Profile: The big noise in the East: Malaysia's Prime Minister thumbs his nose to get attention, writes Michael Fathers

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The Independent Online
DR MAHATHIR MOHAMAD, Prime Minister of Malaysia, was once described as 'a barbarian' by Bob Hawke, then Australia's Prime Minister. Last month, Paul Keating, the present Australian premier, called him 'a recalcitrant' because he stayed away from President Bill Clinton's Pacific summit in Seattle.

Dr Mahathir moved swiftly and, most people would think, without any sense of proportion. He banned Australian television programmes from his country and threatened trade sanctions and an end to student exchanges. Mr Keating tried to backtrack last week; Dr Mahathir found the apologies inadequate. However, like many thin-skinned people, Dr Mahathir is perfectly happy to dish it out. In September, at a banquet attended by John Major, he accused Britain of standing by in Bosnia while 'an entire race is being wiped out'. When New Zealand MPs wrote calling for the release of political detainees, he wrote back telling them they should admit a few million Chinese and Indians to their own country and try running it with whites in a minority.

These are examples of what Dr Mahathir would call 'rude frankness'. It is quite deliberate and the purpose is outlined in a book called The Malay Dilemma, which he wrote in 1970. Malays were then paupers in their own country and, in the same year, their resentment at the economic dominance of the large Chinese minority had led to riots and a pogrom in Kuala Lumpur. Malays, Dr Mahathir said, had been too formal and polite and were in danger of developing an inferiority complex. They should develop Western ways, in particular 'rude frankness'; they had a 'primary right' to Malaysia and the Indian and Chinese immigrants should be required to absorb Malay culture just like immigrants to the United States and Australia. The world, Mr Mahathir wrote, was dominated by Western or Western-orientated people; countries did best when they adjusted to Western values while protecting their own societies. He was looking at Japan.

Twenty-three years ago, Dr Mahathir's ideas were too hot to handle. The book was banned and he was expelled from the ruling party. Today, after 12 years as Prime Minister, he regards Malaysia's growth rate, one of the fastest in the world, as a vindication. In each of the past five years, the economy has expanded at more than 8 per cent. A country that once depended on rubber and tin has become the world's largest producer of electronic equipment and a manufacturer of steel and motor cars. Foreign investment is pouring in. Malaysia is following South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China into the club of Asian economic tigers.

Malaysia is a democracy - the last elections were in 1990 - but its Prime Minister is not too fussy about the niceties. Unrepealed legislation from the pre-1957 era, when the country was a British colony, allows him to detain people indefinitely without trial.

He criticises the 'rich and arrogant' West for attempting to link trade and aid to human rights. 'Where democracy is introduced,' he has said, 'riots, civil unrest and killings take place.' Britain, he once told a BBC TV interviewer, might match Malaysia's growth rate if it were not so protective of the right to strike. Malaysia's prosperity has, if anything, made Dr Mahathir more prickly. In Whitehall civil servants scour the British press fearful that a bad word about the Malaysian government might end up on Dr Mahathir's desk and upset imminent trade deals. 'You realise,' one official said last week, 'these are sensitive times and there is a lot hanging on our relationship with Malaysia. There are several billion pounds at stake here.'

Britain speaks from experience. Ten years ago, the Department of Education and Science increased fees for foreign students at British universities and colleges. Dr Mahathir orchestrated a 'Buy British Last' campaign, which continued for nearly five years until Margaret Thatcher visited Kuala Lumpur and talked him out of it. An armaments deal to sell 28 Hawk combat trainers and a pounds 234m British aid package to build a hydro-electric dam followed despite opposition from the Overseas Development Administration and the World Bank.

Now, annual two-way trade stands at pounds 2.6bn and British investment in Malaysia last year was more than pounds 200m, adding to the pounds 2bn already there. That is why Foreign Office mandarins call Mr Mahathir a 'visionary' and a 'modern man'. To be less effusive might prompt the axe to fall again.

