ELEANOR HALL: Later this year Malaysia's charismatic leader, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, may yet carry out his promise to step down from the post he's held for more than two decades.
An author on Malaysia, Professor Virginia Hooker, predicts there will be deep shock across the country if Mr Mahathir does leave office in October. But in her new study of the majority Muslim nation, Professor Hooker says Malaysia is moving away from the patronage politics the Prime Minister has used so successfully.
And indeed she argues in her book, Linking East and West, that Malaysia must abandon the traditional Malay concept of power residing in one dominant leader, as Graeme Dobell reports.
GRAEME DOBELL: Virginia Hooker says Malaysia's elite have prepared for Mahathir's departure, but she expects that ordinary Malaysians will be shocked if they do see Asia's longest serving elected leader step down.
VIRGINIA HOOKER: If you saw him at a mass rally, he'd definitely have that crowd in the palm of his hand in a similar way to Sukarno. They were enraptured and he was also fed by them. He responded very strongly to that. Now I think, when they look back, they'll feel that he actually represented them.
GRAEME DOBELL: Professor Hooker says Dr Mahathir offered his country a bargain – less politics and more economics; less democracy and greater stability. She says the Mahathir successors will not have the charisma for such a balance.
VIRGINIA HOOKER: I think that bargaining worked very well for the current middle class, that is Malaysians in their forties and over who now look forward to quite reasonable superannuation and government pensions, and this gives them a secure old age in a way that they could never had expected.
For them, he definitely delivered, and that generation would go to almost any lengths to protect their old age in those financial terms.
The problem is, I think with the under twenties and the twenties to thirties. I think they see the bargain as being totally bereft of ethics and morals and if you read the websites that young people have set up and contribute to, it's quite clear that they are dissatisfied with the level of ethics in current Malaysian society, and for them financial reward is not enough.
GRAEME DOBELL: Professor Hooker judges that Malaysia is in transition from patronage politics dispensed by a strong charismatic leader, to a system that recognises the values of the dominant religion, Islam, but is balanced by representation for the non-Muslim, Chinese and Indian communities.
VIRGINIA HOOKER: There's an increased appreciation of pluralism – pluralism in every aspect of Malaysian society from sporting teams, which are composed of representatives from every ethnic group, to genuine inter-faith dialogues, and of course a greater appreciation of human rights.
Now, for a short time, Malaysians may have to face some discomfort with the idea that national unity, which Doctor Mahathir has always pushed as central for economic development, that national unity might be questioned a little in order to expand it to include the idea of greater inclusiveness to actually implement this pluralism.
Now, what pluralism will mean in Malaysia might be very different from how Indonesians think about it, or Thais, or Cambodians or Vietnamese. This will be one of the challenges in the post-Mahathir period.
But I think like it or not, that is going to be one of the new aspects of Malaysian institutional and social life after Mahathir.
GRAEME DOBELL: The subtitle of the history is that Malaysia links east and west, and Professor Hooker says Malaysia is showing a growing sophistication in what it takes from European and Asian influences.
VIRGINIA HOOKER: I think this is being expressed culturally in forms as basic as architecture. It's certainly appearing in popular songs. It's evident in the arts and it's even, I think, being expressed in politics. Doctor Mahathir is a splendid example of knowing what elements from the west will appeal to his constituents and what elements from the Middle East will.
ELEANOR HALL: Professor Virginia Hooker from the Australian National University ending that report from Graeme Dobell.