TOM PLATE WRITES – Over the decades, China’s leaders have been known to greatly respect the tell-it-like-it-is political instincts of Malaysian maestro Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad. But now you have to wonder how much love may have been lost of late.

No one in Beijing or anywhere else doubts even today that the young country doctor who was to rise to prominence as the modernizing leader of Malaysia is still one crazy smart Asian. Of the remarkable figures I’ve met in a long journalistic career, Dr M – as I call him – is anything but the buttoned-up prime ministerial stereotype. Compare him, for instance, to  Sir John Major, leader of the United Kingdom between 1990 and 1997 – so very much the English gentleman, dapper in tendering fair-minded and politely expressed opinion, charming even in disagreement. Dr M was – and is – nothing like that. Now 93 and PM of Malaysia for a second time, it is not even clear that he has much mellowed with age. Compare him to a sport and you’d have him more like Australian football than cricket.

The former boss of all bosses of the goliath, money-infested monster Malaysian oft-dominant party, yet now the opposition’s ‘young insurgent’ to that party, Dr M’s views have new sting since becoming PM anew.  His first go as prime minister ran on for 23 years, the Malaysian record, ending in 2003. But way back when, at least before the attack in New York on September 11, 2001, one of Islam’s craftiest, secular political minds was all but ignored by Western journalists.  Asia then was an ‘Oriental’ story, with the Asians in the spotlight usually crazy, poor and clueless…or Communist. And this Malaysian Asian was, to some, either an authoritarian crank, an anti-Semite, or a bizarre Muslim Machiavelli.

That began to change in 1997, when Dr M lashed out the International Monetary Fund (IMF), triggering regional applause. When the brutal Asian financial crisis hit, when currencies and economies from Thailand to South Korea were leaning over cliffs, and the cash-rich but cruel International Monetary Fund only proffered loans with conditions reminiscent of a mafia loan shark, Dr M told the Washington-based IMF to bug off with its venomous bailout money all tricked up with punitive and recondite conditions. Instead, his government outmaneuvered Western currency speculators, their short-fangs drooling, and sent Wall Street wolfs packing off in other directions. (Hong Kong also out-foxed predators by working behind the scenes with Beijing’s premier Zhu Rongji.) The Mahathir play got Beijing’s respect. Largely buffered from the Asian Financial Crisis (1997-1999) by having pointedly ignored Washington’s ideologically pious (but Wall Street-serving) advice to lift the currency curtain and let the good times roll, the Beijing expertariat never forgot this Malay man who could say no – judging him as craftily unbeholden to the West as anyone around.

Beijing, it was sometimes said, secretly favored his Malaysia more than Singapore, because, in part, of the latter’s intimacy with Washington, of which sentiment Dr M could never be accused. But that was then and now we have something new: in his re-emergence as prime minister, the good doctor is now offering measured criticisms of China. Like others in the region, Malaysia has maritime issues with Beijing, and concerns about previously negotiated bilateral development deals. Dr M has raised questions about its pushiness in the (increasingly appropriately named) South China Sea and perceived neo-colonial style, particularly in rolling out ambitious (if potentially helpful) Belt and Road spectaculars with peculiar financing and contracts. Dr M’s advice, as I decode it, is to slow down, stop bragging, be considerate of others’ interests, show flexibility.

This sort of chatter Zhongnanhai does not appreciate – imagine the nerve of this tiny Asian deer of a country instructing the big elephant what to do! In fairness, it is legendary of China not to lust for savage sovereignty over others, but to seek to conjure a less vulgar form of continuing influence – which the elegant French have a word for, of course: suzerainty.  One doesn’t brazenly run over other countries with tanks or dictate their actual form of government with canning sticks (e.g. the U.S. invasion of Iraq; the U.S. postwar imposition of an American-style government on Japan). The preferred way is to hover over semi-unobtrusively and so earn near-worshipful respect as the de facto hoverer-in-chief with whom one does not ever mess.

A widespread question around Asia these days is how low the hovering will go, for at too low a height, hovering can become smothering, rendering China more neo-colonial than neo-wonderful. And that is where the regional image of China seems to have settled in some minds, at least for the moment. Beijing should thus consider respecting this re-risen sage, but these days it is not seeing things, it seems to me, as clearly and unemotionally as it might. The result is not that Mahathir has a problem; at 93, this proven politician is clearly having the time of what is left of his lengthy life by putting his chips on the table. It is Beijing that has a problem, not only because the Mahathir critique is not idiosyncratic and increasingly resonates in East Asia, but also because in East Asia, is there a political figure (with the exception of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Hsien Loong, Singapore’s PM since 2004) who has more earned the right to be listened to?

Over the decades Mohamad bin Mahathir has given us all much to think about, even when not enough of us thought so much of him. And now he is trying, with unchartered efforts at humility (with his life-clock ticking), to cheer China on, to continue to become rich and Asian, but without becoming crazy – and driving everyone else crazy while doing it. There must be a way.

Loyola Marymount University professor and career journalist Tom Plate is the author of the “Giants of Asia’ book series, which includes ‘Conversations with Mohamad Mahathir’. He is a columnist with the South China Morning Post, where this commentary first appeared.

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