Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has announced that he plans to step down. It is difficult to envision that country without Mr. Mahathir at the helm: He provided Malaysia with its energy, its backbone and its vision. His pride and sharp tongue also made him a lightning rod for criticism, but few men have played a more important role in pushing a nation into modernity. Mr. Mahathir’s remaining task is ensuring that the succession is a success. Most significantly, that means institutionalizing politics so that the nation is not dependent on any individual. Mr. Mahathir must assume that Malaysia will never have another leader like him; that is a safe bet.
Mr. Mahathir’s resignation was only a matter of time. He is 76 years old, one of Asia’s longest-serving leaders, and has a heart condition. He has courted controversy for much of his tenure; he has been dogged by accusations of anti-Semitism and has made no bones about blaming outsiders for his troubles. The prime minister first mooted the idea of stepping down in 1995. He chose a successor, Mr. Anwar Ibrahim, but the two men split in 1998 in the wake of the Asian economic crisis. Mr. Anwar was then charged with sodomy and abuse of power and was jailed.
Some claim that the real problem was Mr. Anwar’s popularity, which threatened to rival that of the prime minister. The bigger issue was their different perspectives on ways to respond to the economic crisis. Mr. Anwar favored the conventional solution — continuing liberalization and more Western-oriented remedies. Mr. Mahathir spurned prevailing opinion and opted for capital controls. That won him international condemnation, but it preserved Malaysia’s independence in economic decision-making, the foundation of Mr. Mahathir’s economic legacy. Most important, Mr. Mahathir’s decisions helped Malaysia weather the crisis, which only solidified his reputation and legacy.
It is an impressive bequest. Mr. Mahathir has been in power for over 21 years; he is the only leader that 45 percent of Malaysians have ever known. During that time, he oversaw the transformation of Malaysia. His vision, his energy and his zealous protection of the country’s prerogatives were essential elements of its emergence as a modern nation. Malaysia is a stable and prosperous country in a volatile region. Under Mr. Mahathir’s stewardship, Malaysia has developed within striking distance of the First World.
As is so often the case with Mr. Mahathir, his decision to resign was done in a dramatic fashion. Last month, the prime minister ended a two-hour speech at his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party conference with the surprise announcement that he was quitting. Everyone in attendance — reportedly even his wife — gasped at the news. Stunned party leaders passed an emergency motion rejecting the resignation, and then convened offstage with the prime minister. An hour later they announced that Mr. Mahathir had agreed to keep all his posts.
While many claimed that the resignation was a stunt to shore up support for Mr. Mahathir, UMNO later confirmed that the prime minister would be stepping down and that Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi would succeed him in 18 months. The decision to name Mr. Badawi his successor was widely expected and has been applauded. Even more important was the decision to put the transition process in motion and eliminate many of the key uncertainties that would greet such a succession.
Mr. Badawi is 62 and while very experienced — he has served in Parliament for 24 years and has held the education, defense, foreign affairs and internal portfolios — there are fears that he may be “too nice” for the job. Mr. Badawi has another critically important characteristic, however: He is a well-respected figure in Malaysia’s Muslim community. He comes from a family of Muslim clerics and his willingness to listen is likely to help him win allies in the difficult political battles ahead.
The big challenge domestically is checking the rise of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). PAS has 27 seats of the 193 in the national Parliament and controls two of Malaysia’s 13 states. The party wants to turn Malaysia into a conservative Islamic state and introduce the Shariah, Islamic law. Yet Malaysia is held up by many as the model of a moderate Islamic state. It can certainly prove a bulwark against the spread of radical Islam in Southeast Asia. A successful transition to the next generation of leadership in Malaysia could solidify that process. That would be Mr. Mahathir’s last — and greatest — gift to his country.
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