LOS ANGELES -- For most Americans, remote Malaysia might as well be Fantasia. Too bad. Booming, budding, building-day-and-night Malaysia (east of India, north of Australia) is fast becoming one of those Asian-Pacific successes that business magazines glamorize, Asians look to for leadership and the West poorly understands.
Regarded by its former British colonial masters (who ducked out in 1957) as little more than some Bali Hai suburb in nowheresville, today this Southeast Asian country is California's eighth-largest export market. And, despite a modest population of 20 million, it is, for our exporting Western states, a bigger customer than venerable France, regional ally Australia or even, amazingly, gigantic China. Malaysian exporters reciprocate the attention: After Japan, we're their second leading customer.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed knows that without Western dollars, not many Malaysian dreams will get off the ground. And is there a politician in the world with a more transparent edifice complex? These days Malaysia seems always to be erecting something.
World's tallest building
Recently it put the finishing touches on the world's tallest building. It is gearing up to build the region's biggest airport, a whole new high-tech capital city and the world's longest building.
Mr. Mahathir's latest and most costly vision, the one that brought the prime minister to Los Angeles last month to woo deep-pocketed entertainment, news media and business moguls, is a blockbuster ''multimedia supercorridor'' that would be 9 miles wide and 30 miles deep and forever ambitious. It aims to create nothing less than Asia's own information-technology city.
The Mahathir corridor is to be one big techno-age Emerald City. It's an attempt to fast-forward still-developing Malaysia into the 21st century. Mr. Mahathir's pitch? If you want to sell information-technology products in all the various Asian markets, makes no sense to stay in Silicon Valley.
Notwithstanding Mr. Mahathir's occasional anti-West posturing, this unusual leader wants to rush to the future in partnership with America. A master builder and a master politico, he has been prime minister since 1981. Among Asians, only China's desperately ailing Deng Xiaoping and Indonesia's stubbornly clinging President Suharto have hung on longer.
At a sprightly 71 -- not at all too old for an Asian politician -- Mr. Mahathir is an Islamic regional leader hawking his large vision in Beverly Hills. Back home he takes enormous delight in cutting up the West, environmentalists of all stripes and anyone who stands in his way. Publicly and provocatively he declaims that the West is in deep fear of Asia getting its act together (''It is the yellow peril all over again,'' he said in a speech in Beijing). He proclaims that the West wants to ram its ''preferences down everyone's throat,'' and is hostage to out-of-control media that oppress Western leaders ''the way people in feudal societies are oppressed by their own leaders.''
That's the Mahathir who plays to Asian grandstands. Then there's the pragmatic leader who plays to Wall Street and came to Tinseltown to talk up his latest edifice. For as much as he knocks the commercialism, pornography and violence in Western culture and entertainment, he knows real power when he sees it: ''If you can't fight them,'' he said, ''you join them. . . . You cannot avoid Hollywood. That's exactly why we're here.''
West-bashing is as common in Asia as monsoons. Mr. Mahathir re-emphasized his view that the West places too high a priority on individual rights at the expense of community interests and that it is too sensitive to any Asian criticism of its policies and values. The West, he said, still does not grasp the looming importance of the region. The Clinton administration ''should get more involved in Asia.''
To understand what's bugging Mr. Mahathir, you have to recognize Malaysia's yawning identity crisis. Only for as long as this crafty politician delivers economic growth at a phenomenal 8 percent or so a year, as his government has for the last nine years, will his people continue to accept the upsetting dislocations attendant to hurtling modernization.
Malaysia, after all, is a country fighting underneath all the glitz to reconcile deeply traditional Islamic roots with the need to continue to modernize and internationalize. So in a sense this whole amazing supercorridor project is also one big metaphor for the modernizing of Asia today: the struggle to shed the outer skin without losing the inner essence.
Mr. Mahathir is just the man to give his Asian publics the occasional medicinal dose of anti-Westernism while at the same time making nice to the West, assuring us that he's a man with whom we can do business. Because hardly anyone is better at this clever game than he, Malaysia, and in fact America, benefits.
Tom Plate is a Los Angeles Times columnist.
Pub Date: 2/05/97