Sunday 19 October 2003

Malaysia's strongman never quite
forgets his old suspicion of Jews

By John Simpson

I don't suppose that when Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the elderly and instinctively dictatorial Malaysian prime minister, addressed a conference of Islamic leaders on Friday and told them that Jews ruled the world by proxy, he realised how bad it sounded.
He thought he was making a speech about the need for Muslims to halt terrorism and negotiate for peace. In fact, when he spoke of Jews getting "others to fight and die for them" and of Muslims achieving "nothing" in 50 years of fighting Israel, he sounded as he had so many times before - like an angry old anti-Semite.
This is the man who, 33 years ago, said that Jews "are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively".
Malaysia's foreign minister, no doubt appalled, scurried round and insisted that the remarks, made during what is probably Dr Mahathir's last big speech as a national leader on a world stage, had been taken "out of context".
This is what politicians always say when they wish the press hadn't given so much attention to particular words or phrases. The speech, he insisted, had been about persuading Muslims not to use violence in pursuit of their aims. Well, maybe. And maybe that was why his audience of Muslim leaders stood up afterwards and gave him a standing ovation. Let's hope so.
I've watched Dr Mahathir for many years, though I've only interviewed him once: it was in the late 1980s, when Malaysia hosted the Commonwealth Conference and in the circumstances he couldn't really say no.
In those days he was full of bile and fury about the West and imperialism. He didn't like the BBC much, though he couldn't keep away from its programmes.
His eyes were red, and he raged away on camera about the wrongs of the world. When I threw in a question or two about his own dictatorial attitudes it was like a hand-grenade exploding. I thought at one stage he was going to storm out, but he wasn't so stupid.
In fact he's very far from stupid. He's a kind of successful Asian Robert Mugabe, highly intelligent and articulate, deeply embittered by the colonial past, and fully aware that there is no one in his government, and perhaps in the country, to match his intelligence and fire.
To be a brilliant firebrand surrounded by dullards is a torment to people like this, and with Dr Mahathir, as with Robert Mugabe, no one dares to whisper in his ear that his latest speech might be misunderstood in some quarters and might be better if it were rewritten.
The two men also share a strange obsession with homosexuality. Dr Mahathir hasn't actually called the Blair government "gay bandits", as Mr Mugabe did, but two years ago he said almost as memorably: "The British people accept homosexual ministers, but if they ever come here bringing their boyfriends along, we will throw them out."
Last June he spoke of the British, the Americans and Australians as proponents of "war, sodomy and genocide"; when, eight years ago, the time came to get rid of his over-successful heir apparent, poor Anwar Ibrahim was accused of sodomy and a mattress was carried into court to be used as evidence. Mr Ibrahim, who was happily married, is still in jail.
Of course, Malaysia is everything Zimbabwe isn't: successful, wealthy, industrious. No matter that Dr Mahathir has stamped out everything characteristically Malaysian about the country, and turned it into a kind of jungle Brentford. Kuala Lumpur, which was once a charming city with some good colonial architecture, is now just another Shanghai.
The buildings are too high and too anonymous, the shopping-centres are full of Gap clothes and hamburger joints, and the streets can only be navigated easily in air-conditioned limousines. Malaysia has been recolonised without realising it, and has lost itself in the process.
Dr Mahathir, like Mr Mugabe, is basically an old-style nationalist of the soap-box variety. He has never been able to hide his annoyance with the charming and gentle Malay people, who do not necessarily share his determination to show that they can do better than the colonial power which once controlled their lives and patronised them.
His drive to make Malaysia rich has been immensely impressive, and has partly succeeded; but he has only managed it really by releasing the energies of Malaysia's Chinese population.
True, positive discrimination on a scale which would probably be unacceptable without "Asian values", has turned many Malays into millionaires, and has created a reasonably strong middle class. But Dr Mahathir is disappointed by it all; in a moment of introspection recently he said: "I have achieved too little in my principal task of making my race a successful race, a race that is respected."
Somehow, to Western ears, there's too much about success and too much about race where Dr Mahathir is concerned. The danger is that, as he leaves politics - he steps down at the end of the month - Dr Mahathir will be remembered less as a man who transformed his country and more as a tiresome old autocrat who is just hung up on the past.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of the BBC