Events in Kuala Lumpur captured the world's attention last week when Vice President Al Gore praised demonstrators calling for the ouster of Malaysia's prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.
Sandwiched between Thailand and Singapore, Malaysia remains largely unknown to most Americans, who tend to confuse it with its larger neighbor, Indonesia. Our profound ignorance of Malaysia lies at the heart of our failure to respond effectively to the economic and political crises engulfing this strategic ally.
Following four centuries of colonial rule, Malaysia has enjoyed independence for just 40 years, 17 under the leadership of Mahathir. During this period, it has grown from an impoverished developing nation facing racial strife and a communist insurgency to one of Asia's new economic tigers, a triumph of U.S. postwar policy, liberal trade policies and Mahathir's leadership. Malaysia is not a Myanmar or Iraq or Libya; in fact, it bears little in common even with Indonesia. But the impression given by some recent reports is that of a banana republic ruled by a tinpot dictator, when in truth we are witnessing a crisis of great cultural complexity and potential tragedy.
It must be recalled that Mahathir was the architect of economic policies to address inequities derived from the nation's colonial past. Unlike neighboring Indonesia, there has been no explosion of violence against the Chinese minority. Mahathir also forged Malaysia's policies of industrialization, education and high technology, including projects like the renowned Multimedia Super Corridor. Until recently, he was regarded by many in Asia and the West as something of a visionary. All this changed when his handpicked successor, Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, challenged his leadership and was imprisoned under a draconian Internal Security Act left over from British colonial rule.
If the Soviet Union was brought down by the fax machine, Malaysia's transition to new leadership will be driven by the Internet. What we are witnessing is the emergence of a modern nation that has outgrown the leadership of its creator. Mahathir is eminently a product of his time and will prove unable to make the transition. In fact, he had said he would step down and turn over the reins of power to Anwar by the end of the year. His vision, a fully developed nation with highly educated citizens, no longer will tolerate his "Asian values" argument to justify restrictions on human rights, censorship of the press and imprisonment without trial. Even his outbursts of the past year have left mixed feelings; publicly, Malaysians are proud of their leader for standing up to the West, while privately many express embarrassment, particularly over his comments on Jews. All of the elements of a classic Greek tragedy are about to play out, and therein lies the danger and the opportunity for U.S. policy.
Only time will tell whether Gore's speech was a catalyst for change or a policy blunder. With Anwar in prison, there is no clear line of succession. But in the power struggle between Mahathir and his former protege, at least in cyberspace, Anwar clearly holds the advantage: He has, by far, the best home page (http://www.members.tripod.com/~Anwar_Ibrahim/). With the use of the Internet in Malaysia among the highest in the region--another success of Mahathir's policies--the prime minister's home page (http://www.smpke.jpm.my/) is clearly outclassed.
In time, Malaysia will overcome its crises and prosper as a modern nation, due in no small part to the vision and foresight of its transitional leader, Mahathir. At present, while the nation struggles with the painful issue of succession, Americans would be well advised to proceed with caution. The present conflict is not unlike a bitter divorce and can have unpredictable consequences for those who interfere. Ultimately, Malaysians themselves must be the architects of their own future.