Blunt Malaysian Leaders Has An Answer For Everything
by David Lamb (Times Staff Writer)

He wouldn't put it quite this way, but the past year has been a bit mystifying to PM MAHADEATH, who has towered over Malaysian politics a none before him and whose legacy, until an economic crisis, had seemed assured.

Why would Malaysians call for one of Asia's longest-serving leaders to resign after all he's done for them? Why would his most trusted ally, a man he created politically, turn on him? Why would the West vilify him after he used free markets to build one of the worlds' fastest-growing economies? Why would journalists brand him a dictator and anti-Semite when his record is nothing of the sort? Why would radical Muslims call for his assassination when he is a faithful Muslim?

Mahathir, 73, who is as blunt as he is combative, has never ducked a fight of hidden behind a "no comment," and in a recent interview, he had explanations on each count. They reflected his anger and sense of betrayal. He created the very model of the capitalistic nation that the West encourages in Southeast Asia, only to see 40 years of economic process undone, he says by Malaysia’ enemies in the West.

On foreign journalists “Yes, I think they deliberately lie. They don’t like the way I talk back to them when they are wrong. They live on the misery of others. They live on creating misery for others. They live on telling lies about others.”

On the West “The West is constantly running us down, saying we as Asians can’t set up a good government, that we must be corrupt and all that. I would like to point out the West is no less corrupt, and maybe more corrupt. So don’t be racist and make out as if Asians are corrupt (and) Europeans are not.”

On anti-Mahathir demonstrations in the streets “If you look carefully at that picture (on recent magazine cover) you will find that these so-called reformists are people who wear torn clothing, you know, the kind of hippie people who are beer drinkers, with Budweiser on their shirts. I don’t know if its true, but these people claim they were paid to demonstrate.”

On former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the erstwhile ally who was ultimately sacked, arrested, beaten in jail by the police chief and, finally convicted on corruption charges : “He tried to overthrow me. He’s the one who turned the issue into a political problem. The fact is he couldn’t accept that he’s not the first minister to be removed. Others have been removed and found guilty by the courts, even of murder.”

On tapes that Islamic fundamentalists have secretly circulated calling for the assassination of Malaysian leaders : “They are trying to stir up the worst kind of feelings among Muslims. We have never had theses things happen before. But some crazy chap might just do something crazy like assassinating people. We take threat seriously.”

All vintage Mahathir. Strong-willed, stubborn and very much a visionary, Mahathir may be, after 18 years in power, the last of a breed. As societies in the region become more open and democratic, the day of leaders staying aat the helm for a generation or more and single-handedly shaping the destiny of their countires – Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Suharto of Indonesia, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Mahathir of Malaysia – may well be nearing an end.

Mahathir still punches a time clock when he comes to work every morning. He endlessly scribbles in 2-by-3-inch spiral notebooks on ways to uplift Malaysia. (“Improve the infrastructure of water sewerage”, says the most recent entry.) He drives himself through this capital on Sundays, making notes on potholes and parks that need sprucing up. He’s even been known to stop the new airport to check the cleanliness of public bathrooms.


A physician before entering politics, Mahathir – or Dr. M as may call him – most admires President Nelson Mandela of South Africa among today’s leaders, enjoys the novels of Wilbur smith and Robert Ludlum, finds time for few hobbies other than horseback riding, is uncomfortable with small talk and appears not to have enriched himself during 35 years in politics, Western Diplomats said.

“He’s acerbic, crotchety and self-righteous” said one European envoy. “That said, I’d agree the picture the West gets of him is one-sided and often inaccurate. He’s done a lot of great things for Malaysia, and on some controversial issues he’s right. But he never dodges a question, he takes risks and that gets him in trouble.”

Mahathir, for instance, stirred up a hornets’ nest last year when he blamed Malaysia’s economic crisis on hedge-fund traders such as George Soros and on Jews. “I’m not saying every Jew is bad.” He said, “but the fact remains Soros is a Jew and he attacked us. Just because I said that doesn’t mean I’m anti-Jew.

