LOS ANGELES – Before the prime ministry of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, not that many people had ever heard of Malaysia, outside of adjacent Singapore, which shared a common border as well as an intense mutual antipathy that entertained the rest of Southeast Asia for decades.
But by the late 1990s the land of the Malays was pretty well established on the world map. Love him or hate him, the once country-clinic doctor was something else again. Mahathir Mohamad is one of the giants of Asia because Southeast Asia itself is well on its way to becoming a giant player in the 21st century.
The progression wouldn’t be happening quite as noticeably had the mainly Muslim Malaysia remained the largely rural and agricultural Muslim culture that it was in 1981. That was when this family doctor turned politician landed the job of prime minister and was to stay at the top for more than two decades.
In his turbulent years this ultra-ambitious politician managed at times an almost unachievable feat: to alienate seemingly half the country (sometimes even imprisoning political enemies) while keeping his increasingly modern (and Muslim) Malaysia more or less hanging together, and moving closer to real modernization. How did he do it all?
His story is now available in the long-delayed autobiography hitting stores with the cute title “Doctor in the House.” It’s a lively and very interesting book — certainly interesting enough to make it an instant best-seller not only in Malaysia, which one would expect, but also in Singapore, which you might not expect.
To be sure, this is not a history of the times: Readers who want a more rounded description of those decades under discussion should look elsewhere. Not surprisingly, some of Asia’s best journalists, especially those with an unapologetically exacting standards, have found the book seriously uneven and the author’s memory suspiciously selective. But what Mahathir gives us in his memoirs is nonetheless a valuable replay of the political life and times of Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, precisely as he himself sees it and as this complex man, now well in his 80s, is best able to remember it.
The main value of autobiographies is not their objectivity but their subjectivity. Indeed, what Mahathir gives you here is no less subjective than Margaret Thatcher’s “The Downing Street Years” or Bill Clinton’s “My Life.” And it is absolutely Mahathir’s book, as his stamp seems evident on nearly every page.
For my money no present or former national leader offers more sensible and pertinent views on the nature of Islam and the extreme need to quarantine the Muslim extremists who take the holy Quran, which he views as a book of peace, into their own evil hands and massage it into a missive of conflict.
For my money no leader, Asian or otherwise, ever stood up more courageously (and correctly) to the wrongheaded ayatollahs of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank than Mahathir. Roundly condemned by the Western media and most Western leaders during the Asian financial crisis (1997-99) for ignoring their advice, Mahathir paid them no mind and quickly steered his country out of the frightening economic downturn.
He would not let Malaysia take one cent of IMF or World Bank bailout money. That took more than a little courage, not to mention self-confidence. He was not always a gracious winner; however, he always gave back as good as he took.
Mahathir was as consciously theatrical as he was thoroughly political. When he speaks, he is sometimes only 90 to 95 percent genuine. The rest is best understood as the canny political stagecraft of an ambitious leader eager to punch well above the weight of Malaysia by out-shouting and out-outraging the bigger players in the scene.
Over the years his favorite sparring mates, besides sitting-duckie Aussie potentates, were Western currency traders, especially Jewish ones, the governments of Israel and the Western news media. Whom or what have I left out? No matter.
His views on the dangerous evolution of Islam are, it seems to me, invaluable, especially to us in the West. He believes the extremists have the upper hand, generally, and so endanger not only the West but also Islam itself.
The solution is obvious: Islam needs more leaders like Mahathir. For all the feisty rhetoric and occasional Jew-bashing (which, even if intended to irritate complacent Muslims more than Jews, he should have stopped long ago), this is a man who gets things done in his own country and will work with you to get things done in yours. Future decades will treat him as a figure of considerable historical importance.
As his longtime rival Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore puts it graciously when I asked him for an assessment, “He was an outstanding prime minister of Malaysia.” Amen.
Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is author of the “Giants of Asia” series., including “Conversations with Mahathir Mohamed.” © 2011 Pacific Perspectives Media Center