Fri, Oct 17, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Minor APEC role last hurrah for Mahathir


Though he's one of Asia's senior statesman, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has never had an easy relationship with the APEC forum.

Malaysia snubbed APEC's inaugural summit in 1993 in Seattle, suffered through political upheaval and a diplomatic insult when hosting the 1998 edition in Kuala Lumpur, and sent only its deputy prime minister in 1999 to Auckland, New Zealand.

When Mahathir has attended, as during the 1997 meeting in Vancouver, Canada, during Asia's economic crisis, he has used the summits to launch his trademark attacks on the failings of globalization.

"Frankly, I don't expect much from APEC," Mahathir once said.

Mahathir attends his final APEC summit in Bangkok, Thailand, on Monday and Tuesday. He retires 10 days later, handing power to his less-acerbic deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Mahathir's international standing has never been higher, his credentials as a champion of Third World and Muslim causes burnished by hosting summits this year of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

But at APEC, Mahathir seems destined to play a minor role as designated skeptic, one last time.

Malaysian officials say that no major speech has been scheduled, but Mahathir and Chilean President Ricardo Lagos are down for a panel talk at the semi-official APEC CEO Summit on "Globalization and its Discontents."

Host Thailand has been silent on other plans. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who fancies himself the next leading light of Southeast Asia once Mahathir retires, has adopted a close relationship with the US at odds with Mahathir's critical views.

But political science professor Chaiwat Khamchoo of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University said that any attempt to sideline Mahathir would be foolish.

Lambasting the West "is the nature of Mahathir," Chaiwat said. "It would be a pity if Mahathir does not give a speech at the APEC summit, which would be regarded as a farewell speech from a man who has a unique status and position."

The gathering brings together Mahathir and 20 other Pacific Rim leaders, among them US President George W. Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, whom Mahathir accuses of going to war against Iraq on the basis of "a big lie" about weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless, after the usual closed-door discussions on trade and other issues, Mahathir will be expected to join in the customary, smiling family-style photo with everyone sporting exotic clothing.

The summit photos have become such a ritual that it's almost forgotten that the inaugural line-up -- at Blake Island, Washington, in 1993, hosted by Bill Clinton -- didn't include Mahathir or Malaysia, which was already one of Southeast Asia's strongest, fastest-growing economies.

The Malaysian leader viewed the project to create a Pacific Rim trade grouping as a Trojan horse that would allow Western powers -- primarily the US and Australia -- to leverage control over Asia.

Mahathir, then and now, viewed Asian values and needs for economic development at odds with Western pressure for more democracy and wide-open markets. He lobbied instead for an East Asian bloc to counter the clout of the EU and the North American free trade agreement.

Australia's prime minister a decade ago, Paul Keating, was a driving force behind APEC. He branded Mahathir as "recalcitrant" for boycotting the first summit -- a remark that still rankles in Malaysia and serves as ammunition in bilateral spats.

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