Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Tribute to Mahathir

By Edgardo B. Espiritu
Second of two parts

MAHATHIR not only takes clear and often extreme positions on issues, he also has an acerbic tongue and exceptional facility with words. As a schoolboy, he already showed excellent language skills, being the winner year after year of the English prize and was the editor of his school magazine. When he was a young medical student he wrote a series of articles for the Singapore Sunday Times, in which he gave fresh insights into Malay society and its problems. As a mature politician and public figure, he authored some 16 books on various subjects in the fields of politics, economics, culture and even religion. He is certainly one of the most outspoken leaders in the modern world, with a penchant for using the most cutting and provocative words to make his point.
This trait has recently thrust him again into controversy when he said in a speech before the Organization of Islamic Conference that “now Jews rule the world by proxy” and that “they get others to fight and die for them.” No less than the US president has put him to task for what much of the West considers an insensitive anti-Semitic remark. (But his supporters explain that he is being quoted out of context and that what he was really trying to say was that Muslims should really emulate the Jews’ response to oppression, which is to use the intellect and education rather than brawn and violence.) In any case, I think most of his countrymen prefer their leader to be straight talking, meaning what he says and saying what he means, rather than one who hides his real intentions behind fuzzy words.
But many of his critics say that Mahathir halted or even reversed Malaysia’s advance toward true democracy. In the process of consolidating his hold on power, he clipped the wings of other institutions of democracy such as the press and the judiciary, as well as the other more traditional institutions such as the monarchy. A few years after taking office as Prime Minister, he had many leaders of the opposition arrested under the Internal Security Act, banned three major newspapers and, in general, curtailed or heavily regulated the press. His critics also attributed to him the amendment of the constitution to prepare the ground for actions against the judiciary and the monarchy. In 1988, six judges of the Malaysian Supreme Court were suspended and three eventually removed after the tribunal hearings. This episode weakened the judiciary considerably and impaired its independence.
But Mahathir has always maintained that democracy is very much alive in his country and has periodically submitted his government to elections to get a fresh mandate from the people. He once quipped, “I must be the only dictator in history to have to win an election before I can start dictating.”
Still other critics, while conceding that Mahathir has brought progress to Malaysia, claim that this has been achieved at tremendous costs. They say that the system that prevails in Malaysia is not really free market capitalism but crony or oligarchic capitalism, where people close to the Prime Minister and the ruling party merely skim the rent off from most areas of the economy. They say that the regime’s policy of affirmative action—or giving preferential treatment to Malays—and its pioneering “privatization” policies are not really intended to distribute opportunities in a fair and transparent way but are really directed at cornering juicy contracts and projects for members or friends of the ruling party. The resulting costs, in terms of resources lost to inefficiency and corruption, according to them are so large that they have robbed Malaysia of substantial opportunities for growth, which would have been much higher without such wastage.
But perhaps the biggest black eye to Mahathir’s rule was the negative international perception of his handling of his conflict with his former deputy and erstwhile heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim. He sacked Anwar over what many believed were political and policy differences, but he proceeded to accuse him of sexual offenses and had him thrown into jail. These actions, which have been denounced as brutal and as violative of basic human rights, have lowered Mahathir’s stock both before some of his countrymen and before the international community for quite some time.
But, just like the Malaysian economy, Dr. M seems to have already recovered fully from that sad and ugly episode, which also coincided with the East Asian crisis. After all, the success of his policies to counteract the crisis and put Malaysia’s economy back on track, even if they were considered unorthodox at the time he was initiating them, once again reassured his people that they were in able and wise hands.
On balance, Mahathir is still considered by the great majority of his countrymen and by the world, as the man who really built modern Malaysia. Indeed, no one can argue with success, with the very evident and palpable prosperity that the county is enjoying now. Under Mahathir’s rule Malaysia has been transformed from an economic backwater, dependent on a few natural resource-based exports such as tin and rubber, into an economic powerhouse, a significant manufacturer of technologically advanced products and a showcase of some of the most impressive infrastructure in the world, such as the Petronas towers. It is now ranked 17th largest trading nation in the world and a major exporter of electronic products. Thanks also to Mahathir’s visionary qualities, Malaysia seems to be well on the way to ensuring its place in the high technology, knowledge-based future with the establishment of the Multimedia Super Corridor, which is being developed as Malaysia’s version of Silicon Valley.
Thus, although some of his words and deeds may have appeared too brusque for those who may be used to the more refined manifestations of Western democracy and culture, his people in general and a great part of the world now recognize Mahathir as an outstanding leader and modernizer. He may have been obstinate in some of his positions and seemingly rash and arbitrary in some of his actions, but in the end he has proven that he always has the best interests of his people in mind. His record with regard to upholding democratic institutions may not be spotless, but he has made an important contribution to the advancement of democracy in Malaysia: he has licked poverty and has built a substantial middle class that is readier to participate actively in democratic processes. This middle class, regardless of its racial or ethnic composition, also has a greater stake in the Malaysian economy and can be called upon to do its part in ensuring its sustained progress. And last but most important of all, as the natural consequence of all the foregoing achievements, Mahathir has been able to instill in his fellow Malaysians pride in their nationality and love for their country, things that we wish will someday also be planted firmly in all our hearts.

