Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

TEARS AND FEARS: Tun Mahathir's Last Hurrah

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

TEARS AND FEARS: Tun Mahathir's Last Hurrah

Article excerpt

Bridget Welsh

Amidst tears and apprehension about a future without a man who became synonymous with Malaysia for over a generation, Malaysia's fourth and longest-serving prime minister stepped down after a sixteen-month transition on 31 October 2003, making way for the tenure of his appointed deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Malaysia's new prime minister faces an extraordinary set of challenges, many of which were the direct result of his predeces-sor's twenty-two-year premiership that ended on a high note of international stature and strong domestic support, especially among non-Malays. Mahathir's last year in office was indeed a tribute to his service to Malaysia, yet it was riddled with controversy at home and abroad as his style of rule and views provoked strong criticism. Abdullah's first few months in office sent a signal that his leadership differed both in style and substance. However, he needs to obtain a strong political mandate in the general election and party elections in 2004, before he can effectively implement reforms and initiate policies that address some of the problems Tun Mahathir left behind.

Grand and Controversial International Exit Over the course of his twenty-two years in office, Mahathir propelled Malaysia onto the international stage, citing its success in managing ethnic tensions, promoting economic development and projecting an anti-Western stance as a calling card for the developing world and Muslim nations. While the merits of Mahathir's record in these areas remain contentious, 2003 was used to solidify his role as an international spokesman on issues of co-operation and social justice in the international community. The year saw the culmination of a gradual progression of a foreign policy over the last third of his years in office involving extensive overseas travel and the systematic expansion of his exposure in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.1 At its core Mahathir projected himself as one of the leading critics of the United States, whose policy in Iraq isolated itself from the international community.

The grand exit unfolded in three acts, involving three different gatherings that drew international attention. In February, Malaysia hosted the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference in Kuala Lumpur. The event served to galvanize opposition to perceived unilateralism on the part of the Bush administration. Tensions were building within the United Nations over a military response to the Saddam regime. The Bush administration, supported by a neo-conservative approach to foreign policy built on the doctrine of pre-emption, was seeking

U.N. approval to oust Saddam Hussein from power. Underscored by deep reservations about the justification for war in Iraq and suspicion of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, Mahathir avidly opposed the effort and appealed to his electorate for support. With government backing, a broad-based social movement numbering in the thousands, known as Malaysians for Peace, reinforced Malaysian opposition to the U.S. attack "on Iraq". Mahathir argued that war should be "outlawed", that "no single nation should be allowed to police the world", and that a broad multilateral mandate was needed to effectively curb terrorism.2 Attention centred, however, on the references in his speech in which he called the victims of the September 11 attacks "collateral" damage for long-standing mistakes in U.S. foreign policy, notably the Palestine-Israeli conflict. The comments split the Malaysia-America Friendly Caucus that had formed on Capitol Hill in the wake of a thawing of relations between the Mahathir administration and the United States in 2001, and set in place a waiting mode in many circles in the United States that counted the days until Mahathir's departure. Behind the scenes, Mahathir used the NAM meeting to organize opposition to Bush's policy towards Iraq in the United Nations. This soured U.S.-Malaysia relations over Iraq even further. …

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