- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2001

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed completed 20 years in power this week, still firmly in control despite dwindling support for his ruling party and growing opposition to his authoritarian rule.
Mr. Mahathir fostered a sense of national identity in multiracial Malaysia, gave it a voice in the world and presided over dramatic economic growth.
But critics say the confrontational premier — whose favorite song is "I Did It My Way" — also has bent independent national institutions to his iron will and sought to stifle dissent.
Mr. Mahathir, 75, follows a workaholic schedule despite a quadruple heart bypass in 1989 and shows no signs of stepping down anytime soon. He is firmly in the driving seat of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) as it struggles to recapture lost ground after the sacking and jailing in 1998 of his popular heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim.
Chandra Muzaffar, deputy president of the National Justice Party that is part of an opposition alliance formed in 1999, says "it would be good for us" if Mr. Mahathir leads UMNO into the next election, which must be held by 2004.
Mr. Mahathir, he said, had lost much popularity — with the Anwar affair acting as a catalyst for latent discontent over earlier abuses of power.
"The root of all his problems has been his obsession with power," said Mr. Chandra, citing the 1986 rift between Mr. Mahathir and deputy Musa Hitam, UMNO's split the following year, the sacking of the top judge in 1988 and the Anwar crisis.
Mr. Chandra said the "most disastrous" byproduct of Mr. Mahathir's rule had been the emasculation of independent institutions like the judiciary, the police, parliament, universities and the media.
"That's been the great tragedy of his rule — the overwhelming dominance of one man."
Khoo Boo Teik, a political scientist at the Science University of Malaysia, said there had been a centralization, "in some cases even a personalization, of power but at the expense of the independence of key institutions."
Lim Kit Siang, who like Mr. Chandra was detained without trial during Mr. Mahathir's rule, said the prime minister bears "sole responsibility for the destruction" of independent arms of government.
Deputy Information Minister Mohammed Khalid Mohammed Yunus said the perception of Mr. Mahathir as an authoritarian who will not take advice is wrong.
"In the (UMNO) Supreme Council, everyone is free to speak and even to criticize him," Mohammed Khalid said, adding that the premier is still strong and respected in the party.
P. Ramasamy, a political science professor at the National University of Malaysia, agreed Mr. Mahathir was in control of UMNO but said the prime minister did not know how to make it relevant to today's issues and had lost popularity.
"Today people think he's an albatross around the neck of UMNO."
UMNO lost 22 seats in the 1999 elections, largely because of a backlash from ethnic Malays over Mr. Anwar's treatment. The ruling coalition it heads still won more than two-thirds of parliamentary seats.
Monuments to Mr. Mahathir's rule abound — the world's tallest buildings, roads, ports and airports, the so-called Multimedia Super Corridor and even an entire new city, Putrajaya.
Mr. Chandra cited necessary infrastructure developments, along with questionable mega-projects.
"While there has been growth and development, he's not very interested in the fair distribution of wealth," Mr. Chandra said. "He's so wedded to the idea of mega-projects which catch the eye — it's an edifice complex."
But the opposition politician does praise some important economic decisions, including the drive for export-oriented industrialization in the early 1980s.
Mr. Ramasamy said privatization programs had tended to benefit "cronies" and affirmative action programs for ethnic Malays had largely enriched a relatively small group.
But Mohammed Khalid said Mr. Mahathir could take most of the credit for economic growth. "He is a doctor by profession but really understands other areas. He tries to master any topic before he takes any action."
Mr. Mahathir in 1995 said his greatest achievement was bringing together the Malay majority and the ethnic Chinese and Indians. Analysts agree.
"Indians, Malays and Chinese view themselves much more as Malaysians than 20 years ago," said Robert Broadfoot, managing director of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy.
"It's ironic that under someone once thought to be an extreme Malay nationalist, Malaysians came to feel proud of being Malaysians," said Mr. Khoo, the political scientist.
"He created a sense of Malaysian identity and gave Malaysia a voice in the world," said Michael Yeoh, chief executive of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute.
Mr. Broadfoot credits growth under Mr. Mahathir but also cites state intervention in the economy and protectionism as his biggest shortcomings.
"Malaysia has backed the wrong horses too many times," Mr. Broadfoot said. "It's facing a real challenge in deciding what will be growth industries and what will be the area that keeps the economy moving."
Malaysia had been able to make major mistakes — such as Perwaja Steel, the 1983 Bank Bumiputera collapse and a failed bid to corner the world tin market — and recover.
"The difference today is you have China," Mr. Broadfoot said. "If it becomes a much more dynamic economy, it will change the competitive face of Asia."
Mr. Ramasamy said Malaysia has become richer but not freer in the past 20 years.
"In the West economic growth breaks down authoritarianism, in Malaysia it's the other way round," he said. "That's what Mr. Mahathir is paying a price for now."

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