From an editorial in The Monitor (Kampala) of November 3, 2003

Cheers for Malaysia's Mahathir

Long-serving Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed stepped down on Friday after 22 years at the helm of this south east Asian country.
In the two decades, Mahathir has transformed Malaysia from a largely rural agricultural country relying on rubber and tin ore exports into an industrial giant producing motor vehicles, electronics, textiles, et cetera.
As one of the four 'Tigers' of south-east Asia, Malaysia stands shoulder to shoulder with most of the developed countries in the West, with per capita income more or less level. The highest building in the world so far, Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, perhaps is a symbolic illustration of this.
Mahathir's democratic credentials have, however, not been impeccable and in the last two decades he held a tight grip on power, tolerating the opposition only in as far as it did not threaten his hold on power. In 1998, he humiliated and jailed his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, accusing him of sodomy, among other crimes. Reason? He perceived Anwar's growing popularity as a threat to his position.
Anyhow, there are a number of lessons for countries like Uganda to learn from the Mahathir-Malaysian experience. First, is that it is possible in a very short time to transform a peasant economy into a hi-tech one. And second, that what it takes to transform a country is a selfless leader with great vision to lead and inspire his people.
After 41 years of independence, it seems Uganda is yet to find such a leader and because of this, we continue to wallow in poverty and underdevelopment, thanks to corruption, political opportunism and base dictatorship.
For the last 15 years or so, the Ugandan leadership has constantly referred to the Asian Tigers and how they managed to transform their economies in a relatively short time. But that's all we have done.
Mahathir has stepped down when many Malaysians, satisfied with his economic miracle, wanted him to stay on. But he chose to go, saying he wanted to give way to other Malaysians to take the country further.
And perhaps that is the lesson our African leaders, most of whom have not managed to accomplish even a tiny fraction of what Mahathir did for Malaysia, need to learn most.

Tuesday November 4th 2003

After Mahathir

There was too much bad mixed in with the good in Dr Mahathir's long reign. His successor will struggle to redress it

