Magazine article USA TODAY

Mahathir Bin Mohamad: America's Best Muslim Friend. (World Watcher)

Magazine article USA TODAY

Mahathir Bin Mohamad: America's Best Muslim Friend. (World Watcher)

Article excerpt

MOST AMERICANS have never even heard of Mahathir bin Mohamad, the Prime Minister of the relatively small state of Malaysia. Yet, he is America's best friend in the Islamic world. First, he has guided his country successfully for more than 20 years through some tough economic and political times without any American help. This is no simple task because Malaysia is one of the most-racially divided countries in the world, about half Malay Muslim, 33% Chinese, and the rest Indians, Orang Asli, Dayak, Iban, Kadazan, Arabs, Portuguese, and a few others. Race riots in 1969 resulted in hundreds (some speculate thousands) of deaths in fighting between Malays and Chinese. There hasn't been any recurrence during Mahathir's role.

Mahathir, beginning his tenure in 1981, forged a new alliance among the ethnic groups and has led the repair of this torn and fragile social fabric. He has done this by undertaking the unenviable task of initiating and pursuing cultural change among the Malays whom he represents in government. He has been only partially successful in this effort, but enough so that Malaysia's multiracial society has become prosperous and economically developed. Moreover, despite the existence of tension in the society (nothing new to Americans), it continues to be peaceful. In this process, the U.S. has remained a non-participant on the sidelines. Malaysia doesn't need--or want aid. American taxpayers, be grateful.

Second, Mahathir is an honest critic of U.S. foreign policy. He speaks his mind and makes sure Washington knows when he thinks it has gone astray. Of course, there are many critics of American policy and culture, but Mahathir comes at his criticism from an "implications" point of view. That is, instead of constantly carping from an ideological point of view, he is the ultimate pragmatist. His criticisms have regularly turned out to be warnings about another pothole ahead, not about the direction of travel. His vehement negative response to a recent claim of the fight to preemptive strikes against terrorism by U.S. ally Australia is a case in point. Australia's statement on the matter flies in the face of all modern diplomatic history, and an act consistent with the statement would turn the developing world into a quagmire for the U.S.-led effort at containing terrorism.

Third, let's look at some of the more-direct acts of friendship. Despite his regular critical observations on the U.S., Mahathir recognizes the positive elements of American society and government policies. In the 1980s, he undertook to educate his Malay population in the sciences, engineering, architecture, business administration, education, computer science, and mathematics. He spoke powerfully about the need to "look East," meaning Japan and South Korea, not California, but in the mid to late 1980s there were more Malaysian students in the U.S. than foreign students from any other country. Why? Because Mahathir understood that the U.S. was where the quality education was and sent the students to get it. Now those tens of thousands of American university graduates make up a growing entrepreneurial and managerial elite in this successful economy. In sending those students, Mahathir--with Malaysian government money--plugged many of dollars into universities in the U. …

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