- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

From combined dispatches

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, one of Asia’s longest-serving and most controversial leaders, retired yesterday to a mix of Asian praise and Western silence after an international outcry over his remarks about Jews.

In a sombre ceremony at the royal palace following prayers at the national mosque, Malaysia’s King Syed Sirajuddin Putra Jamalullail accepted Mr. Mahathir’s resignation and swore in his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, as the country’s fifth prime minister.

Mr. Mahathir, 77, had ruled mostly Muslim Malaysia since 1981, spearheading its rapid transformation from a tin- and rubber-producing backwater into a high-tech exporter and one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest and most developed countries.

But his successes were tempered by autocratic leanings and the free use of laws that allowed detention without trial, forced media self-censorship and banned opposition rallies.

Mr. Mahathir leaves office amid an international outcry at his comments in an Oct. 16 speech to Islamic leaders that, “Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.”

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution saying the remarks embody “age-old stereotypes” and could incite sectarian violence. That followed Monday’s decision by the U.S. Senate to withhold $1.2 million in military aid from Malaysia until the State Department determines it better promotes religious freedoms, including tolerance of Jews.

U.S. aid to Malaysia is minimal, and Mr. Mahathir has scoffed at the Senate’s action, saying it shows that his comments about Jews were true and that America can keep its money.

The only time Mr. Mahathir has upset the West more was when his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, was jailed for 15 years for abuse of power and sodomy following trials Washington said were politically tainted.

Anwar, in a written statement, fired a parting shot at Mr. Mahathir from prison, accusing him of wrecking public governance and racking up debts on mega projects.

The ex-protege, jailed in 1998, also saw the provocative comments about Jews as a diversion “to deflect attention [from] his misdeeds and the stench from the rot in his own back yard.”

Mr. Abdullah, 63, is considered moderate compared to Mr. Mahathir. While he has promised not to make any major policy changes, some countries and opposition groups hope that some of the harsher edges of Mr. Mahathir’s era will be tempered under Mr. Abdullah.

The United States and other Western governments had little to say on a historic day for Malaysia.

“The embassy has not received any message from the White House,” said a U.S. Embassy official in Kuala Lumpur, adding that many of the mission’s staff were more focused on Halloween festivities than on Mr. Mahathir’s last day in office.

Asian leaders were far more appreciative of Mr. Mahathir.

“I will be missing my elder brother,” Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told Malaysia’s New Straits Times daily.

China expressed its “sincere admiration” for Malaysia’s accomplishments under Mr. Mahathir, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi hailed his “Look East Policy.”

Speaking on the eve of his retirement, Mr. Mahathir was modest about his place in history.

“As Shakespeare said, ‘The evil that men do lives after them and the good is oft interred with their bones.’”

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