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After 22 Years of One-Man Rule Malaysia Looks to Future without Mahatir - 2003-08-12

Mr. Mahatir has ruled for so long that close to one half of Malaysia's population has never known another prime minister. Many thought he would die in office rather than quit. But last year, Asia's longest-serving elected leader announced he would step down in favor of his deputy Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. His resignation is scheduled for October or November of this year, after the summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Malaysia.

Mr. Mahatir says he made the announcement more than a year ahead of time to allow for a smooth transition, but some analysts add also to prevent any major change in the system he has created.

"Wherever we look around, the country is shaped by him," says Karim Raslan, a senior partner of Raslan Loong, a leading corporate law firm in Malaysia's largest city Kuala Lumpur. "He has become the yardstick by which young leaders now judge themselves. Can they be as feisty, can they be as quick as he is?"

Now 77 years old, Mr. Mahatir has been prime minister for 22 years, heading a multi-racial coalition that has won every election since independence from Britain in 1957. His own party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, is the largest coalition member.

Mr. Mahatir is generally recognized as the architect of modern, industrialized Malaysia, characterized by a dynamic economy, a relatively democratic society, political stability, good education and ethnic and religious tolerance. In post-colonial Malaysia the ethnic Chinese who make up 33% of the nation's population took control of 70% of its wealth. This disparity contributed to some of Malaysia's bloodiest conflicts. Since Mr. Mahatir came to power in 1981, he has fostered compromise among these and other ethnic groups.

The erection of some of the world's tallest office buildings, such as the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, reflected the country's economic prosperity and regional leadership. Before the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990's, Malaysia's economy had an annual growth of eight percent. Since the crisis, it has been recovering relatively quickly, many say thanks to its energetic leader.

Malaysia's prime minister recently met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to sign a $900 million arms deal and discuss other import and export contracts with Russia. He also announced more investment in scientific research and technology.

But Mr. Mahatir's political record has come under growing criticism. Dr. Bakri Musa, a California surgeon and Malaysian analyst, describes his leadership style as a ‘one-man show.’ "He succeeded in turning the nation into his national echo chamber where his every utterance gets reverberated and amplified and drowning all others. And therein lies the problem."

Mr. Mahatir's use of repressive internal security laws to stifle dissent and his control of the media have caused some analysts to call Malaysia an authoritarian democracy. Its long-time leader has also been accused of corrupting a once exemplary Malaysian judicial system. Despite his making Malaysia the world's most developed Muslim country, radical Islamists denounce his party as un-Islamic.

The Malaysian leader has followed his own path on economic affairs. Even though he embraced a free-market economy, he has repeatedly denounced the West for exploitation of developing countries. During East Asia's currency turmoil in 1997, he accused American speculator and philanthropist George Soros of deliberately undermining the region's currencies.

At the East Asian Economic Summit of 2002, he stunned visiting industrial leaders with a call to abandon the "ideology of globalization" and return to what he called "physical economics": producing things as opposed to financial speculation.

Mr. Mahatir's actions have met with mixed reviews. He was sharply criticized when he resorted to short-term capital controls to avert the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990's.

But by 1999, the World Bank decided he might have known what he was doing, although some economists, like Michael Mandelbaum, author of The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the 21st Century, remain skeptical. "What Mr. Mahatir did was not completely unorthodox," he says, "and it seems not to have wrecked the Malaysian economy, although it's only fair to add that there are some countries in East Asia that were similarly afflicted by the currency crises in the late 1990's, that did not impose currency controls as Malaysia did in response to this crisis and that have recovered somewhat faster than Malaysia has."

Mr. Mahatir alienated the West by jailing his former deputy Prime Minister and political opponent Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 on dubious charges of corruption and sodomy.

Former vice-president Al Gore denounced this violation of human rights. But after the September 11th terrorist attacks, President Bush praised Mr. Mahatir's pursuit of alleged Islamic terrorists despite some claims he was retaliating against political opponents.

Mr. Mahatir has upset Arab nations by labeling as terrorists both Israel and Palestinian suicide bombers. He condemned the coalition war against Iraq and accused the United States of spreading paranoid fear of Muslims.

Some analysts, including Malaysian lawyer Karim Raslan, expect Mr. Mahatir to remain politically active in retirement. "The prime minister's retirement and not departure means that he will be there looking after his legacy," he says, "and it won't be easy for a man taking over from him to change stated aims and stated views of the prime minister."

Some changes are inevitable, say others, because Mr. Mahatir's designated successor, his deputy prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is quite a different personality.

Bridget Welsh, professor of South-Asian studies at Johns Hopkins University, says: "He is much more personable. He is consensus oriented, but he is also known as a slow decision maker and is seen as very indecisive. And he is not seen as having a lot of strengths, in particular in terms of expertise in areas outside of Islam and in local politics, particularly in the areas of the economy."

Ms. Welsh adds that many Malaysians think Mr. Badawi may have the ability to deal with Malaysia's problems: a new wave of radical Islamism, ethnic tensions, corruption and curtailment of freedoms.

"He is seen to have Islamic credentials," she says. "He has reached out effectively to the opposition Party Islam Semalaysia. He is seen as a moderate. He himself is very multi-ethnic. He comes from a Chinese Muslim mother and has Arab roots. I think in this particular area you'll see quite positive moves in the near future."

Abdullah Badawi is not likely to accuse Muslim leaders of keeping their people backward through misuse of Islam, or Australia as not being safe for Muslims, as Mr. Mahatir did. Analysts say he may well smooth some of the feathers ruffled by his blustery predecessor. They add that, for better or worse, he will not move as fast or as dramatically.