Flat Earth

Never say Soros

Poor little Malaysia seems to attract an awful lot of powerful enemies, according to its motormouth Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad.

Take George Soros: not content with forcing the Malaysians to devalue the ringgit last month, the international financier is now driving down Kuala Lumpur's stock market as well in search of a quick buck, or so the PM says. Both men will be in Hong Kong next month for the annual IMF/World Bank meeting, but Mahathir turned down a face-to-face encounter, calling the Hungarian-American a "moron". Golly, just think of the damage Soros could do if he were intelligent.

The fact that Malaysia's economic boom is based on exports to the West does not stop Mahathir from accusing developed countries of plotting to undermine his nation's success. It reminds me of P J O'Rourke's remark that the Third World behaves towards the US like an adolescent boy trying to attract the attention of a beautiful woman: the more she ignores him, the stupider the things he does to try and be noticed.

Western governments have learned to put up with this sort of thing - only last week Robin Cook had to smile politely while being told that his ideas on human rights had no relevance to Malaysia - but post-colonial guilt is not widespread in Western financial institutions.

Hard-nosed moneymen, called "wild beasts in a borderless jungle" by Mahathir yesterday, see no reason to humour him. "We can't do business this way," said one London-based portfolio manager after the Malaysian authorities imposed a ban on short selling of leading shares, prompting a stampede for the exit by foreign investors.

For these people it is Mahathir who is the problem, refusing to tackle the country's economic difficulties and blaming everyone else. The Prime Minister at last admitted yesterday that Malaysia was going to grow more slowly, but of course this was purely the fault of the speculators.

The trouble is that all this is beginning to have an economic cost. Ranting about "Asian values" is one thing, but it is now a case of Malaysia's intemperate premier putting his mouth where his money is.

Sac of ecole

IT MAY no longer be true that the French minister of education can look at his watch and know exactly what every schoolchild in the country is studying at that particular moment, but one thing he does know is that they are loaded down like pack-horses. Doctors regularly denounce the weight of the school bags - known aptly as cartables - strapped to the backs of even the tiniest pupils.

This being France, the ministry has now sent schools a series of guidelines to cut the loads, including the provision of lockers, authorisation of smaller writing pads - yes, it needs a central directive from Paris - and allowing students to share books in class. Since pupils have to buy their own textbooks, their parents often insist that they lug them around to avoid the possibility of theft.

Primary schoolkids regularly carry nine to 13lbs, while their seniors typically have 22lbs on their backs, even though doctors say they should carry no more than 10 per cent of their body weight. The private sector is coming to the rescue, though: one supplier is marketing a full line of school bags equipped with wheels, no doubt copied from British high streets.

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