- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 14, 2002

Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir demonstrated his flair for pulling on his people's heartstrings recently, when he tearfully announced his resignation, only to rescind it moments later after party officials begged him to stay on. But alas, Mr. Mahathir later clarified that he deigned to remain in power only until the summit of Islamic nations is held in Kuala Lumpur in October next year. After that, his deputy, Abdullah Ahamad Badawi, will preside over Malaysia until the next scheduled election in 2004. Mr. Badawi will also campaign as the ruling party's candidate in that election, Mr. Mahathir said.
In the wake of Mr. Mahathir's eccentrically styled exit, many observers are wondering what may be in store for Malaysia. After all, Mr. Mahathir took the Malaysian economy from Third World malaise to booming, technology-driven dynamism during his 21-year rule. Today, Malaysia is one of the few Asian tigers that really roars after the 1997 economic crisis. Despite the global economic dolldrums, Malaysia's exports are growing, its gross domestic product may expand even faster than the central bank's estimate of 3.5 percent this year and Malaysia's two recent initial public offerings are oversubscribed by foreign investors. In the financial arena, Mr. Mahathir has demonstrated an egalitarian style, moving away from the crony capitalism that plagues much of the region by shying away from corporate favoritism and bailouts.
And under Mr. Mahathir's rule, Malaysia has effectively policed the budding Islamic-terrorist movement in Southeast Asia. Since September 11, Malaysia has arrested 62 suspected terrorists. In May, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines signed an agreement to bolster cooperation and information exchanges to combat terrorism and cross-border crime in the region. Last week, the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, Marie T. Huhtala, said, "The Malaysians have shown outstanding cooperation on terrorism, partly because they see it as a threat to their own stability."
Also important to note is the ethnic and religious harmony that has prevailed in Malaysia with Mr. Mahathir at the helm. Ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians, not to mention Christians, Buddhists and Muslims, have lived together peaceably, distinguishing Malaysia from Indonesia, for example, where U.N. peacekeepers have tried to counter ethnic violence. He has also been successful in holding together a 14-party coalition.
Still, Mr. Mahathir's rule in some areas has been less impressive. Most notable was his persecution of his widely popular former deputy, Ibrahim Anwar, on charges of corruption and sodomy. These charges were levelled against Mr. Anwar after he publicly disagreed with the capital controls Mr. Mahathir erected after the 1997 economic crisis. This type of politically charged retaliation undermined the integrity of Malaysia's democratic institutions and was roundly criticized the world over. Mr. Anwar remains behind bars.
So despite Mr. Mahathir's substantive achievements, some Malaysians may be less-than-tearful to witness his theatrical departure. All the same, the political veteran knows how to play the game by now, and has probably left his hoped-for successor in a strategic perch for 2004.

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