Though branded by some as an anti-Semite because of the comment, Mahathir is the one who overcame opposition from Parliament and Islamic groups to bring an Israeli cricket team to Malaysia two years ago. He also sponsors Israeli students on two-week study tours to Malaysia “ because we believe there should be Understanding between Muslims and Jews.”

Mahathir’s fight for women’s right led in 1997, after a seven-year battle in Parliament, to Malaysia becoming the only Southeast Asia country with a law against domestic violence. And when a radical mullah recently said, “It would be better to wallow in mud with pigs than shake the hand of a woman,” there wasn’t a word of protest, even from groups supporting women’s and human rights. Only Mahathir lashed out publicly against the comment.

While most remain silent, he stands up to fundamentalists who want to turn Malaysia into a sectarian Islamic state. He also, Western political analysts say, is the primary force that created racial harmony and a large middle class in a society populated by Malays, Indians and Chinese – a contribution Mahathir considers his proudest achievement. In 1969, race riots in Malaysia claimed 300 lives.

I think the reason he irritates so many people is because he doesn’t fit the Hollywood stereotype of an Asian” said his daughter, Marina Mahathir, a 41-year old activists against AIDS and for women’s rights. “Asian leaders are meant to be ‘yes-sir, no-sir.” They are polite. They avoid controversy and conflict. Dad doesn’t cater to that. He likes to fight. He’s brutally honest. That’s the problem. But its not his problem. It’s other people’s problem.


In the span of a generation, Mahathir took Malaysians from the rice paddies to the semiconductor plants. He is obsessed with making Malaysia an industrialized country by 2020 (which is the license plate of his locally produced Perdana Sedan), and he is still shaped, he admits, by the experience of growing up under British colonial rule and being told Malays were inferior, uneducated and not capable of accomplishing much worthwhile.

:”We grew up with an inferiority complex, being told we were aborigines from the jungle,” said Sen. Zainuddin Maidin. “Now, foreigners come here and look up at the tallest building in the world, at the newest airport in the region, and they say, ‘Wow, look at all Malaysia has done.”

That gives us psychological esteem. That’s Mahathir’s great strength. He has given us confidence. His weakness is his stubbornness and the fact that he will sacrifice friends to achieve what he believes in.”

When Malaysia became independent in 1957, per capita income was $350 a year. By the beginning of 1997, it was nearly $5,000 and Malaysia had been transformed into on eof Asia’s economic “tigers.” It was the trendy place for hedge-fund managers to park their funds and billions of dollars poured into Malaysian stocks and projects, often without much research. On June 17, 1997, the International Monetary Fund praised Malaysia’s economic fundamentals and said Malaysia’s economic fundamentals and said Mahathir’s policies justified the confidence investors had shown.

Two weeks later, the currency in neighboring Thailand collapsed, heralding a crisis that eventually damaged economies across Asia and around the globe. Hedge-fund managers pulled their money out of Malaysia as quickly as they had put it in, “The economic tigers,” Mahathir said “have not become whimpering kittens.”


The Malaysian currency, the ringgit,lost 60% of its value, per capita income by late 1997 had fallen to about $1,500, and $ 100 billion was wiped out of the local stock market. Mahathir says the meltdown has cost Malaysi $ 140 billion.

Of course, I’m angry that 40 long years of toil and sweat have been destroyed in a very short period of time,” Mahathir said. “On top of that we’re being blamed for destroying our economy when we know we weren’t the cause. To re-create this wealth will take a long time, a decade or more. It’s the waste that angers me. So much wasted effort, so many lost dreams.”

There are still many Malaysians who support Mahathir. Many others appreciate his achievements but think it’s time for him to step aside. He said he had intended to retire last year – a plan that was derailed by the economic crisis and the Anwar affair. Bu he said he won’t quit now because it would appear he was running from tough times. He plans to stand again in the next general election – Malaysia’ elections are legitimate, hard-fought and do not provide the prime minister with a free ride – which will be held by April 2000.

An how would Mahathir, who had heart bypass surgery in 1989, like to be remembered by history? He chuckled softly, which is about as demonstrative as he ever gets. “Oh, I really don’t care,” he said. “In 40 years I’m not going to be around, and when you are dead, people will say nasty things about you … It doesn’t make a difference to me. I just want to do what I can for my country while I’m alive.”