DR MAHATHIR was born on 20 December 1925 in Alor Setar, capital of the north-west state of Kedah. His official biography says his 'active interest' in politics began at the end of the Second World War when he was a teenager and that he joined Umno, the Malay political party, at its inception in 1946. The chip on his shoulder, it is said, goes back to the rejection of an application to read law in Britain in 1947. Instead, the young Mahathir went south to study medicine in Singapore and, according to another story, wrote 'Indian' rather than 'Malay' in the column marked 'race' on his application form in the belief that it would improve his chances. This story is a dig at the contrast between Dr Mahathir's origins - his grandfather was a Muslim immigrant from the Indian subcontinent - and his passionate embrace of Malay chauvinism.

After graduating from King Edward VII medical school, he joined the Malaysian Government Service as a medical officer. In 1957, a year after he married his wife Hasmah, who was also a physician, he returned to his home town and set up private practice. They have three sons and two daughters.

Dr Mahathir was first elected to parliament in 1964. He lost his seat in 1969 before his controversial book led to his expulsion from Umno for 'extremism', in what amounted to racial attacks on both the Chinese and the white races generally. He was readmitted in time to contest the 1974 general election. Within four years he was deputy leader of the party and in 1981 became Prime Minister.

His predecessors were Malay aristocrats, pro-British, pro-Commonwealth and firm believers in consensus politics. Dr Mahathir was from humble stock. He resented Britain's post-colonial influence and, he hated what he described as the Commonwealth's patronising attitudes. He did not trust the West: 'the white man was bad, he had exploited us and now he was telling us what to do.' Dr Mahathir turned the country towards the non-aligned movement, away from Europe and towards industrialisation.

He has created an extraordinarily successful economy, helped by huge amounts of foreign investment. The boom has served Malays well and the government's policy of positive discrimination - 70 per cent of all places in higher education are reserved for them - has given many opportunities that would have gone to Chinese and Indians in the past. But, because everyone is sharing the profits, racial animosity between Malays and Chinese - the latter account for one-third of the country's 18 million people - has faded. 'Small Chinese shopkeepers are complaining a bit because they are being pushed out by property developers,' a diplomat said. 'But the big shots are coining it and don't complain at all. Everyone is flaunting their wealth.'

His critics say the economic transformation would have happened whether or not he was Prime Minister. There is a whiff of corruption surrounding Umno and its leaders. The party has large investments in business and property and is immensely rich. Politics and business in Malaysia are closely linked, sometimes they are indistinguishable. The Financial Times says that stock market analysts 'look as much at who is in or out of political favour as they do at company balance sheets in assessing market performance.'

Dr Mahathir rewards politicians who are loyal to him, laying him open to criticism that he runs a government of cronies. The press is supine and the judiciary knows its place. Drug traffickers may be executed - it was after the death penalty was carried out on two Australians that Bob Hawke called him a 'barbarian'.

Many Westerners, however, would think it a good thing that Dr Mahathir has destroyed the authority of Malaysia's sultans, taking away their power to hold up government legislation and making them subject to the law. And, in fairness, he has locked away fewer people than his predecessors.

Perhaps it is because his country is so small that Dr Mahathir feels the need to make a noise. He told an American journalist last month that 'you have to thumb your nose at people before they notice you'. Some of the squabbles seem petty. The grudge match with Australia, diplomats say, goes back to the withdrawal of an invitation to tour the country (because he had failed to reply on time) when he was a young MP. An Australian soap opera called Embassy, depicting diplomatic life in an unidentified Muslim country, also caused offence.

But the Seattle summit involved deeper issues. Dr Mahathir wanted to establish an East Asian Economic Grouping that would exclude non-Asians such as the US, Australia and New Zealand. The idea was squashed, largely under pressure from Washington. Seattle marked the first summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec), the grouping that Australia promoted instead. 'One nation has decided to have a summit and everyone else is supposed to go along,' Dr Mahathir complained.

Mr Keating's error was to question Malaysia's place in the world. Dr Mahathir has based his political career on building the pride of the Malay people. Nobody - of any race or nation - can be allowed to challenge that.

(Photograph omitted)