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Malaysian Premier to Retire Today

A hero to developing nations and a critic of the West, Mahathir leaves a "huge legacy" of economic growth and political stability.

October 31, 2003|Tyler Marshall and Baradan Kuppusamy | Special to The Times

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, one of the most influential voices of the developing world and a frequent critic of American actions just about everywhere, is due to step down today after more than two decades in power.

The 77-year-old leader is scheduled to hand power to his carefully groomed successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in a simple ceremony at Putrajaya, the newly built government administrative center less than 16 miles south of Kuala Lumpur, the capital. Although the ceremony itself is set to be low-key, it ends a carefully choreographed transition that began more than 16 months ago when Mahathir surprisingly announced that he would retire.

In the ensuing months the departure turned into a seemingly endless series of personal tributes driven by the government-controlled media.

On Thursday, in a farewell address to a packed parliamentary chamber, Mahathir urged his people to "rise to the occasion to face the challenges as they emerge."

"If we do this, there is no reason why we cannot continue to be successful and make this country a model for the world to emulate," he told the house.

Later Thursday, he resigned, effective today, as leader of the United Malay National Organization, the political party he headed for 22 years. Abdullah, 63, who will take over the party as well as the premiership, has a reputation for being politically clean and far less flamboyant than his predecessor, though his agenda is largely unknown.

Today's hand-over will take place against the backdrop of the $4-billion-plus Putrajaya complex -- just one of a series of showcase mega-projects for which Mahathir became famous. Kuala Lumpur's 1,483-foot twin Petronas Towers, for example, were declared the world's tallest buildings in 1996.

Mahathir's years in power brought political stability, which, together with strong economic growth and a broad distribution of wealth, transformed Malaysia into one of Asia's most successful nations.

"It's a huge legacy," noted Chandra Muzzaffar, head of an independent political think tank, the International Movement for a Just World. "We have to recognize his contributions, but now it's time to move on."

But progress has come at a price. Mahathir's sheer personal dominance has eroded the independence of key institutions, including the judiciary and the media, fanned corruption and dampened public accountability.

In what is seen in the West as a flagrant abuse of power, Mahathir's then-deputy prime minister and main political rival, Anwar Ibrahim, was jailed in 1998 on charges of sodomy and corruption. He was subsequently sentenced to 15 years after a questionable trial.

Under questioning from opposition lawmakers Wednesday, Mahathir defended his record on human rights and democracy, declaring: "If an individual or small group tried to incite a [race] riot, they are actually rejecting democracy and the right of the majority.

"That is why actions that seem undemocratic toward the individual or the minority need to be taken to protect real democracy," he said. "Anarchy can take place because of an obsession with democratic freedoms."

But as far as most of the Third World is concerned, his policy successes far outweigh whatever shortcomings he has had in the areas of personal freedoms and human rights.

His efforts to strengthen the 10-member Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations and foster broader economic cooperation in a grouping that also included nonmembers South Korea, Japan and China, projected his influence across the region.

President Bush recently chastised the Malaysian prime minister for anti-Semitic remarks, but Mahathir's consistent verbal broadsides against the U.S. and his occasional rejection of the international financial institutions it dominates have made him a hero throughout much of the Third World.

That Malaysia managed to prosper and continued to grow despite this combative relationship only added to the respect he gained among developing nations.

Women's rights activist Zainah Anwar recalled that on trips to Africa as an election monitor she was constantly pulled aside as soon as people learned she was Malaysian.

"They would grab my arm and ask, 'How did you do it?' " she said in a telephone interview. "In the Arab world, in sub-Saharan Africa, it's hard to think of another Third World country that can compare to Malaysia in terms of prosperity, income distribution, efficiency, political stability and transition from one leader to another. So at those levels, it's ... Mahathir who has brought this."

In neighboring Indonesia, for example, he was admired both for his success in nation building and for his willingness to take on the West.

"He's a good man," said Ditta Amahorseya, a Jakarta-based public relations director of an American financial institution. "This country needs a leader like him. He dared to condemn the West and sometimes condemned the ASEAN countries as well."

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