Malaysia's Prime Minister since 1981 was talking about promoting his country, which he said was the least well- known in South-east Asia, but he might just as well have been referring to himself. Dr Mahathir frequently gives the impression of a man in love with his own rhetoric, as John Major discovered during a state banquet in Kuala Lumpur last September. His host ignored protocol to attack him for doing nothing while the Serbs committed genocide in Bosnia.
The Malaysian leader had discovered long before that the secret of getting coverage in the West was to attack its values. Uninhibited by Malaysia's reliance on exports to the developed world, he frequently accuses Western nations of using environmental and human rights concerns to limit the competitiveness of developing countries. Western-style democracy, he has been quoted as saying, can lead to homosexuality, moral decay, economic decline and single-parent families.
Dr Mahathir, 68, does not spare his own countrymen, however, and often reserves his severest criticism for his fellow Malays, whom he lectures in Thatcherite terms about the need to be as hard- working as the more prosperous Chinese community. Japan is his model - he even moved Malaysia's clocks an hour ahead of the rest of South-east Asia to bring the country closer in time to Asia's economic superpower.
In contrast to his predecessors, Dr Mahathir is a locally- educated medical practitioner without aristocratic connections. This might explain why he is as thick-skinned as he is outspoken. Even though he has been Prime Minister and leader of the ruling United Malays National Organisation for so long, he retains the air of a maverick who has little patience with some of the party's more complacent functionaries.
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