Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Mahathir Mohamad: Learning from the Retired PM of Malaysia

“Colonies do not cease to be colonies because they are independent” – Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister (1804-1881)

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UPDATE (11/8/2018): Mahathir retired in 2003. But was elected last May 2018 as Prime Minister. At 92, when sworn in Mahathir will be the world's oldest leader, 21 years older than US President Donald Trump, twice the age of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 


Below a caveat from Mahathir, the now retired and nationalistic PM of Malaysia who led it to modernity, on unquestioningly adopting or jumping on the bandwagon of globalization/WTO -the current euphemism/instrument of neocolonialism.

Of course, remember that the Philippines already signed in during the Ramos administration. And then senator Gloria Arroyo was one of the strong proponents for membership. Now the Filipinos in the Philippines are in the worst predicament than ever.

First, an introduction about the man: Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad was born in Alur Setar, capital of the Northwestern state of Kedah. He was educated in Alur Setar, and in 1947 entered the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore. Active in politics since 1945, he was a member of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) from its creation in 1946. On graduation, Mahathir entered government medical service as a practitioner on Langkaw Island (Pulau Langkawi).

He was first elected to Parliament in 1965 but lost his seat in the 1969 elections. Following the 1969 elections, riots took place in Kuala Lumpur, leading to the discrediting of the leadership of Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Mahathir, by temperament forthright and frank, became one of Tunku's few publicly outspoken critics within the ranks of the UMNO.Mahathir's book The Malay Dilemma (1969) was soon banned inside Malaysia.

In 1973 Mahathir was appointed a senator but gave up the office to contest the 1974 general election, in which he was returned unopposed. He was appointed minister of education, and in 1975 was elected one of three vice presidents of the UMNO. In 1976 he became deputy prime minister, and in 1978 he moved from the ministry of education to the ministry of trade and industry, where he led several missions overseas to promote investment in Malaysia.

In 1978 he was elected deputy president of UMNO and in 1981 was appointed president of UMNO, a post he has held ever since.In 1981 Prime Minister Hussein Onn retired, and Mahathir became prime minister. Under his leadership, the ruling National Front coalition, led by the UMNO, won landslide victories in the 1982, 1986, 1990, 1995, and 1999 general elections.

As prime minister, Mahathir has been active in international affairs, especially in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. He has also spoken strongly and controversially in favor of nonalignment; economic development; and the world's "Southern" (typically less developed and nonaligned) countries.

Nations in the Nonaligned Movement tend to have no formal commitment to larger, more powerful nations and purport to judge issues on their merits rather than from positions determined by their foreign alliances.

-Public Broadcasting Corporation
The Last of the Strongmen

Mahathir Mohamad is one of the last of a particular breed. There are hardly any Asian strongmen left. Kim Jong Il still rules as a hereditary despot in the isolation of his starving country. And Lee Kuan Yew still likes to jerk the strings backstage in Singapore. But they are exceptions. Most Asian nations are governed now by colorless men, who look like managers of a provincial bank. This does not necessarily mean they are less oppressive; what is shaping up after the great strongmen leave the scene is a new kind of authoritarianism.

It was long held as a given that Asians needed the firm leadership of charismatic autocrats, for otherwise they would run amok or descend into anarchy. Asians, so their foreign masters in the days of empire used to argue, were not yet ready for self-government, let alone popular sovereignty. And the strongmen who fought to liberate themselves from these masters held much the same view.

The modern nation-state was a new and often fragile thing in Asia, and only a Great Leader could hold it together through sheer force of will. It is a view that served the Great Leaders and their courtiers well. And perhaps there have been cases in which modernization or national unity could not otherwise have been achieved.

Malaysia prospered under Mahathir, as did Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew and South Korea under Park Chung Hee. Whether the same would have been true under more democratic governments is impossible to prove. The least one can say is that Japan, the most prosperous Asian nation of all, has also been the most democratic for much of its modern history.

And it is clearly true that dictatorial rule, or misrule, has come at a huge human cost. Mao Zedong was responsible for more deaths than Hitler or Stalin. Long before the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese died violently under the helmsmanship of Ho Chi Minh. Although less murderous, Sukarno was a disaster for Indonesia; Suharto was more successful but also more ruthless. And we need not dwell on the effect that Pol Pot and his henchmen had on Cambodia.

As was the case in Europe, the worst dictatorships often took the place of collapsed monarchies. This is not to argue for the merits of absolute monarchy, but it may not be a coincidence that Japan and Thailand managed to develop relatively democratic institutions before other Asian countries. The image of divine kingship was abused in Japan for bellicose and authoritarian ends, it is true, but even in the dark 1930s Japan never had a great dictator.

