Mahathir Puts Malaysia Back on the (Wrong) Map

COMMENT by William Pesek*
From of August 18, 2006

Journalists in Asia have missed Mahathir Mohamad.
The region has been pretty colorless -- leader-wise, that is -- since Malaysia's firebrand prime minister stepped down in 2003. His successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is the anti-Mahathir: press-shy, affable, soft-spoken and diplomatic.
Asia in general features a paucity of larger-than-life, charismatic leaders who speak their minds and, at times, dare to take on the global elites. Blandness often pervades the halls of power from Seoul to Singapore and from Beijing to New Delhi.
So you'll excuse us journalists for rejoicing at Mahathir's return to the spotlight. Yet many Malaysians are less than thrilled. Ditto for investors monitoring Asia's No. 10 economy.
Mahathir, 80, has returned with a passion to criticize his handpicked successor, and it's tantalizing this nation of 27 million people. Mahathir's gripe: Abdullah is reversing some of his decisions, including a massive project to build a bridge to neighboring Singapore.
"I gave him time," Mahathir said this month. "I didn't say anything for two years. I was quiet. I observed his promises. I had high expectations. I expected his view to be different from me, but I don't see the government doing what it promises to do."
The former premier's impolitic comments may prompt investors to avoid one of Asia's more under-appreciated economies. In recent years, most of the surprises in Asian markets came not from reports on growth or inflation, but politics. Asia has seen all too many market-shaking spats, scandals, disputed elections and impeachment efforts.
And so Mahathir's rebukes of the prime minister are unsettling Malaysia's markets, too. "It seems now to be having some effect on a domestic economy which is already slowing," Gerald Ambrose, managing director of Aberdeen Asset Management's Malaysian business, said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.
Record oil prices are weighing on Malaysia's $131 billion economy, slamming consumer and business confidence. Add to that a slowing U.S. economy and concern about the nation's ability to compete with Asia's upstarts. Malaysia may be too affluent to outperform China; too underdeveloped to join the ranks of Japan or South Korea. It also has a public-relations weakness.
That became clear in interviews with investors in the U.S. and Europe over the last couple of months. There was, of course, huge interest in China and India. Yet in cities like London, New York and Stockholm, I found great interest in economies such as Thailand and Taiwan. In Chicago, Paris and Lisbon, folks wanted to talk about Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. In Brussels, San Francisco and Washington, it was Indonesia and Japan.
Oddly, Malaysia didn't come up unless I mentioned it first. Given its rich resources, technology industries and unique status as a moderate, predominantly Muslim nation, you'd think Malaysia would be a bigger blip on investors' radar screens. It's not, and politics bear some blame.
In his 22 years in power, Mahathir morphed a tropical backwater into an Asian tiger. While it doesn't excuse him for bizarrely blaming Jews for Malaysia's troubles in the late 1990s, Mahathir had his economic successes. Yet Malaysia has been too slow to boost entrepreneurship and move beyond manufacturing and resource-based industries.
Whether it's wounded pride, an attempt to look out for associates hoping to profit from his mega-projects, or anger at the release from prison of his former rival, Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir is back with a vengeance.
Mahathir has a point on at least one thing: Abdullah can be painfully indecisive. Many Malaysians are disappointed by how timidly Abdullah has attacked corruption and policies giving preferential treatment to the ethnic Malay majority. Abdullah also should go further to convince Malaysians his family hasn't benefited from government contracts, as Mahathir has alleged.
Many of Mahathir's other protests are weak, at best, relating to mega-projects that seem more about pride than necessity. If the former prime minister is upset that Abdullah is unilaterally scrapping his initiatives, he has himself to blame. It was Mahathir who masterminded the centralization of power that Abdullah wields. In Malaysia, for example, one man acts both as prime minister and finance minister. It's an awkward arrangement that should be reconsidered.
Even if Mahathir's concerns are legitimate -- and one certainly meets businesspeople who share them -- he needs to learn to bite his tongue for the good of Malaysia's economy.
"It might be difficult to swallow at first, but for the sake of keeping his dignity intact and sparing us unnecessary embarrassment, he should disabuse himself quickly of any notion he might continue to harbor about his indispensability to the Malaysian body politic," Tunku Abdul Aziz, a former head of Transparency International Malaysia, wrote in the New Straits Times on Aug. 16. Mahathir must learn to "eat humble pie once out of office," he said.
Mahathir is anything but a spent power. He still has charisma to spare, and retains a clear vision of where Malaysia should be in 2010, 2020 and beyond. Yet along with tarnishing his legacy, his tirades could unnerve investors and dent the government's credibility abroad.
Fair or not, Malaysia still has a lot of work to do on its public relations. The economy deserves more attention from international investors than it receives. It won't get much -- at least not the kind it wants -- with its present and former leaders trading barbs.

*William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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