Asia's Newsmaker of 1998: Mahathir Mohamad

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There is no shortage of honorifics in Malaysia, vestiges of the days of sultanates and princely kingdoms. But the man at the top, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is known simply as Dr. M. That rings about right: not only is Mahathir a trained physician, but as leader for the past 17 years, he has generally been brisk, modern, quick to diagnose and even readier to prescribe. In addition to crafting Malaysia's grand, national affirmative action scheme, Mahathir, who turns 73 on Dec. 20, also personally chose bathroom fixtures for the world's tallest building, Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers.

In 1998, Dr. M's flip side surfaced. Like a Malaysian Mr. Hyde, Mahathir turned with venom on a political rival, Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, sacking him and then branding him a homosexual. Anwar was arrested and tossed into a Kuala Lumpur lockup, where he suffered a severe beating. The fact that Anwar was Mahathir's own one-time heir apparent only made Dr. M's wrath more incandescent. In the same week in September that he fired Anwar, Mahathir thumbed his nose at the global economy by instituting restrictive exchange controls on the Malaysian currency. He put the world on notice that unfettered capitalism may not be for every country--a concept that has gained adherents worldwide since Mahathir began raving about speculators' conspiracies and Jewish financial cabals more than a year ago. Though Mahathir may well have made a martyr out of his former protege, 51-year-old Anwar, no one drove the news with such ferocity this year as Dr. M--and that makes him Asia's Newsmaker of 1998.

Mahathir's Malaysia has undergone vast changes in the past year. When the economic crisis started to bite, Malaysia seemed better suited to weather the storm than virtually any of its troubled neighbors. Not for long. As Mahathir attempted to arrange multimillion-dollar bailouts for local companies, Anwar, then Finance Minister, balked. After economic woes helped topple Indonesian strongman Suharto, Anwar and his supporters decided that Mahathir, too, might be ready for early retirement. They tried to drive him out at a June meeting of the ruling party. But they underestimated his political support, and the Prime Minister suddenly took a new interest in old allegations that Anwar had been sexually promiscuous with both men and women. "Mahathir chose to fight in the most brutal way," says Rahim Karrim, a political analyst. "He is ruthless when dealing with opponents."

The sheer force of Mahathir's assault, and Anwar's counterattack, has shaken Malaysia to the core. After Anwar's dismissal, tens of thousands took to the streets in support of the fallen deputy. Anwar was soon arrested. But when he was produced several days later for arraignment, he sported the black shiner that shocked the nation. The mini-People Power movement gained strength, rallying behind calls for reformasi, a term that encompasses greater democratic freedoms, less heavy-handed rule from the top and, clearly, an end to the Mahathir era. Rallies during Anwar's current trial for four counts of corruption and illegal sex have been curtailed by riot police. But few believe the battle between Mahathir and Anwar has ended. "Never before has Mahathir been so seriously challenged," says Khoo Kay Kim, a professor of history at the University of Malaya. "It's not over yet."

And so Mahathir is right where he seems to like to be, in the middle of a firestorm. The Anwar trial has been full of surprises. A top policeman testified he would lie under oath if ordered to do so. A chauffeur who said he had been sodomized by Anwar appeared during cross-examination to have contradicted himself. But what will ultimately determine Mahathir's fate isn't the trial, but the economy. If he succeeds, he could inspire others worried about capitalism's excesses. But if Mahathir fails, his time will surely be up. "He gave us 16 years of tremendous development, prosperity and shared wealth," says Paddy Bowie, a naturalized Malaysian citizen who has known Mahathir for about 30 years. "But history is being erased."

Or perhaps clarified: the events of 1998 have put a sharp focus on the Mahathir era. Much economic progress has been wrought by entrepreneurs hand-picked by the Prime Minister, and many of those fortunes are being protected by government bailouts. Mahathir has been revealed as someone for whom virtually any means is justified to accomplish an end, whether it's GDP growth or quashing a leadership challenge. Mahathir's outspokenness has put Malaysia, indeed the developing world, on the map. But it can cause trouble, too, and Dr. M may be ignoring the primary rule of the medical profession: "First, do no harm."