Thursday, October 30, 2003

Japan a letdown for Mahathir

By Vivian Ho

Japan has always had a special place in Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's heart as evidenced by the "Look East Policy" he has pursued for over two decades now.
But as he prepares to step down this Friday, Mahathir has been left wondering what has gone wrong with the country he for so long wanted Malaysia to emulate, and the object of his praise has shifted to South Korea.
Malaysia established its diplomatic ties with Japan in 1957, the year it achieved independence from the British. It was Mahathir who took the relationship to new heights six months after taking office in 1981 when he announced the Look East Policy.
"We have for a long time been looking West, as did Japan in the early days of her development. But the West is no longer a suitable model. They have lost their drive. They still want the good life but are not prepared to face the realities of a world market which they can no longer dominate," Mahathir said back in February 1982.
"Japan may be classified as developed but it is still developing vigorously. As such, it is a much better example for developing Malaysia," he said, speaking at a Malaysia-Japan Economic Association conference in Kuala Lumpur that officially launched the Look East Policy.
Mahathir, fascinated by how Japan rose up from the ashes of World War II, wanted Malaysians to emulate Japanese work ethics and business skills and to acquire Japanese expertise and capital through aid, investment and trade cooperation.
Today, ties between the two countries have never been so solid, and the brouhaha that followed his announcement has mostly been forgotten.
Sociologist Khadijah Mohamad Khalid, in a paper presented at a seminar commemorating the Look East Policy's 20th anniversary in Kuala Lumpur last year, called Malaysia's adoption of it "bizarre."
"The fact is that no other country, apart from Singapore, has ever made learning from another country a 'policy,"' she said.
In 1978, Singapore's then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had launched the "Learn from Japan" campaign, but had to tone it down following criticism from many in the predominantly ethnic Chinese city-state with bitter memories of Japanese atrocities during the war.
That was never a problem for Mahathir, who adopted a more pragmatic view about Japan's role in the war.
"It should be ready and willing to admit that it had done a lot of wrong in the past. But it should not be burdened by a permanent sense of guilt over actions committed more than half a century ago," he once said.
On the Look East Policy, Khadijah found it "intriguing" that at the same time that Mahathir was busy propagating emulating Japan as a national policy, the country was also experimenting with an Islamization policy.
"It is also peculiar for a leader who is popularly known for his strong nationalist pride, to vigorously propagate the culture and values of others," she said.
But most controversial was that the policy was initiated just five months after Mahathir launched the "Buy British Last" campaign.
Relations between Malaysia and Britain had begun deteriorating in the 1970s over various issues, including the government attempts to gain control over several large British-owned companies in the country.
Mahathir, the first Malaysian prime minister who did not study at elite schools or further his education in Britain, has often said the British had not only managed to colonize Malaysia but also the minds of those people who regard everything Western as the best.
Mahathir's love affair with Japan is evidenced by the more than 50 trips he has made there since 1961, including his first as prime minister in 1983.
Economically, the Look East Policy could not have come at a better time as Malaysia had just begun to liberalize its foreign capital and export-oriented policies.
After the 1985 Plaza Accord drove the yen upward, many Japanese and South Korean companies began investing in Malaysia, with its low labor costs. The government's preferential treatment toward them was evidenced by the many multibillion contracts awarded to Japanese and Korean contractors.
Today there are more than 1,300 Japanese companies operating in the country, and bilateral trade has ballooned from 11.8 billion ringgit ($3.1 billion) in 1980 to 93.7 billion ringgit last year.
Japan is Malaysia's third largest trading partner after the U.S. and Singapore, accounting for 14.2% of Malaysia's total trade.
On the education front, some 8,000 Malaysians have been sent to study or to undergo technical training in Japan.
But Mahathir is not so happy with the Japan of today, which has for years been languishing in the economic doldrums.
He has said Malaysia is still closely watching Japan, but no longer as a role model, but rather to learn what not to emulate anymore.
Why does he think Japan is "going down"?
"The young people are taken up with the West. I have never seen so many Japanese blondes before and most of the time they're dancing to music. Japan wants to change its whole culture completely and adopt Western culture," Mahathir said early this year. "If you do that, you're going down. I'm old-fashioned. I don't understand these things."
But Mahathir still has faith in South Korea, another country Mahathir wanted Malaysia to learn from under the Look East Policy.
"They are very patriotic, very nationalistic, very much concerned about remaining Koreans," Mahathir said earlier this year after visiting South Korea.
He said he observed a "hardworking" country "practicing strong work ethics and culture."
While Mahathir is stepping down this Friday, his successor, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has pledged to continue with the Look East Policy. (Kyodo News)