21 October 2003

After a final bruising encounter with the West, Islam's
fiery spokesman Dr Mahathir bows out of public life

By Kathy Marks in Sydney

No one thought Mahathir Mohamad would go quietly. But few expected a row of the magnitude that saw Malaysia's Prime Minister taken aside by President George Bush yesterday and told in no uncertain terms his remarks about Jews were "wrong and divisive".
The frosty encounter was at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, which opened in Bangkok yesterday, attended by 21 world leaders. The meeting should have been an occasion to honour Dr Mahathir, retiring at the end of this month after 22 years of autocratic rule. Instead, it has turned into another storm for the combative Malaysian leader, who claimed last week: "Jews rule the world by proxy ... they get others to fight and die for them."
The comment, at an Islamic summit, provoked an international uproar. The EU, Australia and the US condemned it. Yesterday, a White House spokesman said, Mr Bush told the 78-year-old Dr Mahathir: "It stands squarely against what I believe in."
The spokesman did not record the response of Asia's longest-serving elected leader, but it might be assumed that Dr Mahathir - making his final appearance on the international stage - was not particularly contrite. Dr M, as he is affectionately known at home, has never worried about diplomatic niceties. His intemperate outbursts have become the stuff of legend, although he often feigns surprise when offence is taken.
When he finally relinquishes his iron grip on power, his old adversaries, particularly in the US, Britain and Australia, will probably heave a sigh of relief.
But while he may not be popular in the West, his standing is high in his own region, where he is an outspoken champion of Muslim causes and of the developing world.
In Malaysia, a former British colony which he has transformed from an economic backwater into one of Asia's wealthiest countries, most people find it difficult to imagine life post-Mahathir. "Whenever you think of Malaysia, you think of Dr M," said Zuraini Harun, a 32-year-old Kuala Lumpur café manager whose generation has known no other leader. "Mahathir is Malaysia."
Many people harbour a deep attachment for their authoritarian leader. Crowds thronged to hear his farewell speech to his ruling United Malays National Organisation party in June, blocking city streets as they watched him on giant television screens.
He initially announced his retirement last year, but was persuaded to postpone it by his tearful deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Although economic achievements have given Malaysia self-confidence, not everyone in the ethnically diverse nation of 24 million people is happy. Dr Mahathir has blatantly favoured the ethnic Malay majority over the large Chinese and Indian communities. Critics say the independence of the press and judiciary has been eroded, and a culture of cronyism and government unaccountability has thrived.
Malaysia is nominally a democracy, but Dr Mahathir has brooked no dissent. Political opponents have been locked up without trial and his former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, once his anointed successor, is languishing in jail, six years into a 15-year sentence for corruption and sodomy.
Mr Anwar's sin was to question the handling of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, a move interpreted as a leadership challenge. Dr Mahathir fired him, accusing him of conducting secret [and illegal] homosexual relationships. Mr Anwar organised Malaysia's largest street protests for years, calling for sweeping government reform. Arrested and beaten in jail by the chief of police, he was left a virtual cripple. His conviction provoked more riots and was widely condemned.
Britain was more than happy to do business with Malaysia, negotiating a £417m aid deal to build the controversial Pergau Dam in exchange for orders for fighter aircraft from British arms manufacturers. The agreement was struck under Baroness Thatcher, and was revealed when a secret memo of understanding became public. The British government had ignored warnings that the project was environmentally flawed; large areas of rainforest were destroyed and the habitats of rare wildlife threatened.
Over the years, Dr Mahathir has become famous for his fiery rhetoric. In 1997 he blamed the financial crisis on George Soros, the American financier, calling him a "moron" and noting that he was Jewish. This year, he described those who died in the World Trade Centre and the Bali bomb as "collaterals".
The irony is that Dr Mahathir is actually a voice of moderation in the Muslim world. He has spent most of his career fighting religious fundamentalism and preaching tolerance. The main point of his speech last week was that Muslims should give up violence and modernise. Unlike some of his Asian contemporaries, such as the former Indonesian president, Suharto, he has never sought to enrich himself.
Even his critics acknowledge that he has managed to maintain racial harmony, with Malaysia avoiding the ethnic and religious turmoil that has blighted neighbouring Indonesia. Racial riots that left hundreds of people dead in 1969 are a fading memory.
Malaysia is a modern secular society, albeit with a strong Islamic influence. Teenage girls in designer jeans and Muslim headscarves go window-shopping in suburban malls, and Chinese men play mahjong over beer and pork crackling in nearby cafes. A physician from the northern state of Kedah, Dr Mahathir made his name in politics by defining what he called the "Malay dilemma", portraying Malays as downtrodden by the economically superior Chinese. Malays are now guaranteed places at universities, shareholdings in corporations and other benefits.
During the Asian boom years of the 1980s and early 1990s, Dr Mahathir energetically wooed foreign investment, spending billions of dollars on occasionally grandiose mega-projects; Kuala Lumpur has some of the world's tallest buildings. He made Malaysia into one of the top 20 trading nations, with a national auto industry and major exports of tin and rubber.
Dr Mahathir has condemned the war on terrorism as anti-Muslim and accused the US of "trying to out-terrorise the terrorists". But he has proved a valuable ally. Malaysia has arrested more than 70 suspected members of Jemaah Islamiyah, the regional terrorist network, detaining them without trial.
Dr Mahathir's handpicked successor, Badawi, is dull by comparison. A former Islamic student and career politician, he will find it difficult to stamp his personality on a country that, for nearly half of the period since gaining independence from Britain in 1957, has been dominated by one man.
But few people expect Dr Mahathir to disappear from public life. As a former US ambassador, John Malott, said: "It is not Mahathir's style to remain silent."

