Leading Article: Putting the Malaysian point of view

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The Independent Online
THE MALAYSIAN Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, made some valid points in his vituperative letter yesterday to the Financial Times. One was that the British press has been confused over whether the aid to the Pergau dam project was a loan or a grant; another, that there is much hypocrisy in the West about arms sales; a third, that 'British papers never publish Malaysian views'. Much of the rest was given over to anti- Western rhetoric.

Some of this will strike a chord in south-east Asia and in ex-colonial countries across the world. Lies are free, he wrote, redress is not. 'That is what Western democracy and human rights is all about. If this is not moral decadence, then what is?' Such words - and there were many more about corrupt natives, paper gunboats and the like - will be applauded in countries that resent Western exhortations to improve their human rights record and the level of democracy in their political life.

Much of Dr Mahathir's indignation is no doubt sincere, even if he attributes to the British press a level of malice, condescension and racism that does not exist. In expressing it so strongly he shrewdly furthers several goals: to strengthen his domestic position by appealing to Malaysian nationalism; to build himself up as a significant regional leader; and to impress the Islamic world with his credentials as a Muslim leader.

In their own very different way, China's leaders were giving the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, much the same message on his mission to Peking this week. The Americans have linked renewal of China's favourable trading status with improvements in human rights. Far from providing evidence of progress, the Chinese rounded up a number of prominent dissidents before and during his visit and told Mr Christopher not to interfere in their internal affairs.

Economically booming Asian nations see the West emerging relatively slowly from recession and more severely stricken by crime, drugs and broken families. Some, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have come to regard democracy and economic progress as inextricably linked. Others, like China, Malaysia and Indonesia, consider Western values inappropriate to their own culture and development.

There is certainly much to criticise in Western society, and much to admire in the achievements of rapidly industrialising countries like Malaysia. Dr Mahathir does his own country a disservice by over-reacting, exaggerating and over-simplifying. His pretence that all the faults lie on the British side is little short of ridiculous.