Monday, October 27, 2003

Malaysian Strongman Leaving Mixed Legacy

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- There was no way Mahathir Mohamad was going quietly. With only days remaining in his 22-year tenure as prime minister, the irascible Malaysian told a summit of Islamic leaders recently that Jews rule the world by proxy. Rebukes rained down from Western leaders.
But in that same address he also skewered his fellow Muslims, calling them a backward people, crippled by religious superstition and enfeebled by infighting.
As for the ethnic Malays who make up the majority in his country -- and whose cause he has championed since first taking office -- he has persisted in scolding them to the end like recalcitrant schoolchildren. Lazy and ungrateful, he carps.
Mahathir, 77, has made a career of confrontation. Along the way, he has become the most dominant figure in his country's history and has sought to propel Malaysia into the ranks of the developed world through the sheer force of his will.
When he hands over power on Friday to his deputy, Abdullah Badawi, it will be a milestone not just for Malaysia but for all of Southeast Asia. Mahathir is the last in a generation of strongmen. Some, like Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Suharto of Indonesia, were pushed from office. Others, like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, withdrew at a time of their own choosing.
A tearful Mahathir aspired for the latter, announcing his resignation in a prepared speech before his party's annual congress in June 2002 and setting off a long, meticulous transition.
"He is a true patriot because he broke our mental barrier. Malaysians thought they couldn't achieve greatness equivalent with that of Western countries," said Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center.
Mahathir was a physician in his home state of Kedah when he was elected to parliament in 1964 and began expounding his ideas about the urgent need to advance the economically backward Malay community. Eleven years later he won a won a senior post in the ruling party, the United Malay National Organization, which has been in power since independence in 1957. He became prime minister in 1981 when his predecessor, Tun Hussein Onn, resigned.
Mahathir's supporters cite ethnic peace as one of his greatest achievements. But detractors say he has wrongly exploited the threat of violence to justify repression of political activity and free expression.
He has long preached that ethnic Malays should stand on their own feet in this country, where Malays make up a slight majority and the rest of the population is divided between Chinese and Indians. Yet he has ensured that few would stand up to him.
Inside the ruling party, he has purged his rivals, most notably his then-deputy prime minister and heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, after Anwar began advancing his own cadres within the ruling party and criticizing Mahathir's economic policies. Mahathir fired Anwar, accusing him of immorality and corruption. Anwar countered by leading his followers to the streets, demanding government reform.
In 1998, Anwar was arrested, beaten by the police chief while in jail and then taken to court before the world's news media, with a bruised eye, to face charges of sodomy and corruption. He was convicted in a pair of trials and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The proceedings were condemned by human rights groups and foreign governments as politically motivated.
Hishamuddin Rais, 51, a filmmaker and columnist, was released four months ago after two years in prison under Malaysia's draconian internal security act, often used to silence political opponents and human rights advocates. Rais was jailed following his role in organizing street protests, some of them calling for Anwar's release from prison.
Recalling the weeks spent in solitary confinement -- the spartan underground cell, the handcuffs and blindfold, and the long hours of abusive interrogation -- Rais suddenly looks away, his brow deeply furrowed. He was not physically tortured, he said. But he conceded: "I broke down. I cried."
Rais, once a student activist, said he has seen the spirit of Malaysia's universities crushed during Mahathir's rule. "The campuses have become very docile, kind of barren areas where contending ideas are no longer debated," he said. "This is a very dangerous situation. They are a breeding ground for one-track thinking like Muslim fundamentalism."
