Mahathir's rule goes `on and on and on'

Raymond Whitaker writes from Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia's PM and his vision for the next century

Malaysia is not an easy country for foreigners to understand. Its politics are as complicated as its racial make-up, but this potential volatility has produced no violence since the late Seventies.

Even a general election cannot raise Malaysia's profile very much. Yesterday voters in the mountains and jungles of Sabah and Sarawak, separated by hundreds of miles of sea from the rest of Malaysia, began two days of polling. But everyone knows that by tonight, when the peninsula has had its say, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its coalition partners, who have won every election since independence in 1957, will be preparing for another five years in office. It will be an unprecedented upset if the Barisan Nasional (National Front) loses its two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

The files of Malaysian press clippings might remain virtually empty were it not for Mahathir Mohamed, the pathologically outspoken Prime Minister. When the election was announced just over two weeks ago, Newsweek magazine shouldered the task of explaining Malaysia to its readers, devoting several pages to the transformation Dr Mahathir has brought about in what was a poor, racially divided country when he took office 14 years ago.

One symbol of that change is the huge Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) complex, the twin towers of which, Newsweek said in a caption, would be the tallest in Asia on completion. Dr Mahathir told an election meeting that the magazine refused to acknowledge that the KLCC towers would be the tallest in the world. "They are not happy that [they have] been certified taller than the World Trade Center in New York or the Sears Tower in Chicago. We do not claim to have the tallest building in the world, but the recognition was certified by an international body," he said.

This body, it turns out, is the US-based Council of Tall Buildings. His complaint encapsulates perfectly a contradiction common in developing countries, but personified in Dr Mahathir: while constantly maintaining a sense of grievance against the West, which, he said in the same speech, "does not want us to progress and live in peace and harmony," he seeks to measure his achievements by reference to it.

Ignoring the fact that Malaysia is dependent for its breakneck pace of growth on Western markets, as well as billions of dollars of Western investment, the Prime Minister is willing to risk considerable economic damage if he feels himself slighted abroad. No country is more aware of this than Britain, whose businessmen found themselves frozen out of Malaysian government contracts for several months last year in the wake of the row over aid for the Pergau dam project.

Such a thing would be impossible in Malaysia, where Dr Mahathir has used his political dominance to crush anyone seeking to thwart him. The press and television's role is to publish his endless finger-wagging attacks on the official opposition, the judiciary has been tamed and the country's traditional Malay rulers brought into line. The Internal Security Act, an unrepealed relic of colonial days that permits indefinite detention, is available for anyone who persists in opposing him.

Dr Mahathir, who is 70 or 71 this year - there is an unresolved question over his exact age - was born in Alor Setar, the centre of Malaysia's rice lands. His resentment of British colonial rule is said to date from being turned down when he applied to study law in Britain. Instead he qualified as a medical practitioner in Singapore.

But if the colonialists aroused his ire, so did his fellow Malays. Not only had they allowed the British to dominate them, he once wrote, they had yielded control of the economy to the Chinese and Indians, roughly a third and a tenth of the population respectively. His views once led to expulsion from UMNO, but by 1981 he was in a position to put them into practice.

Without Dr Mahathir, it is possible that Malaysia would have followed a similar course to India's, suffering chronic slow growth punctuated by bursts of ethnic violence such as the Malay-Chinese riots which took 200 lives in 1979.

Under his constant goading, a country which had little to recommend it 20 years ago beyond a few commodities - such as rubber, tin and palm-oil - is now the world's 19th largest trading nation. Malaysia produces its own car, the Proton, which is sold in Britain, and is the leading exporter of electronics - such as semiconductors and disk drives.

Nor is the Prime Minister finished yet: his "Vision 2020" will make Malaysia a fully developed country by that year. Dr Mahathir is unlikely to be alive then. Although he appears to have recovered fully from heart surgery in 1989, in all probability this is his last election.

But he is not expected to step down soon - speculation in Kuala Lumpur is that 1998, when several major projects will have been finished and Malaysia is due to host the Commonwealth Games, might be deemed a suitable date.

Like Margaret Thatcher, the only British Prime Minister with whom Dr Mahathir can be said to have had anything in common, he would probably like to go "on and on and on". Unlike her, he has the power to do so if he chooses.

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