Malaysian prime minister steps down

Successor takes office in modern Muslim nation transformed by Mahathir

November 01, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Asia's longest-serving leader, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, stepped down yesterday, leaving a legacy of a modern Muslim nation that he molded on the back of often autocratic rule and the use of tirades - typically anti-Western and anti-Semitic - intended to create national cohesiveness.

Mahathir, 77, better known on the international stage for his crude outbursts than for his economic and political accomplishments at home, handed power to a handpicked successor, Abdullah Badawi, 63, in a nationally televised ceremony in the new government capital of Putrajaya.

Mahathir's departure, which he announced 16 months ago, was peaceful, in contrast to the bloody ends of the reigns of Ferdinand E. Marcos of the Philippines and Gen. Suharto of Indonesia, two other strongmen of his era.

During his 22 years as prime minister, Mahathir forged a nation out of a disparate ethnic mix of a Malay majority and Chinese and Indian minorities. He transformed an economy dependent on tin, rubber and palm oil into one of the major trading nations of Southeast Asia, and the exporter of most of the world's Dell laptop computers and Intel processors.

"It has been a remarkable transformation," said Joseph Stiglitz, a professor of economics at Columbia University and a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in economic science in 2001. "They have attracted foreign direct investment, improved technologically and become a country that is helping other developing countries. I think it is an alternative to the extremism we see in much of the world."

In the sleek capital of glass and steel towers here, women in the latest fashions from Prada and Ferragamo saunter the shopping malls in high heels and headscarves. Farther out in the hinterland, there are plans for a new rail line stretching the length of the peninsula.

How to square the modernization led by Mahathir with the increasing religiosity among the Muslims is one of the crucial questions at the end of his era.

The answer lies in the notion that Malaysia, with a population of 23 million, can demonstrate that modernity and Islam are compatible, said Karim Raslan, a lawyer educated at Cambridge University in Britain and one of the younger generation's commentators here.

"For those who come from the Enlightenment tradition, the increasing religiosity is very distressing," Raslan said. "But we live in the real world."

Thus, Raslan said, Malaysian political dialogue will probably be cast even further in an Islamic framework.

"Malaysian Muslims have become much more conservative religiously, so you have to be able to argue and to present all the policies in terms of Islam," Raslan said. "The division between the mosque and the state no longer exists." But, he added, that does not mean that modernization or the steps toward more democracy will end.

Mahathir's rants against Jews, who he said last month "ruled the world by proxy," served a political purpose at home, analysts here said. They also represented his beliefs, which, when amplified in public forums like last month's meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, propelled him onto the world stage. That is where, analysts say, he felt he belonged, along with the better-known senior minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew.

By criticizing the Jews - which he continued to do in his last week in office - Mahathir was trying to burnish his credentials among Malaysia's Islamic religious community, said Jomo K. Sundram, a critic of Mahathir's leadership and a professor of applied economics at the University of Malaysia.

Much of Mahathir's speech to the Islamic conference in Malaysia last month was a scathing attack on Muslim religious leaders, another favorite Mahathir theme. He accused them of failing to bring their people into the modern world.

"Anti-Semitism is the kind of thing you do to establish your ostensible Islamic credentials," Jomo said. "Mahathir does this because his Islamic credentials are so weak, and because he spends so much time attacking the ulamas. He was saying, `In case you think I'm anti-Muslim, here is some anti-Semitism.'"

Badawi is expected to present a more subdued image and be "more responsible," a Western official said. He will probably dispense with the anti-Semitic outbursts, in part, officials here say, because his background as a graduate in Islamic studies sits better with the Islamic religious leaders.

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