Dubai:Sunday, October 12, 2003

Malaysia will miss Mahathir's dynamic
and strong leadership

By Abdullah Al Madani

After 22 years in power, Dr. Mahathir Mohammed will step down as Prime Minister of Malaysia on October 31. With his departure, a significant era of strong Asian leadership and a dynamic period in Malaysia's history, that has been characterised by extraordinary achievements, will end.
Assuming that he will not follow in the footsteps of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew by playing an influential patriarchal role behind the scenes, the Malaysian political stage will look unusual for sometime without Mahathir.
Malaysians, regardless of their political beliefs, ethnic or religious origins, agree that credit should be given to Mahathir's determination as a visionary and his pragmatism for driving the country towards modernity and prosperity.
It was under his leadership that the rubber producing state of Malaysia became a producer of hi-tech goods and a respected and influential state in the regional and international arenas. Malaysians, as a result, began to feel proud of their national identity, something that had not been apparent in the pre-Mahathir era.
However, many ordinary Malaysians - apart from the Muslim extremists who repeatedly cast doubts over Mahathir's adherence to true Islam and view his modernisation plans as the destruction of the Muslim community's values, and emphasise his failure to apply Shariah law - have criticised Mahathir of presuming to know what was best for the nation, and consequently turning the country into a one-man show.
Although this is true, one can argue that Malaysians, under Mahathir, have not been dictatorially forced into submission. As former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam puts it, "the political system is democratised enough to allow the electorate to assert themselves if they so wish".
Elections continued to take place within the ruling UMNO party, and throughout the country, in relatively fair conditions, and opposition elements and parties continued to operate freely.
Thus, there was every opportunity to dismiss Mahathir democratically, but the majority of Malaysians have frequently cast their vote in his favour since 1981, giving him the needed mandate to stay in power.
A single-handed leadership, as observed in many cases, is of disastrous impact, but in the case of Malaysia such impact has not been apparent because of Mahathir's ahead-of-the-times thinking. In fact, on several occasions he has proven that he could spot trends and forecast the future better than his colleagues, and that greater consultation would only delay the nation's progress.
For example, his early plan in the mid-1980s to concentrate on IT as the future industry and on promoting human resources as a requirement for that, along with his handling of Malaysia's most serious financial crisis in 1997 through fixing the exchange rate and temporarily imposing capital controls, have been proven today to be valid and justifiable. In both cases, he acted without much regard for his colleagues' lukewarm positions.
In my opinion, it is more accurate to criticise Mahathir of missing several opportunities for launching political and constitutional reforms that are commensurate with changes in Malaysia's demographic, social, and economic features.
As a prominent Malaysian professor argues: "With the indigenous 'bhumiputra' demographic majority growing and the ruling coalition's electoral base more ethnically diverse than ever, he could have ridden the wave of the 1997-98 political reforms in neighbouring Thailand and Indonesia to create a more equitable, representative and legitimate electoral system based on proportional representation."
With Malaysia booming and rising to the top in the 1990s, Mahathir's reluctance to rejuvenate his party and country's political structures had to result in growing corruption and nepotism, leading to popular grievances and disharmony in the country's multiracial society.
Observers of Malaysian affairs will always recall two other major errors made by Mahathir that have had regrettable consequences, namely his role in Anwar Ibrahim's swift political ascension and in the latter's humiliating dismissal and subsequent jailing.
Anwar had been known since the early 1970s for his Islamist thought. He was a prominent Islamist student activist and the leader of the Islamic Youth Movement.
He was detained for two years under the Internal Security Act for his radical challenge to governmental values. In spite of all these facts, he was chosen by Mahathir as education minister in order to win the backing of his followers.
Under Anwar, the Education Ministry aggressively pursued the Islamisation of knowledge, and the Tudung (the Malay equivalent of Hijab) began to gain prominence amongst female students.
Although this was inconsistent with his views, Mahathir opted not only to keep Anwar but also to push him further up, appreciating his loyalty during the 1987 power struggle within the ruling party, and probably his public opposition to the introduction of an Islamic state.
While Anwar was delighted with this rapid ascension to the throne and preparing himself to lead Malaysia to a different direction, the political Islamic groups were equally pleased. However, Anwar's disastrous mistake was his rush to succeed his master under a false belief that the 1997 financial crisis damaged Mahathir's popularity and weakened his power. Hence, it was imperative to replace him.
Here came Mahathir's other mistake. It was possible for him to remove his ambitious deputy in a less exciting manner. Instead, he deliberately sought to humiliate him so that he would not rise to power again.
This caused an unprecedented national division, undermined support for the ruling party, and drew anger from abroad. More important, the Islamic fundamentalist groups exploited the incident to prove their claims that Mahathir's regime was arrogant, dictatorial and anti-human rights.
Although Mahathir was quickly able to mitigate the acute political scene and to prove once again his ability to survive in the face of political storms, what attracted observers' attention in recent years was his reliance, in regaining popularity and strengthening his position among Third World leaders, on radical, anti-West rhetoric - something that was inconsistent with his renowned realism, rationalism and tolerance.
Despite all criticisms, Mahathir will be remembered as the first Muslim leader to voluntarily quit his post while at the peak of his power and success. Should anyone wish to remind me of the precedent of General Siwar Al Dhab in Sudan, I would like to say that my comments exclusively deal with elected, civilian leaders.

The writer is a Gulf researcher and writer on Asian affairs. He can be contacted at: elmadani@batelco.com.bh