ON THE face of things, Mahathir Mohamad's last month as prime minister of Malaysia was typical of his 22-year tenure. He paraded his authoritarian instincts by hectoring the parliament of East Timor about the perils of democracy. With characteristic combativeness, he rekindled a 13-year-old war of words with Australia and labelled George Bush a bare-faced liar. The global uproar he created by lifting a page from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and declaring that Jews rule the world exemplified his most chauvinist side. And as if he had not, over the years, already stirred up enough controversy to last a lifetime, he promised journalists that he would continue “to say nasty things about other countries” after he stands down on October 31st.
But while Dr Mahathir's style may have been consistently authoritarian and abrasive, his policies have changed beyond recognition during his decades in office. He started his career as an advocate of special privileges for fellow Malays (the biggest of Malaysia's many ethnic groups), but recently began dismantling some of them. Having subsidised and lionised Malaysia's captains of industry, he has lately started to promote small firms and professional managers as the main engine of economic growth. And despite presiding over a religious revival among Malay Muslims, he now thinks the “greening” of Malaysia has gone far enough. Abdullah Badawi, the new prime minister, says he will stick to his predecessor's policies. But is he an acolyte of the old Mahathir or the new?
For the time being, most Malaysians are concentrating on eulogising Dr Mahathir. Kuala Lumpur this week was festooned with banners thanking him and wishing him well, while emotional testimonials to his achievements fill the very newspapers he cowed with restrictive press laws. Editorials expatiate on his success in improving the lot of the Malay majority, preserving ethnic harmony, stimulating the economy and nurturing a sense of national pride. Even less sycophantic Malaysians seem more than slightly shell-shocked by the idea that their ever energetic and irascible leader is finally stepping down.
There have been a few critical voices, however. Mohamad Ezam Mohamad Nor, from the opposition Keadilan party, points out that Dr Mahathir has severely undermined Malaysia's constitutional checks and balances. In 1988, after an adverse ruling, he fired the chief justice and two other senior judges; since then, the courts have rarely crossed the government. He also restricted the powers of the sultans and rajas, who take it in turns to serve as king and thus head of state. He locked up political opponents (including Mr Ezam), banned public protests and stifled criticism with a barrage of repressive laws. Nor was he in the least bit apologetic about this assault on civil liberties: as he opined to the East Timorese, unions, demonstrations, the press and opposition parties all need to be kept under strict control if democracy is to bring prosperity to poor and ethnically divided developing countries. Malaysia is probably now the most repressive country in non-communist South-East Asia, after Myanmar.
Dr Mahathir certainly did bring prosperity. Malaysia's income per head has risen from $2,320 when he took office to $8,920 today—a bigger rise than in most developing nations, though a much smaller one than in neighbouring Singapore (see chart). To this day, Malaysia provides a better business climate than any other country in South-East Asia, save, again, for Singapore. What's more, Dr Mahathir managed to harness that growth to increase Malays' share in the economy without completely alienating the Chinese businessmen who dominate it.
But K.S. Jomo, an academic at the University of Malaya, argues that the policies that brought about Malaysia's transition from an exporter of natural commodities into a manufacturing hub were in place before Dr Mahathir came to office. So, too, were the job-promotion policies for Malays. His industrialisation programme, which hinged on the creation of a “national” steel producer and carmaker, proved an expensive flop. He also had a weakness for pricey prestige projects, the latest of which, a much-delayed monorail, is now creaking and wheezing its way above the streets of Kuala Lumpur. He personally supervised the design of Malaysia's absurdly over-the-top new capital, Putrajaya, dividing up the city with artificial lakes and then criss-crossing them with bridges. Most of these schemes, along with copious public funds, were entrusted to favoured Malay businessmen, fostering a culture of cronyism.
Indeed, Dr Mahathir blames his recent policy shifts on Malays' failure to take advantage of their chances. At any rate, he has lost much of his Malay-nationalist ardour. At the meeting at which he first announced his resignation, in June last year, he berated Malays for their lack of initiative, and warned them that their preferential treatment would not last for ever. He has already started to dismantle the formal system of racial quotas for university places, although a two-track school system still gives Malays an advantage. He also ordered that maths and science be partly taught in English rather than Malay—a move which caused consternation within Dr Mahathir's own party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Most significantly of all, he has stopped going along with demands of the Islamic opposition party, PAS, that religion be given a more prominent place in public life.
All this puts Mr Badawi in an awkward position. On the one hand, he has promised to stick to Dr Mahathir's policies; on the other, he doubtless would like to shore up support within UMNO by reviving some of the Malay-nationalist measures Dr Mahathir has been dismantling. Dr Mahathir seems to have chosen Mr Badawi as his deputy precisely because he did not command a loyal following within UMNO, and therefore was no threat to Dr Mahathir's leadership. But that now leaves Mr Badawi himself vulnerable to a challenge for the party leadership—especially if UMNO does not perform well in the elections due by the end of next year, though expected as soon as March or April.

Badawi: nice chap, but good?
Mr Badawi's electoral chances are good, however. He is personable and popular, and universally referred to by an affectionate nickname, Pak Lah. He is widely considered honest, although opposition politicians have claimed that officials are favouring a company controlled by his brother. The descendant of a long line of distinguished clerics, he studied Islam himself, and, unlike Dr Mahathir, can quote the Koran in Arabic, which should help him lure away some supporters from PAS. So should the events of September 11th, and Malaysia's own problems with Muslim terrorists, which have fuelled suspicion of Islamic parties in some quarters.
Anyway, UMNO's performance at the last election, in 1999, was its worst ever, and so should be easy to improve on. The economy, which had been shrinking, is growing again. The bitter row over the jailing of Dr Mahathir's then deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, has subsided (though Mr Anwar is still in prison). Voters who had grown disenchanted with Dr Mahathir might welcome a new face. The supposedly neutral Election Commission has also improved the governing coalition's chances with a spot of helpful redistricting. The next parliament will contain 25 new seats, almost all of which have been assigned to government strongholds.
The opposition, meanwhile, is not making things any easier for itself. PAS insists on harping on about its plans for implementing full-blown Islamic law, including the chopping-off of hands, instead of sticking to themes with broader appeal, like corruption. Such talk has already scuppered an alliance with the Democratic Action Party, which relies on non-Muslim voters for most of its support. PAS is also limbering up for a fight with its other supposed ally, Keadilan, about which constituencies each party should contest. The opposition's only hope, says Mr Ezam, is that disgruntled UMNO members will sabotage their own party's election campaign.
The idea is not so far-fetched. UMNO has a history of infighting. Malcontents almost deposed Dr Mahathir himself in 1987. Mr Badawi will soon have to appoint one of UMNO's three vice-presidents as his deputy, and so leave the other two feeling hard done by. As party leader, he also has the delicate task of choosing UMNO's candidates for the election. If he selects too many of his own men, he will alienate the other party bosses; if he selects too few, he will not have the support to withstand a leadership challenge.
Mr Badawi must be reasonably adroit at handling such intrigue, or he would not have survived as Dr Mahathir's deputy. He rose to the top by keeping his head down and offending no one—and if his stints as a stand-in for Dr Mahathir are anything to go by, he plans to run the country in the same way. He has said little about what he will do in office beyond the usual formulaic pledge to fight corruption. He certainly does not seem to be a champion of civil liberties: as home minister, it was his job to approve all the warrants detaining the government's critics without trial. Nor does he have much experience of, or many ideas about, economics. His supporters say he has only kept quiet out of deference to Dr Mahathir, and will now be free to make his own mark. Given how fiercely Dr Mahathir set his stamp on the country, Malaysians might not mind a leader who leaves little trace.

Monday November 3rd 2003

The exotic doctor calls it a day

ON Saturday November 1st, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over the running of one of the most successful countries in Asia. Who? It is not his fault that Mr Badawi is little known outside Malaysia. As deputy prime minister he has lived under the vast shadow of Mahathir Mohamad, whose policies have helped to transform Malaysia into an important industrial power and whose frequent controversial comments have brought him to attention far beyond his country’s borders. Dr Mahathir has at last retired after 22 years in the job.
Mr Badawi will be aware that he was not Dr Mahathir’s first choice for the job. The doctor is not a modest man, and does not have cause to be. But his view of himself posed one of the most difficult questions he had to face in his long career: who among his fellow politicians was qualified to succeed him? The answer seemed to be no one. For years it seemed that Dr Mahathir would never retire because to do so would be such a blow to Malaysia that the country would return to the somnolent state that he found it in when he first entered politics.
For years it was assumed that, if he did go, Musa Hitam, a long-standing friend, would eventually succeed him. But Mr Hitam resigned as deputy prime minister in 1986, after five years in the job, because of what he said were “irreconcilable differences” with the boss—a “very stubborn” man, he remarked this week. As Dr Mahathir entered his seventies he again looked around for a possible successor and chose Anwar Ibrahim. But in 1998, after holding the job for five years, Mr Anwar was sacked after a quarrel with Dr Mahathir, apparently over economic policy. He is now in jail accused of “moral misconduct”, including corruption and sodomy, all of which he denies. Mr Badawi’s most important accomplishment so far may be that he has not clashed with Dr Mahathir. He is not a financial whizz-kid like Mr Anwar. Islamic studies are his speciality. Dr Mahathir gives the impression of believing that at least he will not make a mess of things.
One possible anxiety for Mr Badawi is whether, in retirement, Dr Mahathir, a spirited 77, will seek to have a continuing influence on Malaysian politics. He has not said he will, but nor has he said he won’t. The wizard of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, continued to cast his spell on the state after he retired as prime minister in 1990, even retaining a place in government as a senior minister. Although Dr Mahathir has had some spats with his neighbour, he has admiration for Mr Lee. Both men had extraordinary careers, Mr Lee transforming his little island into a financial force in Asia, Dr Mahathir getting the Malays to work harder than they had ever done before.
It is sometimes forgotten as Dr Mahathir has matured that he started out in politics as a revolutionary. In 1970 he wrote a book, “The Malay Dilemma”, which said in effect that Malays were lazy, unlike Malaysia’s Chinese, who controlled most of the economy. The book was banned by an indignant government led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which had earlier expelled the doctor for “inflammatory” remarks. Eventually he was allowed back into UMNO and was recognised as a coming leader. He became prime minister in 1981.
Unlike many revolutionaries, he has seen his ideas put into practice: of moving the country away from agricultural products and tin-mining to industry. Riskily, his government favoured the Malays at the expense of the Chinese and got away with it without too much social unrest. The Chinese still control much of the economy. Both communities have prospered from growth largely propelled by foreign investment. More than 60% of households have cars and televisions. The number of Malaysians living in poverty, 35% in 1982, is now 5%. Next year, Malaysia is expected to achieve growth of around 5%, better than many other countries in South-East Asia.
As a result of this economic success, Dr Mahathir is widely admired at home. Abroad, though, his image has been tarnished by his controversial, often anti-Western utterances. As a public figure critical of the United States, Australia, Israel and numerous other bętes noires, Dr Mahathir seems a touch obsessive. During the Asian economic crisis of 1997/98 he blamed George Soros and other speculators for causing Malaysia’s troubles rather than confronting home-grown problems. Only a couple of weeks ago he told a conference of Muslim countries that Jews were running the world by proxy. His comments caused outrage in the West but he refused to retract them.
But there is another side to the former physician. In private conversation he can be relaxed and humorous. And nor is he against everything Western: he is a fan of Sherlock Holmes (a character created by another former doctor, Arthur Conan Doyle) and his talent for making deductions from small observations.
Expect nothing as fancy as that from Mr Badawi. Nor will Malaysians expect it. The country may be ready for an “ordinary” politician as leader after years of the exotic doctor. Mr Badawi can expect a longish honeymoon, probably up to the general election due next year. If he does nothing much wrong and the election result satisfies UMNO, he may even survive.