Mahathir has eliminated other checks on his power, moving soon after he became prime minister to strengthen central government authority by dramatically reducing the power of the royal families ruling Malaysia's states. He also undermined the independence of the judiciary in 1988, removing the president of the supreme court and other senior judges from office. Some opposition leaders have been jailed under the internal security act.
Mahathir has promoted himself as a great visionary. But he has busied himself with the smallest details, ordering that all government employees wear name tags and taking a personal interest in the cleanliness of public bathrooms.
He has cooperated closely with the United States in combating terrorism. But he has also repeatedly antagonized the West, suggesting early this year that the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks could be considered "collateral" damage in a wider war between militants and the West. He warned Malaysians this summer that greedy Westerners were determined to "colonize us directly or indirectly."
Mahathir has sought to shake the colonial past, to remake his county and people much as he has transformed the natural landscape of Malaysia.
Omar bin Sidek, a 91-year-old with a wispy white beard, remembers the long years when his town of Dengkil in Selangor state was a modest jungle outpost in the midst of vast oil palm plantations, long a mainstay of the Malaysian economy. "Ooh, I'm speechless to describe the change," said Omar, squinting to recall life before Mahathir's major public works came to this area 25 miles south of Kuala Lumpur, the capital.
There were just four rows of small shops, fashioned from hand-chopped wood. Local laborers had to travel as far as 15 miles on rutted roads to buy anything but basics. The streets were deserted at sundown.
But in the 1990s, Mahathir's administration bought up huge surrounding tracts, razed the palms and started to build. Just to the south now is the new international airport. To the north is Cyberjaya, a sprawling campus of modern office buildings and fresh construction sites, the heart of the country's high-tech corridor.
And carved wholesale out of the nearby hills is Putrajaya, a rolling expanse of processional boulevards, monumental bridges and ornately landscaped lawns. The green and rose-colored onion domes of imposing government buildings rise beside others erected in a contemporary Western style.
Yet Mahathir's national project is unfinished. He moved to Putrajaya, Malaysia's new administrative capital, but foreign embassies have not followed him out of Kuala Lumpur. And while companies are constantly arriving in his high-tech corridor, few are world-class research outfits.
Mahathir acknowledged recently that his longtime mission to build a national steel industry had failed, blaming poor management. His drive to develop a national automobile industry, meanwhile, has filled the highways with the Malaysian-made Proton, but economists say it will be hard-pressed to compete as the country expands international trade.
Publicly, Mahathir has said his chief regret has been his failure to hoist the Malay majority to the same level as the country's non-Malays, in particular the Chinese. He has overseen years of affirmative action that steered public contracts and other benefits to Malays. This has enriched an elite close to the ruling party. But many Malays feel bypassed.
"The great irony is that this great Malay nationalist wanted to lift up the Malay people by their bootstraps to new heights and now these very same people can't wait to see the back of him," said Edmund Terence Gomez, a social analyst at the University of Malaya.
For Badawi, the incoming prime minister, the first priority will be to consolidate his position within the deeply divided ruling party and then lead it to a strong showing in elections expected during the first half of next year. That means he will move quickly to shore up his support among poorer Malays, particularly those who feel left behind by policies long favoring the Malay elite, according to sources familiar with his plans. Badawi intends to focus on rural development and reorient Malaysia's affirmative action policies to benefit middle- and lower-class Malays.
A grandfatherly figure known affectionately as Pak Lah, Badawi is widely expected to seek consensus at home rather than confrontation. And Western officials anticipate that as a former foreign minister schooled in diplomatic niceties, Badawi will be less combative abroad.
"Mahathir gave you pride when he stood up to people, but in the end, it hurt us as well. Badawi's style will be different," said a senior journalist close to Badawi.

