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TUN DR MAHATHIR MOHAMAD: As PM, he was against people 'who wield a big stick'
ONE indication that Malaysia's place in the world would change drastically under Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad came early, as the United States ambassador in Kuala Lumpur made a courtesy call on the newly installed prime minister. The ambassador cheerfully informed him that, though it was not easy, he was making arrangements for Dr Mahathir to meet with president Ronald Reagan in Washington.
Although an audience with the leader of the Free World was the imprimatur sought by the head of almost every non-communist government, "I didn't want to have anything to do with America", Dr Mahathir said later. He told his Foreign Ministry to tell the ambassador he would not visit the US anytime soon.
It was not so much that Dr Mahathir was anti-American, though a central strand in his international outlook -- "I was deliberately against people who wield a big stick" -- ensured he would clash often with the US. It was more a case of Dr Mahathir being sceptical of the West in general, and more than a little miffed by the ambassador's assumption that Malaysia would do what was expected of it. The failure to acknowledge Malaysia's independent status was a cardinal sin in Dr Mahathir's book, an affront to him, the Malays and the entire nation.
"The big countries take you for granted, sometimes look upon you with disdain", while small countries "appreciate the friendship" more, he said.
With an instinct of sympathy for the underdog, while seeking respect and retaliating against anyone perceived to have given offence, Dr Mahathir repositioned Malaysia, forging a more independent and activist foreign policy. A small country in a distant corner of the world, Malaysia punched above its weight, acquiring many of the attributes of a middle power.
It was driven hard and almost solo by Dr Mahathir, who refused to modify his abrasive and outspoken style for the sake of diplomatic etiquette. More than any other non-Western political leader of his time, wrote political scientist Johan Saravanamuttu, Dr Mahathir proved to be "the quintessential iconoclast of world politics".
In essence, Dr Mahathir was continuing a nationalistic line in Malaysian foreign policy, which he aggressively improvised and pugnaciously delivered, that could be traced to the 1969 racial riots, when pro-British prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman effectively lost power.
Tunku's rivals who took over set about carving out a distinctive role for the country in international affairs. Confident that Malaysia's political maturity and standing justified a more independent expression in the international arena, the post-1970 leadership sought recognition and acceptance as an equal. Dr Mahathir, never one to do anything by halves, came close to demanding it. The countries that found it hardest to adjust to the change were those inclined to look back nostalgically to the Tunku years, especially Britain and Australia.
Often correcting course melodramatically, Dr Mahathir used foreign policy to drive the development of Malaysia, always his central objective -- encouraging exports, opening new markets, securing foreign investment, acquiring technology and finding opportunities for Malaysian entrepreneurs to invest in developing countries. Nevertheless, he imposed sanctions on Britain to remind the former colonial master, as well as the traditionally Anglophile Malaysian elite, that the master-servant days were long gone. Extolling "Asian values", he clashed with the Australians, declaring them too deficient in manners and pale of skin to join Asian institutions. He condemned the US for attempting to impose its system of liberal democracy and neo-liberal economics on ill-prepared developing countries. In looking eastward to Japan, Dr Mahathir found an alternative development model that did not seek to export unwanted values along with its goods and capital.
Blunt and seemingly fearless, Dr Mahathir targeted the international economic system, which he believed was rigged in favour of the industrialised West that devised it, to the crippling disadvantage of poor countries. Taking up the cause of all victimised economies, he voiced the criticisms that others dared not utter and became a spokesman for the Third World. Along the way, he added the plight of the Palestinians and other high-profile Islamic causes to his portfolio, making himself a hero to Muslims from Pakistan to Gaza and Bosnia. With his credibility anchored in a strong economic performance while maintaining harmony in a multi-ethnic, Muslim-majority society, the peripatetic Dr Mahathir rebuked the West and preached global restructuring. Conferring with overseas leaders as naturally as he once made house-calls on sick farmers in Kedah, he put Malaysia on the map and gave most Malaysians a reason to take pride in the country.
In his memoirs, Dr Mahathir summed up his performance colourfully and with obvious satisfaction. "Some say to be a big frog in a small pond is no great achievement, but we have proven that even a little frog in a big pool can thumb its nose at the largest, most powerful toad."
The above excerpt is from the second edition of Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times, with new references to A Doctor in the House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad