secure, it is time to get out and get hungry again. Most crucially, never become consistent in your convictions about anything. Do not, as another famous writer put it recently, "go dead inside." The world is full of living corpses. Do not become one of them.
Why am I telling you this? Take a look at Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. July 16 was the 20th anniversary of the date he assumed the leadership of Malaysia. Today, despite occasional inflammatory reports to the contrary, that ethnic tinderbox of a country remains essentially stable and at peace. And the iconoclastic Dr. Mahathir himself is as mentally alert, as alive and vibrant, as he ever was. Constantly reinventing himself, this world statesman towers over anyone else in the region. Last year, for this magazine’s annual list of the 50 Most Powerful People in Asia, I nominated Mahathir for the No. 1 slot. My editors disagreed. I argued. I lost. They did the same when, for a column I was assigned to write on ‘my ideal cabinet’, as part of the Power-50 package, I proposed naming Dr Mahathir as the ideal prime minister. Again, I was rebutted. Fair enough. Some arguments you win, some you lose. I take it all equably. But my core view about Dr Mahathir’s stature remains. And my guess is that the still young-at-heart premier will have the last laugh. He, too, is my kind of guy. Happy anniversary, Dr M.