Sunday, Oct 26, 2003

Loved and loathed, Malaysia's Mahathir
leaves complex legacy

Top Stories - AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Loved and loathed but rarely ignored, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad leaves a complex legacy when he retires on Friday.
He is seen by some in the West as a Muslim bigot, but for 22 years he has run a moderate multi-racial, multi-religious country.
Mahathir is a sharp critic of Western capitalism, but has transformed Malaysia from a sleepy tin and rubber exporter into a vibrant manufacturing nation.
He is accused of being dictatorial, but is stepping down voluntarily with a democratic system, though criticised as flawed, still in place.
Trying to pigeonhole Asia's longest-serving elected leader, even his critics say, is pointless because he is unique.
When Mahathir created his latest international uproar by telling an Islamic summit this month that "Jews rule this world", an Israeli ambassador in the region condemned the rhetoric but admitted to being "confused" by a simultaneous call for an end to Palestinian violence.
Australia has long been a target of the Malaysian leader's invective -- he described it recently as "some sort of transplant" in Asia -- but Foreign Minister Alexander Downer conceded just a week ago that Mahathir had "done a very good job" with the economy.
Another measure of the West's difficulty in dealing with Mahathir is shown by the sudden drop in the clamour against his human rights record since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
A major criticism had been his use of a security law allowing indefinite detention without trial, but with alleged Muslim militants now the main targets and the US and other Western countries beefing up their own security laws, the objections have become muted.
In person, the 77-year-old Mahathir's mild demeanour is spiced with a sharp sense of humour and an ability to shrug off the brickbats thrown at him.
"People say I am a dictator, but they can say what they like," he told AFP in a recent interview. "I would like one day for people to stand outside the cabinet room, to hear the laughter and the jokes.
"We are very relaxed with each other, we are friends. It's a team that is very representative of every race, culture and religion. We have Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Taoists... everybody is there and we have to reach agreement among ourselves."
He said he believed his greatest achievement had been maintaining racial harmony in a country made up of about 65 percent Malays and other indigenous people and large Chinese and Indian minorities.
His greatest failure, he said, "is that I still cannot get the indigenous people, the Malays in particular, to understand the workings of a free market economy and what they must do about it."
Race, clearly, is central to Mahathir's vision of the world, and one of the reasons people are so often shocked by him is that he speaks bluntly about his racial perceptions.
In June, he accused the "European race", including Americans and Australians, of warmongering, indiscriminate attacks on Muslims, greed and sexual deviancy.
At the same time, he said: "They are very clever, brave and have an insatiable curiosity".
Even his widely condemned remarks about Jews contained admiration. They "survived 2000 years of pogroms not by hitting back, but by thinking", he said, calling on Muslims to emulate them.
His victims abroad often forget that he doesn't spare his own Malay people -- whom he calls lazy -- or Muslims generally, who he says should match their religious piety with studies of science and mathematics so they can catch up with the West.
Endlessly energetic himself -- he has been the driving force behind the creation of a new administrative capital and a high-tech industrial city while still finding time to invent an Islamic toilet -- he constantly exhorted his countrymen to push themselves to the limit.
"Only a race that is brave enough to face and overcome challenges will become successful," he said recently when congratulating the first Malaysian to swim the English Channel.
He ensured that a deal this year to buy fighter jets from Russia included a trip into space for a Malaysian, and the search is now on for the country's first cosmonaut.
Born on December 20, 1925, the youngest of 10 children of an immigrant schoolteacher father of Indian descent and a Malay mother, Mahathir trained and practiced as a doctor before going into politics in 1964.
He was expelled from the ruling United Malays National Organisation -- for criticising the prime minister -- but after his rehabilitation began a rapid rise through the ranks.
Mahathir became prime minister in July 1981 -- when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were newcomers to power in the United States and Britain.
Thatcher, dubbed the "Iron Lady" during the Cold War, once said of Mahathir: "We both believe in speaking our minds. It's just as well he is a man, for he'd have been lethal with a handbag."
Asked whether he agreed with this assessment, Mahathir replied: "I think, in a way, what she says is right. We don't think in terms of being popular all the time. I think that is what leadership is all about."
Putting that philosophy into practice earned him a reputation as an international maverick.
Faced by one of the biggest crises of his tenure, the Asian financial collapse of 1997-98, he did the opposite of what the International Monetary Fund and mainstream economists advised, imposing capital controls and pegging the currency to the US dollar.
This year, the IMF acknowledged that he had been right and his country had taken a shallower dive and staged a quicker recovery than others in the region.
But Mahathir's record will be blemished for many by his action around the same time against his then deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, who was sacked then jailed for 15 years on charges of sodomy and corruption.
Anwar, who says the action was taken to prevent him from mounting a political challenge, is still listed by the United States and human rights groups as a political prisoner.
Critics say the confrontational premier has bent independent national institutions such as the judiciary to his iron will, stifled dissent and severely limited press freedom.
But for many leaders in Southeast Asia, his successes eclipse his faults.
Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri had to choke back the tears as she bade him farewell at a recent summit, saying: "The mark of his statesmanship has been implanted deep in our consciousness. The reach of his mind is so far and wide."
That mind, he told AFP, would be put to use during his retirement to write his memoirs -- which could well take their title from what is reportedly his favourite song "I did it my way."
While he says he will play no role in government, he had a warning for the world at a news conference in which he defended his criticism of the Jewish people.
He said he would "even be more irresponsible after I have stepped down".
"But probably not being the prime minister, people won't take notice of what I say, so I'll be more free to say nasty things."
It is the first part of that statement that many in the West are looking forward to. A top aide to US President George W. Bush said wryly amidst the row: "We wish him a happy retirement."