Tue October 21, 2003

Unrepentant Mahathir Says Jews Control the World

BANGKOK (Reuters) - An unrepentant Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad repeated charges that Jews ruled the world, despite criticism from President Bush, and immediately drew a swift, icy response from Australia.
Mahathir told the Bangkok Post newspaper in an interview published on Tuesday that widespread criticism of his recent remark that "Jews rule the world by proxy" proved he was right.
"The reaction of the world shows that they control the world," Mahathir, who steps down at the end of the month after 22 years in power, told the newspaper.
"Israel is a small country. There are not so many Jews in the world. But they are so arrogant, they defy the whole world. Even if the United Nations says no, they go ahead. Why? Because they have the backing of all these people," Mahathir said.
Bush told Mahathir on Monday his original comment -- which the outspoken leader of largely Muslim Malaysia said was taken out of context -- "was wrong and divisive," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
"It stands squarely against what I believe," he quoted Bush as telling Mahathir during the annual summit of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard, speaking after the Bangkok Post interview was published, said he would be no more than polite when he met Mahathir on the final day of the summit.
"I will maintain cordiality and no more with Dr Mahathir," he said.
In the interview, Mahathir complained that reports of his remarks last week to an Islamic summit in Malaysia, which the United States, the European Union, Australia and others denounced as anti-Semitic, "just picked up one sentence in my speech."
News accounts had ignored his condemnation of all violence, including suicide bombings, and his call on Muslims to heed the teachings of the Koran and talk peace with Israel, he said.
Asked why he thought this was the case, Mahathir replied: "Well, many newspapers are owned by Jews. They only see that angle and they have a powerful influence over the thinking of many people. Only their side of the picture is given now."
Mahathir accused the United States and the EU of double standards for calling his speech anti-Semitic while declining to criticize Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for saying in September 2001 that Western civilization was superior to Islam.

21 October 2003

Force no use, Mahathir tells US

From correspondents in Bangkok

MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told the United States today it must learn conflicts will never by won by using brute force.
Asked in an interview with the Bangkok Post whether Washington was capable of resolving the campaigns it had started, he replied: "Not in the way they are approaching conflicts."
"They must learn... it is sad to see that American embassies all around the world have to be protected.
"That's a measure of the bad feelings against the Americans now. That's because they changed in attitude. They have become so powerful. They are the only power in the world and they don't care any more whether we like them or not.
"They can force us to submit to them and that is the basis of their foreign policy: using force. If you are not a democratic country, I will apply sanctions against you."
The veteran leader, considered the elder statesman of Southeast Asia, said he believed this was the wrong approach.
"Using force to make people democratic, I think is wrong," he said.
"People must accept democracy because it is a good system. You preach democracy, you don't go around saying 'Now you must be democratic'. I think the wrong things are being done."
Mr Mahathir, who cited Malaysia's extensive experience of dealing with terrorism, said Washington should instead look at the root cause of why people crashed airliners into skyscrapers, referring to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
"The way we deal with it is to find what is bugging them," he said. "Why are they doing this? We then tackle the problem.
"Yes, you can apply military pressure but find the root cause, the political cause, and we have conveyed this to everyone.
"But there are some who believe massive retaliation is the answer. You kill one of my people, I will kill 100 of your people. This is not going to work."
The Malaysian Government fiercely opposed the US-led strike on Iraq. Since US President George W. Bush declared major hostilities were over on May 1, more than 100 US soldiers have been killed in what has become a guerrilla campaign.
The 77-year-old Mr Mahathir, due to retire at the end of this month after 22 years in power, is an outspoken critic of many US policies.

