Mahathir’s last words make him a legend

October 31, 2003

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KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad always courted international attention, but in his last days in power he got more than he bargained for.

Suddenly, by railing against perceived Jewish world domination, the leader of a small Southeast Asian nation became big, bad news in small-town newspapers across the United States and Western Europe.

This left his far more diplomatic successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the task of cleaning up Malaysia’s image as a peaceful multi-cultural, religiously tolerant country that welcomes tourists and makes good electronics.

Mahathir’s speech to a summit of Muslim leaders two weeks before retirement went one sound bite too far, trampling on Western sensitivities by saying Jews had emerged from the holocaust to “rule this world by proxy”.

Western condemnation rained down on Kuala Lumpur, even though he also called for Palestinians to make peace with Israel and stop suicide bombings.

“It’s the worst period since Anwar was jailed,” remarked one western diplomat, referring back to a defining moment in Mahathir’s rule — the sacking and jailing of his popular deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998.

For all Mahathir’s protests that Western media had taken his remarks on Jews out of context it was his fixed sight of the world through a prism of race, religion and ethnicity that earned him opprobrium at the end.

STEALTHY CHANGE: Abdullah, Malaysia’s fifth prime minister, will champion the Palestinian cause and any other injustice felt by Muslims, but he’s unlikely to make as many world headlines.

It is hard to imagine Abdullah unleashing verbal zingers like Mahathir, upsetting homosexuals, the “white European race”, Singaporeans, Australian prime ministers and, of course, Jews.

If he differs in style, Abdullah still subscribes to Mahathir’s vision for Malaysia and changes will be made stealthily.

“He’s not going to be a Gorbachev. There won’t be any Glasnost or Perestroika,” remarked a source close to Abdullah, reflecting how the Soviet Communist Party foundered in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist drive.

Ultimately, Malaysia’s stability has rested on the state of UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation, which has led all the multi-ethnic Barisan Nasional coalition governments since independence from Britain in 1957.

Abdullah must cement his power base if he is to be more than an interim leader and avoid the damaging UMNO power struggles that would only help a conservative religious opposition.

Mahathir suppressed pressures for change, notably from Anwar’s Reformasi movement, but analysts say the social forces unleashed by two decades of rapid industrialization and the spread of Islamization will haunt Abdullah.

Mahathir earns plenty of plaudits for Malaysia’s economic development, and steering the country out of the Asian crisis.

But not for nurturing liberal democracy.

WHAT ARE FRIENDS FOR?: Still, after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Mahathir appeared just what Washington wanted — a Muslim leader with a good record for developing his people, tough on law and order, and holding progressive views on religion.

His voice had resonance in the Muslim and developing worlds, while his “Look East” economic strategy made him popular elsewhere in Asia.

The standing ovation given Mahathir at a World Economic Forum summit in New York months after September 11 showed the West ready to applaud whenever he spoke with moderation and reason.

But the invasion of Afghanistan upset the premier, who walked a fine line cosying up to the White House while playing to the ethnic Malay majority’s sympathy for fellow Muslims.

When the Bush administration cranked up pressure on Iraq Mahathir decided Samuel Huntington — author of “The Clash of Civilizations” — was right and the West and Islam were in a titanic struggle.

His anger bubbled over in the past year, just as Malaysia took over the chairs of both the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), grouping 57 Muslim states, and the 116-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

Washington privately warned Kuala Lumpur over a Mahathir speech to NAM, in which he wondered whether collateral damage in Iraq made the victims of September 11 collaterals too.

Months later, he upset much of the diplomatic community by raging against the low sexual morals and warlike ways of the “white European race” in an address to an UMNO assembly.

Knowing he was going soon, Western governments bit their tongues.

But when he mentioned Jews, without making any distinction with Israel or Zionists, he lit the blue touch paper and it was time to retire.

After panicky UMNO leaders stopped him from quitting 16 months earlier, Mahathir decided to stay on until after the OIC summit so that he could give that speech.

“I can go out with a bang if you want,” Mahathir told journalists a day before his retirement on October 31.

He already has. His international profile was seldom higher than during his last two weeks in power.—Reuters