The Man Who Made Malaysia

Once again, Malaysia ' s Mahathir Muhammed acerbic tongue has incited controversy. But his long rule in his country -- which ends November 1 -- amounts to much more than intemperate remarks, as Wang Gungwu, one of Southeast Asia's leading strategic analysts, suggests.

Dr. Mahathir Muhammed is stepping down after serving more than 22 years as the leader of Malaysia and its ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). Today's gleaming, modern Malaysia is unimaginable without Mahathir and UMNO, which also produced Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country's first prime minister. Like Mahathir, Malaysia's fourth prime minister, Tunku led the government and the party for more than twenty years. Generation-long reigns seem to have served Malaysia exceedingly well since independence.

Indeed, the continuity delivered by these two men is the secret of Malaysia's success as a rapidly developing multi-cultural state. Both began their careers as Malay nationalists who sought to promote the rights of the Malay majority after the British left. But they also recognized that the country's sizable, and economically powerful, Chinese and Indian minorities, among other groups, were critical to the country's development and should be persuaded to accept the new Malay-led state as their own.

Mahathir became prime minister in 1981 when the region was on the eve of historic change, following the end of the Vietnam War and Indonesia's stabilization following the bloody civil strife of the 1960's. The global economic system was buoyant and East Asia, not least post-Maoist China, was more deeply committed than anyone expected to support that system.