Perhaps the Sultans in Malaysia, by no means all democratic men, stood in the way of a great Malaysian dictator. Mahathir was never a despot in the way Mao or Sukarno were. And Thai democracy owes quite a bit to royal intervention. Even if the current Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, would like to rule as a benign autocrat, the presence of the King will probably stop him from doing so.

What we know for sure is that Mao, like Stalin in the Soviet Union, combined the worst aspects of pseudo divine monarchy with modern political dogmas. So does Kim Jong Il, but it is to be hoped he will be the last of that ill-begotten breed.

Does the demise of Asian strongmen also mean the bright dawn of democracy? Not necessarily. General Ne Win is gone in Burma, but the sinister committee of military men that has followed him is, if anything, even worse. Ne Win, a reclusive figure who ruled like a superstitious, paranoid monarch, allowed his country to stagnate in poverty. The current ruling junta, in the manner of more modern Asian autocracies, combines a corrupt form of capitalism with brutal oppression. The model for this was South Korea under military regimes. Burma today offers a cruder, more vicious and more corrupt version of what one might call developmental dictatorship.

China has gone the same way. There, too, the age of the Great Leader is over. Today's Chinese Communist Party is led by the same dull managers that run political parties in the rest of Asia—backroom apparatchiks who make no enemies and who know how to make deals. China is still far from democratic, however. What seems to be taking shape is a middle-class dictatorship instead of a proletarian one.

The one-party system continues but is dedicated now to economic growth and financial privileges for a vast network of party hacks—and those who are fortunate or venal or sharp enough to cultivate connections with them. The deal is increasing prosperity for the educated classes in return for their political obedience. It has worked in Singapore. Will it work in China? Before we know the answer to that, we may rejoice in the end of great dictators—but not yet in the end of dictatorship.

Ian Buruma, a writer and journalist, is Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College, New York. His latest book is Inventing Japan


Globalization can be a trap for developing nations. They should make every effort to retain control of their own fates, argues Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, Prime Minister of Malaysia, in this essay adapted from “Recreating Asia: Visions for a New Century,” edited by Frank-J├╝rgen Richter and Pamela Mar.

The concept of “globalization” is deceptively simple. The free market must be allowed to function without interference. Governments must remove all barriers that prevent the full and free operation and movement of goods and services, capital, firms and financial institutions across borders.Globalization is not a law of nature.

But globalization is not a God-given, iron-clad law of nature or humanity. It is a set of concepts and policies made by human beings. And therefore it can also be reconceptualized, reshaped and changed. In theory, globalization is supposed to be for the good of all. In reality, this concept was designed by the developed countries on behalf of their companies and financial institutions. The purpose: to overcome the regulations set up by developing countries to promote their domestic economy and local firms which had been marginalized during colonialism.

In practice, following these policies can bring a country new opportunities for wealth creation. But it also brings new risks that can destroy prosperity in the twinkle of an eye — as we have seen recently in East Asia and later in Argentina. Countries must make choices.

The lesson of recent experience is that a country must carefully choose a combination of policies that best enables it to take the opportunity — while avoiding the pitfalls. That is a task easier said than done. A country that is still poor or developing may find that it is not wise to jump blindly into complete integration with the world economy, for this may open it up to many risks that can damage its local economy.

It is wiser to engage in a selective and strategic integration with the world market. In this approach, the country itself chooses:— the way and degree it wants to open up,— the timing and sequence of opening up,— the form of cooperation and competition between its local firms and foreign firms,— the particular sectors it wants to liberalize— and those sectors that still need some protection, for the good of the country.

The breaking down of economic barriers as such may not be new (for example, it also took place in the laissez-faire era of the 19th century). What is new in the present age is the globalization also of the policy-making sphere itself.

The role of global institutions
Increasingly, policies that used to be made by national governments are now formulated for developing countries through global processes and institutions, including the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. In my view, their policies tend to favor the agenda of the richer countries that dominate them. Since the policies are usually set in a one-size-fits-all manner, they hinder the ability of the individual country to choose the particular set of policies that suits its own development needs. As a result, developing countries have found it extremely difficult to steer through the turbulent waters of globalization.

Choices for countries
National policies should largely be made by national governments — and not on their behalf by global institutions or other governments. What is important is that countries be given the right and space to review the impact of globalization. And they should be able to decide which aspects to make use of in future — and which aspects to discard. This is a rule of thumb that certainly has served my own country, Malaysia, very well in navigating the troubled waters of recent years.Importance of government.

As many of those recent events show, it is too dangerous to allow the so-called free market or global institutions, to usurp the role of governments. Allowing them to do so, I am convinced, may well lead countries to prolonged periods of economic slowdown, economic anarchy and social chaos.

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