November 1, 2003

Mahathir, Malaysia's Autocratic
Modernizer, Steps Down


                     Associated Press
Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, left, retired, handing over files to his successor, Abdullah Badawi. Mr. Badawi is expected to present a more subdued image than the outspoken Dr. Mahathir.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Oct. 31 Asia's longest-serving leader, Mahathir Mohamad, stepped down Friday, leaving a legacy of a modern Muslim nation that he molded on the back of often autocratic rule and the use of tirades often anti-Western and anti-Semitic intended to create national cohesiveness.
Dr. Mahathir, 77, better known on the international stage for his crude outbursts than his economic and political accomplishments at home, handed power to a handpicked successor, Abdullah Badawi, 63, in a televised ceremony in the new government capital, Putrajaya.
During his 22 years as prime minister, Dr. Mahathir managed to forge a nation out of a disparate ethnic mix of a Malay majority and Chinese and Indian minorities. Unlike the bloody ends of the reigns of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and General Suharto of Indonesia, two other strongmen of his era, his departure, announced 16 months ago, was peaceful.
Dr. Mahathir transformed an economy dependent on tin, rubber and palm oil into one of the major trading nations of Southeast Asia and the exporter of most of the world's Dell laptop computers and Intel high-end processors.
"It has been a remarkable transformation," said Joseph E. Stiglitz, professor of economics at Columbia University and winner of the Nobel in economic science in 2001. "They have attracted foreign direct investment, improved technologically and become a country that is helping other developing countries. I think it is an alternative to the extremism we see in much of the world."
In the sleek capital of glass and steel towers here, women in the latest fashions from Prada and Ferragamo saunter the shopping malls in high heels and head scarves. Further out in the hinterland there are plans for a new rail line stretching the length of the Malay Peninsula.
Islam is the official state religion, and a strict version of Shariah law applies to Muslims in two of Malaysia's provinces. Recently an unmarried woman was fined more than $1,000 for sitting too close to a man to whom she was not related.
How to square Dr. Mahathir's modernization with the increasing religiosity among the Malay Muslims is one of the crucial questions at the end of his era.
The answer lies in the notion that Malaysia, with a manageable population of 23 million, can demonstrate that modernity and Islam are compatible, says Karim Raslan, a lawyer educated at Cambridge University in Britain and one of the younger generation of commentators here.
"For those who come from the Enlightenment tradition, the increasing religiosity is very distressing," Mr. Raslan said. "But we live in the real world."
Thus, Mr. Raslan said, Malaysian political dialogue will probably be cast even further in an Islamic framework, though that does not mean that modernization or the steps toward more democracy will end. "Malaysian Muslims have become much more conservative religiously," he said, "so you have to be able to argue and to present all the policies in terms of Islam. The division between the mosque and the state no longer exists."
Dr. Mahathir's rants against Jews drew a strong rebuke from President Bush, who said he told the prime minister his remarks were "wrong and divisive." But Dr. Mahathir denied the president's account, saying, "All he said was that `I regret today to have to use strong words against you.' "
The rants served a political purpose at home, analysts here say, and also helped propel Dr. Mahathir onto the world stage, where he felt he belonged, along with the better-known senior minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, they said.
By criticizing the Jews which he continued to do in his last week in office Dr. Mahathir was trying to burnish his credentials among Malaysia's Islamic religious community, said Jomo K. Sundram, a critic of Dr. Mahathir and a professor of applied economics at the University of Malaysia.
Much of Dr. Mahathir's speech to the conference was a scathing attack on leaders of Muslim religious organizations, or ulamas, another favorite Mahathir theme. He accused them of failing to bring their people into the modern world.