Search Tuesday October 28, 2003

Philip Bowring: Malaysia after Mahathir
The outsider
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Tuesday, October 28, 2003

KUALA LUMPUR: Mahathir bin Mohamad retires this week after 22 years as prime minister of Malaysia. What spurred this remarkable and occasionally outrageous career? And how different will his country be without his leadership?

The answer to both questions is this: Mahathir is an outsider in every way, which has made both him reckless and visionary.

The incoming prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is the quintessential Malay insider, as were Malaysia's first three prime ministers, to whom manners and balance were all important. Mahathir is only part Malay - his father was an Indian Muslim. His political career was, in compensation, based at the beginning on being more Malay than the then aristocratic Malay leadership.

Yet as an outsider Mahathir was more aware than his fellow Malays of how far his community needed to travel to catch up with the Chinese and other races in education and commerce. His comments on Malays in his long-banned 1969 book "The Malay Dilemma" - often repeated in milder form - were as offensive to many Malays as his recent comments on Jews. He had a burning desire to modernize his adopted people, to help them escape feudalism, dependence and ignorance.

Mahathir was from a lower middle class background and studied medicine locally. Unlike many leading Malays, he was not educated at elite schools in the West and hence never acquired a sentimental attachment to the West. Indeed, a gut resentment of perceived - and often real - Western arrogance was always at war with his respect for science and commercial success.

Indeed, his first move as prime minister was a Look East policy of ignoring the West and following Japan and Korean examples. With that went a commitment - contrary to the advice of the World Bank and others - to use public money to kick-start heavy industry in Malaysia. It may not have been the best use of resources, but it helped transform the economy and Malay thinking.

Mahathir did not invent affirmative action for Malays. That was already entrenched in policies after the 1969 race riots. But he did use it to try to create a Malay entrepreneurial class through privatization of state functions. The process was accompanied by vast cronyism, corruption and waste. Mahathir remains frustrated by what he sees as Malays' failure to take advantage of the advantages offered to them. But his policies did entrench capitalist notions and tycoon ambitions among Malays.

He was ruthless in his desire to stay in power, emasculating the judiciary, politicizing the bureaucracy and curtailing the power of hereditary rulers. He used detention without trial against political opponents - but so did his predecessors. He humiliated and imprisoned his erstwhile deputy and heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim. Yet he continued to operate within a plural political system, and to win elections which were hotly contested even if biased against the opposition.

Anwar, corruption and his own arrogance lost Mahathir many Malay votes, but the Chinese viewed him as their protector against Islamists and admired his desire for economic growth led by the private sector. Likewise the foreign business community was happy to ignore his third world rhetoric so long as policies continued to encourage investment.

But political survival also pushed Mahathir in directions he came to regret. To avoid being outflanked by the Parti Islam, he gave in to pressures for more conservative dress and behavioral codes than had been the norm among Malays. The process increased the social divide between the races even as the economic gap was reduced.

The retirement of this articulate, attention-seeking risk taker will be a loss for a Muslim world in need of modernizing leaders. The gain for Malaysia will be a kinder, gentler regime, and a leader who does not offend foreign friends.

It is to be hoped that Mahathir's successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, will depoliticize the judiciary and the state bureaucracy, reduce cronyism and money politics, and reassert Malay traditions of tolerance. If Badawi, an Islamic scholar, can heal the divisions in the Malay community created by Mahathir's authoritarian ways, he will do as much to consolidate the modernization of Malaysia as Mahathir did with his giant development projects.