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AFR: Mahathir's Aussie-bashing out of step with the people
By Bruce Cheesman

30/6/2001 3:07 am Sat

[Ejekkan Mahathir bukan sahaja mungkin mengugat pelaburan dari Australia malah ia boleh menimbulkan ketegangan dan keresahan rakyat Malaysia di sana dan rakyat Austalia di sini. Australia menyumbang bukan sahaja dagangan - malah kepakaran teknikal dan pengurusan seperti dalam MAS dan mungkin juga nanti time dotCom. Sepatutnya mereka dihormati dan tidak diejek sebegitu. Ada banyak cara untuk mengkritik seseorang - malangnya Mahathir telah mengambil pendekatan yang sungguh haprak lagi dungu yang boleh menimbulkan pelbagai masalah lain pula. - Editor]



Mahathir's Aussie-bashing out of step with the people.

By Bruce Cheesman.

It is unlikely Prime Minister John Howard is working on his Malaysian accent to retaliate to his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad's imitation of an Australian accent.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has made it clear the Government would ignore Prime Minister Mahathir's latest barbs against Australia. "This is domestic politics in Malaysia and we certainly don't wish to interfere with domestic politics there," he said.

But an increasing number of Australians believe Mahathir's attacks on Australia are too one-sided and it is about time that Australia responded. "I think Australians are growing tired of Mahathir's insults against Australia," one Australian business consultant said.

Mahathir's Australian accent brought the house down on the last day of the annual conference of his party, the United Malays National Organisation, when he said Australia's Chinese community were pressured to adopt Aussie accents. Earlier, he had attacked Canberra's record on Aboriginal affairs.

Mahathir's mimicking of an Australian accent was the latest in several attacks, which started after former prime minister Paul Keating's called the Malaysian leader a "recalcitrant" because he was initially reluctant to embrace APEC.

The Australian Government, in terms of the overall interests of the bilateral relationship, probably wisely chose to turn the other cheek.

Without any other information, Australians could be misled into believing that most Malaysians shared Mahathir's disparaging views about Australia.

But they would be wrong. Even within the UMNO party faithful, there was a view that Mahathir was becoming increasingly out of line in his attacks against the reviled West.

"I did not like to hear Mahathir slight Australia," an UMNO youth leader who was educated in Australia said.

"He has become a sort of clown prince to hide the many problems that UMNO faces."

Most Malaysians tend to view the West, and Australia in particular, in a very positive light, due to booming cultural, educational and trade links.

"I think that the Prime Minister is wrong to criticise Australia," a bank worker, Ms Sally Lau, said.

"I went to Australia at Christmas. I had a wonderful time and found most Australians very friendly. It is a much freer country than here," she said.

The Chinese-Australians Mahathir mocked are the backbone of the South-East Asian community in Australia. There are about 90,000 Australians of Malaysian extraction, the third-largest ethnic grouping behind Vietnamese and the Filipino communities.

There are about 10,000 Malaysians studying at Australia's colleges and universities, by far the largest ethnic group in higher education, accounting for about 35 per cent of foreign students.

Singapore is next, with 7,400 students, followed by Indonesia, with 6,200. Australia is very popular among budding Malaysian lawyers, who pick up law degrees then return home to practise.

After a fall-off during the economic crisis, the number of Malaysians studying in Australia continued to grow due to a weak Australian dollar.

Australia was also still a very popular tourism destination among Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds.

National flag carrier Malaysian Airlines operates more flights to Australia than any other international destination.

Two-way trade has grown 40 per cent during the past two years to total about $8.3 billion.

Australia has more than 250 companies based in Malaysia, far more than in Singapore and Thailand.

While there has been a drop in Australian investment in Malaysia, reflecting a regional trend, it continued to be the favoured base to gain a foothold in South-East Asia.

Several Australian companies have recently relocated from Singapore, to take advantage of Malaysia's cheaper operating costs.

Australian food exports have done particularly well in Malaysia.

Australian companies have taken a dominant role in many of Malaysia's large infrastructure projects, particularly railway projects.

An increasing number of Malaysian companies were hiring Australian managers to help with restructuring.

Malaysian Airlines hired two senior executives from Qantas and a leading telecommunications company is about to announce an Australian will be its new chief executive officer.

But Mahathir is likely to become more outspoken while he becomes more isolated within UMNO, and Australians may find their patience for his jokes declining.