Mahathir keeps consensus alive, disappointingly

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HAS Mahathir Mohamad been tamed? If anyone could be counted on to blow apart the phoney consensus at this weekend's Europe-Asia Meeting in London, we thought, it would be the pathologically outspoken Malaysian Prime Minister.

The champion of "Asian values" and scourge of Western governments and speculators, whom he once accused of "not wanting us to succeed", is regularly in a minority of one at international summits, and the staff of the National Liberal Club had to go in search of more chairs as journalists gathered for a draught of vintage Mahathir rhetoric. They were disappointed: Dr Mahathir was being pathologically nice.

Asem-II, he said, "delivered much more than I expected". Asian nations had been able to make their point about the current financial crisis, and it had been taken up by the leaders of Europe. In most eyes the summit produced little, and Britain's proposal to set up a special fund to impart economic skills to Asia was dismissed as tokenism by almost everyone; not by Dr Mahathir. It was "a good beginning", which would help Asian economies recover their stability.

This was hardly recognisable as the man who instituted a policy of "buy British last" after being stung by press coverage of the Pergau Dam affair. Invited to suggest that Mr Blair and his European colleagues were "fairweather friends" of Asia, he was again deflatingly diplomatic. "I have no means of reading what is in his heart," said the Prime Minister of his British counterpart, though as a medical practitioner he ought perhaps to know. "I can only go by what he says, and from the noises made during the conference, I am quite convinced... that there is European solidarity with the Asian countries."

What about Asian values? For the 72-year-old Dr Mahathir, who has ruled Malaysia since 1981, this has appeared to mean autocratic government. The suggestion has been that too much democracy was not only unnecessary, but would actually damage prosperity. "I cannot enter into a prolonged discussion on this," he said mildly, "but I do believe that Asians have their values, and these are just as good and as universal as European values."

When Asian currency and stock markets began plunging late last summer, Dr Mahathir was accused by many of prolonging the crisis with his intemperate attacks on invest- ment institutions and people such as financier George Soros, whom he called "a moron". His demands for controls on international currency trading led some to call him economically illiterate; yesterday he argued that "it is not fair to punish a whole nation by making it poor", and that there had to be some discipline in financial markets.

Mr Soros himself has accepted that untrammeled currency speculation can be dama- ging. "He has been influenced by me," said Dr Mahathir, laughing. "He has changed his mind." It was very different last year, when their exchanges helped send the markets ever downwards. As the turmoil went on, Dr Mahathir at last appeared to be persuaded of the harm being caused, and little has been heard from him since the beginning of the year. What had happened?

"Well, I have kept the peace this week. I have held myself back, I have not said anything. But I am quite sure the even the currency speculators do not want to act like a dictator and prevent free speech. So off and on I make very mild remarks about these things." Which appears to prove that even if Mahathir Mohamad has temporarily lost his edge, he has not lost his sense of humour.