There is nothing so pathetic – and so dangerous – as a politician past his prime. You know the type. Arrogant megalomaniacs with all the guns on their side, clinging desperately to power. Southeast Asia has had its share of these dinosaurs – and none have been more tenacious than Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The 76-year-old ‘Dr M’, as he prefers to be known, has led the ethnically diverse nation of Malaysia since 1981. The son of an Indian schoolteacher father and a Malay mother, Mahathir was a brilliant student, eventually qualifying as a medical doctor in 1952. He married his wife, Hasmah (also a doctor) and set up a successful practice in his home town. The crooked finger of politics soon beckoned, however, and the small-town doctor was elected as a member of parliament for UMNO (the United Malays National Organization) in 1961. But not for long. He lost his seat in 1969 and was tossed out of the party for slagging off the then-PM, Tunku Abdul Rahman, whom he charged with neglecting the indigenous Malay community.
Out of office, he continued to develop this nationalist thesis in a book called _The Malay Dilemma_. There he accused British colonialism of subverting Malay culture by destroying the traditional sultanates, while also blasting his fellow Malays for meekly accepting their second-class status. The uppity tome instantly boosted his political capital among a generation of young UMNO activists. He was re-elected in 1974 and appointed Education Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Vice-President of UMNO and finally, in 1981, Prime Minister. He was on a roll.
Comfortably in charge, he set out to realize his vision of Malaysia as a regional economic powerhouse. And in this he has largely succeeded. He promoted free-market growth by courting Western and Japanese corporations, especially in the fast-growing micro-electronics industry. The growth rate reached eight per cent in the 1990s and average annual incomes shot up to nearly $4,000. Malaysia now ships out computer disk drives and CD players as well as tropical hardwood, palm oil and rubber. The country even has its own national car, the Proton, courtesy of a partnership deal with Mitsubishi.
All this has not come without a price: the nation’s rainforests and mangroves are being hacked down at a prodigious rate. The Strait of Malacca has become a murky cesspool, debt has exploded and pointless mega-projects litter the land. Petronas, Malaysia’s national oil company, now claims the world’s tallest building in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. And Mahathir is keen to turn the country into a high-tech centre for the region. The ‘Multimedia Super Corridor’, a grandiose plan to turn a former oil-palm plantation into a kind of Silicon Valley East, hinges on his support.
But the Doctor’s greatest political success has been his adroit balancing of the demands of the country’s two main ethnic communities: Malays and Chinese. He entrenched a Malay-first policy with preferential treatment for Malays in jobs, university placements and lucrative business deals. But he also gave the Chinese a measure of economic autonomy and has used the threat of an Islamic state to subdue their demands.
In a similar balancing act, he’s courted international investors while blasting Western neo-colonialism – accusing the West of bullying Malaysia and other developing countries. Along with Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew he has also been a key figure in the ‘Asian values’ movement. The goal is to define social and political progress in non-Western terms. Not a bad idea. Except in Dr M’s hands it’s turned into a demagogic rationale for suppressing even the mildest opposition to his regime.
His persecution of the press is legendary. Last year he shut down the pro-reform publications _Detik_ and _Ekslusif_ and charged the publisher of _Harakah_ with sedition. In 1999 the Committee to Protect Journalists named Mahathir one of the ‘Ten Worst Enemies of the Press’ for his intimidation tactics. The Doctor dislikes international media criticism, too, which he claims disturbs Malaysia’s ‘harmonious development’.
For such a sensitive fellow Mahathir can lash out unpredictably. At the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 he attacked Jews for undermining Malaysia’s economy, accusing the American/Hungarian financier George Soros (who’s Jewish) of economic sabotage. ‘We may suspect that they, the Jews, have an agenda, but we do not want to accuse,’ he told reporters. After a critical 1986 article in _The Wall Street Journal_ he said the paper was controlled by Jews and part of a Zionist plot to overthrow his regime. And in 1993 he prohibited Steven Spielberg’s holocaust film, _Schindler’s List_, from being shown because of its alleged pro-Israeli bias.
In recent years his intolerance to political opponents has hardened – helped immeasurably by the Internal Security Act, a relic of the anti-communist hysteria of the 1960s which allows indefinite detention without charge or trial. After the verdict in the Anwar Ibrahim trial (see below, _Animal Cunning_), Anwar’s lawyer, Karpal Singh, was charged under the Sedition Act for statements made during the trial. And last April, Mohamad Ezam Nor, leader of the Keadilan reform party, was arrested under the Internal Security Act along with nine key party activists.
In the paranoid world of Dr M there is only one guaranteed prescription for dissent – repression.