DAWN - Features; October 28, 2003

Published October 28, 2003

Mahathir leaves behind a complex legacy

By Lawrence Bartlett

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 26: 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 per cent 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 practised 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.”—AFP



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