Oct. 30, 2003

The Mahathir paradox


If we had to ask which leader of an Islamic country has done the most, in practical terms, to crack down on organizations which support, fund and carry out terrorist attacks, the answer would have to be the prime minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.
Since the terrorist bombing in Bali last October, Malaysian authorities have arrested more than 70 alleged Islamic militants, many linked to Jamaah Islamiya (JI), the group accused of that atrocity. Under Malaysia's strict security laws, these suspects can be held indefinitely without trial.
The government has also shut down hundreds of private religious schools (madrassas) since it was revealed that some of the Bali bombers studied at a madrassa in Malaysia. It has drawn up a law to prevent madrassas being used as training grounds for religious extremism.
Malaysia has also cooperated closely with Singapore, Indonesia and Australia in police efforts to detect and prevent the operations of JI and similar groups. These efforts have been effective in breaking up JI's operations and preventing further attacks like the Bali bombing, in which more than 200 people died.
Mahathir is not doing these things, however, to oblige the US, or Australia, or the West in general. Although Malaysia has a dynamic - if managed - capitalist economy and a reasonably free parliamentary system, Mahathir has a profoundly un-Western, indeed anti-Western, view of the world.
He opposes Islamist terrorism not because it harms the West or kills Westerners, but because he thinks it is un-Islamic and harmful to the Islamic cause. Some tough-minded analysts loathe Mahathir but judge him to be politically "useful," if aesthetically revolting. The West should, of course, be pleased that Mahathir is helping to curb terrorism, but it should not be under any illusions about his motives.
Mahathir also has a phobia about Australia - the nearest identifiably "Western" country to Malaysia's shores. He has repeatedly attacked Australia as an outpost of Western colonialism, a "transplant from another region." He has warned that Muslims are not safe in Australia and that Australia wants to corrupt Malaysia's youth and destroy its Islamic culture.
In fact, Australia and Malaysia have a large and mutually beneficial economic relationship, as Mahathir well knows. Australia also educates a large proportion of Malaysia's professional elite in its universities - mainly ethnic Chinese shut out of Malaysian universities by unofficial racial quotas.
Australians, like Jews, make a convenient target for Mahathir's rhetoric. Part of Mahathir's anti-foreigner rhetoric is motivated by domestic politics. His main political opposition, the PAS, is an Islamist party which appeals to conservative rural Malay Muslims. Mahathir feels the need to pander to this part of the electorate to keep the PAS at bay, while pressing ahead with pro-Western economic policies.
But Mahathir's outbursts go much further than mere politics require. He is willing to cause serious damage to Malaysia's diplomatic interests by indulging his anti-Semitic and anti-Western fantasies: clearly he believes most of what he says.
Recently Mahathir gave the most systematic outline of his view of the world, in his opening address to the Islamic Summit Conference in Kuala Lumpur. This was the speech in which Mahathir made his widely reported comment that "today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them."
This remark drew condemnation from all over the world, and rightly so. But Mahathir had much more to say. His speech showed that he sees the entire Islamic world engaged in a war against the West, a war which has been going on for centuries. And behind the West, Mahathir said, stand the real enemy, the Jews.
"We are up against a people who think," he said. "They survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back, but by thinking. They invented and successfully promoted socialism, communism, human rights and democracy, so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong With these they have now gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power."
THIS IS of course not the first time Mahathir has given vent to his anti-Semitic views.
In 1984, Mahathir banned a visit to Malaysia by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra because of its intention to perform a work by a Jewish composer, Ernst Bloch's A Hebrew Rhapsody.
In 1994, he banned the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List, on the grounds that it is "propaganda with the purpose of asking for sympathy for one race [the Jews], as well as to tarnish another race [the Germans]." In 1997 he blamed the Jewish financier George Soros for the Asian economic crisis.
In Mahathir's demonology Ariel Sharon and George Soros, despite their vast differences in the real world, are both part of the same conspiracy.
Despite all this, Mahathir is not an Islamist: he vigorously opposes the Islamist PAS party in Malaysia. He also opposes suggested laws which would restrict Malaysian women or damage Malaysia's attractiveness to Western investment and Western tourism. Mahathir believes that Muslim countries can only compete with the West by becoming richer and more powerful, not retreating into virtuous Islamic poverty.
Nor does Mahathir support Islamist terrorism against the West, or even against the Jews. Speaking of Islamist terrorism in his Kuala Lumpur speech, he asked: "Is there no other way than to ask our young people to blow themselves up and kill people and invite the massacre of more of our own people?
"We fight without any objective, without any goal other than to hurt the enemy because they hurt us We sacrifice lives unnecessarily, achieving nothing other than to attract more massive retaliation."
Mahathir opposes terrorism, then, not because it is wrong, but because it is futile.

The writer is Labor member of Melbourne Ports in the Australian House of Representatives and secretary of the Labor National Security Committee.