No slip of the tongue: Cunning tactics behind Mahathir's rant

Special to World
Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir's stereotypical anti-Semitic diatribe at last week's meeting of the Organization of Moslem Countries [OIC] in Kuala Lumpur wasn't just demagogic exuberance, as many Western observers interpreted it. It was a calculated, classic Mahathir political stratagem -- even in what are supposed to be his last days in office following more than 30 years running a prosperous nation of 23 million.

What many of those in the West may not realize is that Malaysia owes most of its economic progress largely to the ethnic Chinese who comprise 40 percent of its population.

Mahathir was courting his Moslem audience, particularly the Arab states. Mahathir was also courting investment from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms since Western and Japanese investors have become increasingly skeptical about Malaysia's future after Mahathir steps down.

The speech was shrewd and demagogic and therefore typical of Mahathir's style as the longest ruling politician in the region, with the exception of Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew who, as "senior minister," is still a backroom arbiter in that neighboring city-state.

After critics abroad denounced the speech, the Malaysian foreign ministry was quick to say that Mahathir had been misunderstood and hinted that he had been carried away by his own rhetoric. But the speech was carefully calculated.

"The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy," Mahathir said.

The OIC, until now a semi-moribund organization, has taken on new life, energized by the revolutionary atmosphere in the Moslem world following 9/11 and the American responses in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mahathir wants to use Malaysia's chairmanship to bolster the organization and perhaps give him a new post-retirement personal bully pulpit.

The Malaysian leader's call to revitalize the "ummah" -- the whole of the Moslem world -- strikes a chord from Casablanca to Zamboanga. While a general call for modernization, it was in fact a rallying cry to do battle against the U.S. and the West by acquiring the skills needed to make the Moslems states militarily powerful and able to resist the ignominious defeat suffered by Saddam Hussein.

Even Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri was quick to get to her feet to demonstrate her support of what Mahathir had said. Megawati, the daughter of one of Indonesia's founders and longtime president, Soekarno, has a secularist background. She is under attack at home from Moslem parties, both moderates and fundamentalists and is particularly vulnerable with Djakarta under pressure from the U.S. and Australia to act against the region-wide Islamist terrorist network.

Indonesia has convicted and sentenced to death Indonesian terrorists for bloody attacks in Bali and Djakarta and for their implication in aborted plots in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. There are close ties between the terrorists arrested in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand with Islamists in the Philippines.

Mahathir, an ethnic Indian Moslem and not a Malay, has a wide appeal, representing as he does one of the few Moslem-majority states that has made a rapid transition from a pre-industrial, colonial economy to a nation with modern technology, such as computer hardware and software.

But what many of those in the West may not realize is that Malaysia owes most of its economic progress largely to the ethnic Chinese who comprise 40 percent of its population.

The Chinese community in Malaysia dominates the business world, as it does elsewhere in Southeast Asia. A large number of Malaysian Chinese trace their origins to the Fukien coast opposite Taiwan. Ethnic and family ties to the Mainland, especially to one of the most important boom areas in China today, play an increasingly important role in Malaysia's industrialization and international commerce.

To buy racial harmony and try to foster a Malay entrepreneurial spirit, Mahathir and the UMNO political party have written into law preferential treatment for the Malay population, native to the country before the colonial era. In fact, these subsidies have led to a kind of "crony capitalism" that greatly contributed the 1997-98 financial crises in Malaysia as elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

When Mahathir's anointed successor, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, announced a reform program that would have targeted some of Mahathir's closest political allies, Mahathir turned on him. In 1998 -- with great skepticism in Malaysia and outside -- Anwar was accused, tried and sentenced for corruption and sexual crimes. He was thrown into prison, beaten and sentenced to indefinite time, where he still languishes. Anwar's prosecution triggered street protests in Malaysia and international condemnation abroad and bruised the country's image for years.

Mahathir has always courted the Malay Moslem ultras in what has been Malaysia's governing party, a fragile coalition of three major political groupings based on ethnicity. More recently, he has been up against formidable opposition from the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), a political movement of Islamic fundamentalists who advocate instituting Koranic law (sharia). They now govern in two of Malaysia's 11 states. Even PAS' opponents admit it has reduced corruption. PAS has been eroding the support of Mahathir's UMNO's Malay partners.

All this becomes particularly significant since the new anointed successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is considered a moderate with a much softer if less prestigious image. Abdullah will have to prove his mettle in the face of a pent up sentiment for liberalization from Mahathir's coalition's grip on power and a rash of infighting in UMNO.

The electorate also expects Abdullah to return Malaysia to the prosperous pre-1997 days when annual growth was 8 percent. This will not be an easy task, given the increasing competition between East and Southeast Asian exporters, not the least being Mainland China with its slave-level wage scale and undervalued currency.

Mahathir is probably a racist. Tengku Abdul Rahman, the Malay politician, threw him out of the Malayan Youth Organization early in his career. Tengku Abdul Rahman won independence from Britain and brought together the Borneo Malay states with Peninsular Malaya. Tengku Abdul Rahman tried to heal the ethnic strife always just under the surface among the Malays, Chinese and Indians who comprise its population.

At the time, Mahathir was preaching hatred and urging the expulsion of the local Chinese population. Not much has changed.

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