The Magazine

The Malays' Malaise

The challenges after Mahathir.

Nov 3, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 08 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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This willingness to stand up to the West, while confronting embarrassing flaws in Islamic societies, has made Malaysia a leader in the developing world. It heads the non-aligned movement, an organization of 116 nations, and this year hosted the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The country's diplomatic corps contains as many Chinese and Indians as it does Malays. This multiethnic mix makes the country a trusted friend of China, which worries about Xinjiang's Muslim Uighurs, and a close ally to India, whose Muslim population of 130 million ranks second in size only to that of Indonesia.

Until recently, this ability to act as an honest broker has made Mahathir the leading candidate to become chairman of the OIC following this week's retirement from government service. But his recent assertion that "Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy" may have made Mahathir too controversial for even the OIC. The comments certainly tarnished Mahathir in the eyes of the Bush administration, which issued an immediate and altogether appropriate rebuke.

Mahathir is no friend of Israel. He repeatedly denounces Jews for their occupation of Palestine and supposed manipulation of international currency markets. He says the IMF and WTO are instruments created to serve Jewish financial interests. Several years ago, he allowed distribution of a book called "The International Jew," an anti-Semitic screed.

In between intemperate statements, however, Mahathir has closed religious schools he believes to be seedbeds for terrorism and prevented the fundamentalist PAS from imposing hudud (Islamic criminal law) in the two Malaysian states it presently controls. After spending time in a country where beer, pork chops, and Madonna CDs exist alongside minarets and mosques, one is left with the notion that perhaps vocal anti-Semitism is part of the cost of doing business in a Muslim country.

Abdullah Badawi will confront a number of issues the moment he becomes prime minister, not the least of which is whether to release Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister and heir apparent whom Mahathir arrested four years ago on specious charges and continues to keep in prison. Breaking the pattern of cronyism and corruption resulting from government meddling in economic development will be difficult. And keeping the lid on political Islam may be impossible if Badawi also restores a measure of press freedom. Badawi has vowed to rescue Malaysia from the "malaise of its First World Infrastructure, Third World Mentality" that was the hallmark of the Mahathir era. It may be the hardest challenge of all.

East-West News Service editor David DeVoss covered Mahathir Mohamad's rise to power as a Time magazine correspondent in Southeast Asia.