LUMPURThe warm Washington reception for Mahathir bin Mohamad last week
was a tribute to the Malaysian prime minister's political skills and testimony
to the opportunism driving both U.S. and Malaysian policy. It was also an
occasion for both to consider how past opportunism has had negative longer-term
Mahathir, scourge of the International
Monetary Fund, vitriolic Third World advocate, jailer of his former deputy Anwar
Ibrahim, tireless critic of Israel, was welcomed as the embodiment of the
moderate, modern Muslim state. Mahathir has always been a complex individual,
one moment delivering a tirade, the next quietly wooing Silicon Valley
entrepreneurs to Malaysia's Multimedia Corridor.
Mahathir came to Washington with two
special credentials. First, his rejection in 1998 of IMF solutions to the Asian
crisis and his imposition of capital controls have not been the disaster
predicted. They may not have been necessary, but they are now recognized as a
viable alternative to Washington orthodoxy.
Second - and the one thing that mattered
for President George W. Bush - he was a Muslim scourge of Muslim militants and
an outspoken critic of suicide bombers, as well as of Israeli reprisals. He
could claim to have been jailing militants without trial long before Sept. 11.
He could now be praised for the same actions that a year earlier had earned him
U.S. rebukes. As the acceptable face of Islam, he could also remind U.S.
corporations of the investment attractions of a multiracial, capitalist
The revival of Mahathir's stock in the
West has been matched by an upswing in his domestic political fortunes. Sept. 11
and his own secular credentials have led to a surge in support. Malays have
deserted the Parti Islam and returned to the governing United Malays National
Organisation. Non-Malays have shifted focus from Mahathir's many failings to the
greater danger of Muslim extremism. Anwar's cause has lost momentum. Mahathir's
abandonment last year of crony capitalists has speeded corporate reform and
improved his image. The economy is recovering and the stock market has picked
up, largely without foreign money.
Mahathir, a youthful 76, now looks as
though he can stay in office at least through one more election, if not as long
as he likes. But how will he use his new lease on power? Being praised for
jailing Muslim extremists is all very well, but in reality few Malaysian
fundamentalists are ready to lay down their lives for Al Qaeda. He has too often
used detention without trial against other opponents too, and, his critics say,
undermined Malaysia's institutions for short-term political gain.
He is surely aware that just as the
United States' early nurturing of the Taliban returned to haunt it, so his
government's 20 years of retreats in the face of local Islamists has had
consequences that run counter to his vision of a modern, plural Malaysia. They
include social divisions between races and dress codes for women that are more
conservative than Malay traditions.
Likewise Mahathir's desire for a
meritocratic, technologically advanced Malaysia continues to be hampered by the
need to maintain support within UMNO through lavish patronage and keep Malay
votes generally through the system of Malay educational, commercial and
employment privileges. These were begun in 1970 to rectify dangerous imbalances
between the races, but the recipients have become too dependent on them.
Malaysia has made remarkable economic
progress since Mahathir came to power in 1981. Much may be attributable to its
resource base, open market traditions and location in a prospering East Asia.
But some has to be attributed to Mahathir's drive. Now that he has survived the
Asian economic crisis, fallout from the Anwar arrest and Sept. 11, the question
is: How will he use his last years in office? Can he throw political expediency
to the winds and concentrate on undoing past mistakes so as to better preserve