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MGG: White House Didn't Beat Around The Bush
By M.G.G. Pillai

1/8/2001 9:43 pm Wed

Tuesday July 31

White House didn't beat around the bush

MGG Pillai

2:09pm, Tue: The Malaysian foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar, early this month called on the United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Malaysian media reported the event, with the obligatory photograph of two shaking hands and smiling for the cameras, in euphemistic diplomatic prose to suggest bilateral relations are on the mend. It is not.

Malaysia believes President George Bush, not President Al Gore, is better for the United States and Dr Mahathir Mohamed, and that is why Dr Mahathir should sup at the White House. The foreign minister came away perplexed - the Bush fellow and the Gore fellow both feel the same way about how the Mahathir fellow runs the country.

Powell, whom he would again no doubt meet in Hanoi during the Asean foreign ministers' talks, spoke as if he was Gore's secretary of state. To Syed Hamid's horror, Powell spoke of such alien issues as democratic rights for Malaysians, and other unmentionable subjects that if he could, he would have fallen off his chair.

Powell minced no words. Before the US mends its unhappy ties with Malaysia, three primary conditions must be met; and only then should Dr Mahathir expect an invitation to chat and dine in the White House. Years of mindless haranguing of the US cannot be restored because the haranguer now wants to be treated as an equal.

Turn neutral

First, Powell insisted, Anwar Ibrahim's injuries must be treated expeditiously, overseas if necessary; two, the detention of activists, under the ISA or any other law, is unacceptable; three, there must be perceptible moves for more freedom of the press. It is a tall order. The Malaysian foreign minister must decide if the visit is worth it in the circumstances.

Nothing strengthens an autocrat more than he be seen in the company of the US president. In local political terms, if he does, dissent would be more severely curtailed than it already is. If the US backs him, he believes, like many of his ilk, he can do as he pleases.

It is not as simple. Not only the US thinks this way. The European Union is more candid than the US, have demanded, as a condition of better relations, what the US suggests. Dr Mahathir is due in Europe in the next two months. He cannot if he does not, at least, relent on Anwar's medical treatment.

This is why the informal talks between supporters of Dr Mahathir and Anwar in Tripoli is important.

The public, and diplomatic, impression of his invincibility is tempered by behind-the-scenes issues like this. The longer he flounders the more his own supporters would turn neutral, waiting to see which side wins. But any erosion is to Dr Mahathir's danger.

Quid pro quo

But the word is that Anwar would go for treatment overseas and return to house arrest. No one, not even Anwar sources, would confirm it, but Dr Mahathir must show proof he wants the Anwar affair resolved as a quid pro quo for better ties. Worse, he fights alone, and pays the price for how he humiliates his nemesis and once protege.

He miscalculated, in every confrontation with Anwar, that he cannot set foot in Europe or the United States without explaining, not to the media but to the chancelleries, why he did what he did. He could not even convince his autocrat-in-arms, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, who believes that nothing strengthens a country more than good old-fashioned autocracy.

The first sign came when the US ambassador, Lynn Pascoe, called on Dr Mahathir unexpectedly. Now, a new ambassador is due shortly. She no doubt comes with fresh instructions, to be confrontational or conciliatory is not clear. If the Syed Hamid meeting in Washington is any indication, this could well put Malaysia to strict proof of its intentions.

Pascoe worked hard to restore the fractured ties, the stumbling block now, for him and Wisma Putra, is Anwar. With the US welcoming the removal of two elected heads of state - President Estrada of the Philippines and President Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia - by their respective parliaments, Dr Mahathir must wonder if Washington would want him, as elected prime minister, to face the wall.

In Thailand, the elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawantra, has problems with his parliament that Dr Mahathir, with his iron control of his MPs, does not have. But Thaksin does not have a Thai Anwar Ibrahim to haunt him.

Political leaders look for foreign help when they ignore local political realities. Even more dangerous is to force-feed people, as globalisation and political correctness insist, into accepting a culture which works well in the Europe and North America but is alien to these countries.

Deeper struggle

Uncertainty then beckons. In the Philippines, the deposed president faces the death penalty for corruption endemic at all levels of society. In Indonesia, it so destabilises that a military coup is but inevitable: a cabal of senior military officers is in place, ready to strike; the leader known and indeed promoted lieutenant-general in the last round of military promotions.

In Indonesia, it is not if President Wahid was corrupt or inefficient but if the nationalists (the so-called Merah Putih (Red, White, the colours of the Indonesian flag) or the Hijau (Green, the Islamists) should set the future course. One strongly held view in Indonesia is that Gus Dur brought about his own downfall to make a military coup more likely than ever, as it now does seem likely.

In Malaysia, the Mahathir-Anwar squabble highlights a deeper struggle for the cultural heart of the Malays. The more Dr Mahathir strays, the less relevant Umno would be in national politics.

He believes he can rule with force. He would call fresh elections when, if, the KLSE, hits around 1200. This can be as soon as next year. He needs it to buy time for him and for Umno.

But he sets himself up to be the feed for a rebellious ground, not just the Malay but the Chinese, Indian, Kadazan, Iban as well. Dining at the White House might turn out to by pyrrhic.