International Papers

Move Over, Mahathir

Malaysia’s firebrand PM retires.

Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s prime minister of 22 years, stepped down from power Thursday two weeks after delivering his famous verbal assault on Jews and the United States. (For more on Mahathir’s anti-Semitic, anti-Western remarks, see this “International Papers” column from Oct. 20.) By all accounts he was a complex figure, leading Malaysia on an astounding march toward industrialization even as he resisted Western influences and kept an authoritarian grip on power.

Malaysian papers generally heaped praise on the firebrand leader on the occasion of his retirement and glossed over his frequently outrageous remarks. A fawning editorial in Malaysia’s New Straits Times focused on Mahathir’s extensive economic accomplishments, which would have him “go down in history as a great leader and go up in the eyes of his people as the greatest Malaysian alive.” The article concluded somewhat ominously by effusing, “Dr Mahathir has too much mental and physical energy and too much experience and knowledge to be allowed the luxury of complete retirement.” Other Malaysian papers had more balanced praise for the country’s virtual godfather. The Harakah Daily quoted a politician criticizing Mahathir’s two-faced war on corruption. “[H]e has managed to block the media from publicizing the manipulation and corruption of his cronies.” Many papers also praised Mahathir for keeping ethnic calm between Malaysia’s Malay and ethnic Chinese populations: The Chinese language Chung Kuo Pao applauded him for being “a prime minister for all the people, rather than a prime minister just for the Malays.” (Translation courtesy BBC Monitoring.)

Mahathir earned fainter praise abroad, though even his critics applauded his economic feats. Most regional commentators, including the online-only Asia Times, particularly admired Mahathir’s leadership during the Asian currency crisis of the late 1990s. He ignored International Monetary Fund advice, ridiculed currency traders (calling George Soros a “moron from moronia”), and helped Malaysia weather the storm more successfully than its neighbors. A grudgingly respectful op-ed in the Australian noted that Malaysia’s per capita income more than tripled during Mahathir’s 22 years in office, from U.S. $2,300 to $8,900. The piece, which began, “Farewell, saturnine leader,” also supported Mahathir’s domestic political leadership, commending him for running a “tough security state that offers Islamic terrorists no haven. Dr Mahathir leaves Malaysia the world’s only Muslim nation that is positioned for prosperity and political freedom.”

Most international pundits were less impressed with Mahathir’s political record. A Guardian piece noted Mahathir’s “robustly provocative views,” and snidely argued that “his outspokenness also revealed the abiding resentments of a post-colonial parvenu.” According to the article, “His authoritarianism, his reliance on party cronyism, his failure to curb corruption and the abuse of judicial and human rights, most infamously in the case of Anwar Ibrahim, have also tarnished his legacy.” (Anwar Ibrahim was on course succeed Mahathir until he lost favor—he is now in prison on what most agree are trumped-up charges; see this “International Papers” column from August 2000 for more background.) These inclinations never turned Margaret Thatcher against Mahathir: She was quoted in another Guardian piece saying, “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.”

Mahathir is succeeded by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. An op-ed in the online Hi Pakistan portal detailed the differences between Abdullah and his tempestuous predecessor, arguing the new leader “will champion the Palestinian cause and any other injustice felt by Muslims, but he’s unlikely to make as many world headlines.” The piece echoes other international commentators in saying that Abdullah will have to cement his political position in the country’s ruling party or risk a quick fall from power. Beyond this, most papers concede he is a mystery man. A profile in the Age of Melbourne suggested that Abdullah will continue Mahathir’s economic policies, and otherwise declared him scandal-free: “[H]e’s universally regarded as Mr Clean, a modest man who has grown neither conspicuously rich nor arrogant in power.”