October 21, 2003

Malaysian Leader's Talk Attacking Jews
Draws Ire From Bush


BANGKOK, Tuesday, Oct. 21 — President Bush told Malaysia's pugnacious prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, on Monday that he was "wrong and divisive" when he declared last week that Jews ran the world by proxy.
Mr. Bush, who rarely recounts his private conversations with other world leaders, sent his press secretary out to report the encounter at the opening of the Asian summit meeting here. The president said the Malaysian leader's comment "stands squarely against what I believe in."
It was a strange and choreographed encounter, another twist in an up-and-down relationship. For four days after Mr. Mahathir spun out his theory of how Jews survived efforts to destroy them — and then went on to succeed at the expense of Muslims — Mr. Bush was silent on the speech, even as Italy, Australia and other countries condemned it as offensive and anti-Semitic. [Excerpts from the speech, Page A13.]
Mr. Mahathir is retiring in a few months, and it seemed that the White House had decided not to pick an open fight with a prickly leader whom Mr. Bush praised in the Oval Office last year as a strong ally in the campaign against terrorism.
In fact, Malaysia has often been cited by administration officials as an exemplary moderate Islamic nation, even if it was run by a man who once blamed the Asian financial crisis in 1997 on the Jews and often said Western-style democracy would be a disaster in the developing world.
Mr. Bush began to sour on Mr. Mahathir this year, though, when he declared that invading Iraq would be a racist attack on a Muslim state.
But by the time Mr. Bush landed in this jammed capital for a state visit and the two-day annual summit meeting, it became clear, White House officials said, that the president could no longer be silent.
So Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, told reporters on Monday that "everyone thinks the comments were hateful, they are outrageous," and that Mr. Bush regarded them as "reprehensible."
"I don't think they are emblematic of the Muslim world," she said.
But as Mr. Bush prepares to drop in, for three hours on Wednesday, on the most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, some White House officials are clearly concerned that Mr. Mahathir's speech on Thursday may have had considerable resonance.
It received a standing ovation from Muslim leaders of many nations, including Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, at the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world's largest Muslim group.
"Clearly, we had to respond," one White House official said Monday. "But the president wanted to do it in a quiet way, without further public embarrassment for Mahathir."
In the past, Mr. Bush has bitten his tongue when asked about Mr. Mahathir. When the two men took questions from reporters in the Oval Office in May 2002, the president was asked whether the United States had changed its view that Mr. Mahathir's former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was a political prisoner.
Mr. Ibrahim, the former finance minister and a potential rival to Mr. Mahathir, was convicted of sodomy and jailed in 1998. But the president, intent that day on emphasizing Malaysia's cooperation in fighting terrorism, made no public reference to Mr. Ibrahim's fate, and said, quietly, "Our position has not changed."
Mr. Mahathir clearly knew that his comments last week would gain considerable circulation: there were cameras in the room, recording his farewell speech to the group. It included these words: "The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy: They get others to fight and die for them."
He seemed, in some of his remarks, to be saying that Muslims should study the success of Jews. Later, he defended his remarks by citing that point. But he added that "1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews."
Mr. Mahathir told Mr. Bush on Monday that he was quoted out of context. His foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar, later told Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that the speech was more critical of Muslims than of Jews, and that only "one or two portions" had been problematic.
Mr. Mahathir expanded on his views in an interview with The Bangkok Post published on Tuesday. He said, "In my speech I condemned all violence, even the suicide bombings," adding later, "but those things were blacked out in the Western media." Then he said, referring to Jews, "The reaction of the world shows that they do control the world."
"Israel is a small country," he said. "There are not many Jews in the world. But they are so arrogant, they defy the whole world. Even if the United Nations says no, they go ahead. Why? Because they have the backing of all these people."