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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

Scandal Sidetracks Another Nation

September 16, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — Forget about Bill and Monica for a minute. If you want to see how a preoccupation with sex scandals is overwhelming our ability to come to grips with serious problems, just look at what's happening in Malaysia.

The outrageous events now unfolding there serve as a mirror for America--a somewhat distorted mirror, perhaps, but one that may give us a new perspective on just how debilitating it can be when scandal becomes the only language of politics.

At the moment, Malaysia is the clearest and most important test case in the world of whether the trend toward globalization of the world's economy will endure. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has become the world's most prominent critic of the idea that capital should be permitted to flow freely from one country to another.

Last year, when the Asian financial crisis first arose in Thailand, Malaysia was quickly affected as investors yanked out their capital. The Malaysian currency, the ringgit, plummeted by 20%.

Mahathir repeatedly blamed outsiders, particularly American financier George Soros. The demagogic leader of Malaysia's mostly Muslim nation also stooped at one point to blaming "the Jews."

Not everyone in Malaysia bought Mahathir's line. One who didn't was Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy prime minister and finance minister. Unlike the prime minister, Anwar supported the concept of free markets and open currency trading.

Such views made Anwar considerably more popular than Mahathir with the international business community. On the other hand, local Malaysians who felt threatened by the world economy supported Mahathir.

Although there could be no clearer example of a fundamental policy dispute, Mahathir and his deputy coexisted for the last year. The long standoff ended two weeks ago.

On Sept. 1, Mahathir abruptly imposed capital controls on his country and made the ringgit nonconvertible into foreign currencies. In effect, he put up high borders restricting the flow of money into and out of Malaysia. One day later, he fired Anwar.

So far, there seems nothing particularly surprising here. Mahathir was declaring himself the winner and Anwar the loser in an economic and political struggle. What followed, however, was as startling as it was tawdry.

After dumping Anwar, the prime minister proceeded to accuse him of sexual improprieties. Malaysia's newspapers and wire services, some of them government-affiliated, have suddenly been full of allegations that Anwar visited prostitutes or engaged in bisexual activity. Anwar denied the allegations.

Each side in the Malaysian political struggle is now invoking the American scandal for its own purposes.

In the face of Anwar's denials, Mahathir quipped: "Even President Clinton denied [his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky]. Who would ever admit that he is bad, that he does bad things?"

When Malaysians compared Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Malaysian woman refused to accept the comparison. "Bill Clinton is not at all like Anwar Ibrahim," she said. "Hillary knows that Bill is wrong, but I know that Anwar is innocent."

A more honorable leader than Mahathir might have defended Anwar's firing as the result of disagreements over the economy. Many economists are convinced that the currency controls Mahathir has imposed will fail. But there are some who believe that currency controls can work and that creating an unfettered open, global marketplace can be unfair to a country like Malaysia.

Instead, what might have been a valuable economic debate is being played out as a sex scandal. (Thus does America export its political culture abroad, even to a country like Malaysia, which claims to uphold "Asian values" and to resist American influences.)

The sad truth is that in the United States, too, the ongoing sex scandal is drowning out discussion of serious issues. We are talking even less than usual about the future of Social Security, or the lack of special inspections in Iraq, or the implications of the new North Korean missile, or Russia's continuing economic decline, because America is consumed with the Lewinsky affair.

Over the last few weeks, many Americans have wondered whether the continuing scandal will hamper Clinton's ability to conduct foreign policy. That is a fair and reasonable question.

The larger point is that the scandal hampers all of us. Scandal dulls the ability to carry on political discussion and debate--not just for Clinton but for his opponents and critics too.

Look at the Republicans. Some of them seem to be trying to present an effective opposition to the Clinton administration's policies on Iraq and North Korea. But the Republicans, too, are preoccupied by the scandal, and anyway, few Americans are listening to their foreign-policy pronouncements.

Or look at the press, in theory the watchdog over government. Its performance also seems dulled by the scandal. The networks have virtually given up covering serious questions of public policy.

The risk we face is that, while knowing all too much about Bill and Monica, we will lose our ability to think about government, politics, our country and the world. Is Malaysia following us, or are we becoming another Malaysia?

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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