Malaysia's response to British reporting on the Pergau dam project has finally brought home to Britain the realities of the post-modern world. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, understands better than most politicians and journalists that everything these days is increasingly connected to everything else, and everything else is connected to business. Cultural ignorance can be costly and paternalism can tear a hole in a nation's pockets.
The fraternity of foreign correspondents covering Malaysia has hardly changed from the image conjured up in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. Almost no foreign correspondents are actually based in Malaysia. The country is reported by remote sensing. Coverage has relied on the monotone stereotype of what an insular, out-of-touch press thinks a 'Third World' nation should be.
Recent press comment to the effect that Malaysia is only a tin-pot nation so Britain need not worry about losing its business well illustrate the ignorance and paternalism that exist. Such comment can come only from people who are unaware of the speed and quality of change in South-east Asia. Those who have been exposed to the Malaysian experience can testify that the quality of life and expectations of many Malaysians now compare favourably with those of Britain.
The leader who has masterminded an adroitly planned, independent and successful growth strategy has not achieved his ends by being nave about the political realities affecting those with whom he does business. To suggest that Dr Mahathir does not understand the role of the press in Britain is to throw the salt of paternalism on a colonial wound. Could a man who, in less than a decade, transformed Malaysia from a Third World backwater into the fastest- growing economy in the world, really be that ignorant? Do business and the media really exist in watertight compartments? If only a dozen companies affected by the Malaysian boycott threatened to withdraw their advertising permanently from British papers, they would soon be singing a different tune.
Malaysia's quarrel is not so much with the 'British media' as with the Murdoch empire. When Rupert Murdoch bought the Hong Kong-based Star channel, Dr Mahathir was the first to complain both about the dominance of a single individual over the press and satellite television throughout the world and the standards he represents. In Dr Mahathir's mind there is little difference between a cesspool and Murdoch-owned papers and television.
But Dr Mahathir is acting not simply out of personal annoyance. He has sound political reasons. For all the nonsense written in the British press, Malaysia is a democracy. Unlike in Britain, where the black and Asian minorities are totally marginalised from politics, Malaysian minorities share power through their political parties. With a general election only a few months away, Dr Mahathir knows there is no way he can lead his party into an election with unchallenged allegations of corruption still standing against him. The opposition, which won the state elections in Sabah last month, would have a field day - particularly when the government has launched a crusade against corruption and Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy prime minister and minister of finance, is campaigning for 'transparent' government. At least two ministers and a host of businessmen are under investigation by the anti-corruption agency.
Malaysia has moved light years beyond the conventions of 'Third World' pigeonholing. Its political system and democracy are moving, maturing and changing. Its manufacturing sector is highly competitive and everyone needs its rubber, tin and oil. Malaysians are not too concerned about any possible British retaliation. 'We are not worried about our exports,' Mr Ibrahim told me. 'There is no lack of markets for our goods and products.'
The newly industrialised countries have also developed a sharp business sense. You cannot sell them any old thing at any price any longer. Over the Pergau dam, the Malaysians drove a hard bargain to get the most advantageous terms possible in their own national interest. One could hardly have expected them to do anything else. Britain's problem is that it has chosen a lazy way to do business with Malaysia. Instead of being competitive, it has relied on the neo-colonial policy of lubricating its deals with 'aid'. It is no secret in Kuala Lumpur that British companies regard the Malaysians as easily corruptible and lacking in morals, and bend over backwards to bribe them.
Britain needs to adjust to the emerging post-modern world, which requires cultural awareness and sensitivity to the concerns and attitudes of others. Today, Britain is the beggar; it can no longer insult others with impunity or parade its ingrained prejudices. In the increasingly prosperous economies, paternalism and cultural ignorance will be penalised where it really hurts: in our pockets.