Sat, Nov 01, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Malaysia's Mahathir calls it quits

SOMBER FAREWELLWestern countries greeted the controversial leader's retirement with silence, while Asian nations said they will miss the outspoken prime minister

REUTERS , KUALA LUMPUR

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shakes hands with the crowd after the Friday prayer in Putrajaya, south of Kuala Lumpur, yesterday. Mahathir, one of the longest-serving elected leaders in the world, will be remembered for his controversial speeches and outspoken criticisms of Western political and trade practises.

PHOTO: EPA

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, one of Asia's longest-serving and most controversial leaders, retired yesterday to a mix of Asian praise and Western silence after an international outcry over his remarks about Jews.

In a somber ceremony at the royal palace following prayers at the national mosque, Malaysia's King Syed Sirajuddin Jamalullail accepted Mahathir's resignation and swore in his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, as the country's fifth prime minister.

Fittingly, a tropical thunderstorm broke out over Kuala Lumpur around the time Mahathir handed Abdullah the keys to his office in nearby Putrajaya, ending 22 years in power.

The 78-year-old leader of the mainly Muslim Southeast Asian nation spent much of his time rubbing Western governments the wrong way, while becoming a respected spokesman within the Islamic and developing worlds.

But Mahathir's speech to an Islamic summit two weeks before he stepped down, in which he referred to what he called Jewish domination of the world, raised a storm of protest from the US, Western Europe, Australia and, of course, Israel.

Western governments had little to say on a historic day for Malaysia.

"The embassy has not received any message from the White House," said a US Embassy official in Kuala Lumpur, adding that many of the mission's staff were more focused on Halloween festivities than Mahathir's last day in office.

The only time Mahathir has upset the West more was when former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was jailed for 15 years for abuse of power and sodomy following trials Washington said were politically tainted.

Anwar, in a written statement, fired a parting shot at Mahathir from prison, accusing him of wrecking public governance and racking up debts on megaprojects.

The ex-protege, jailed in 1998, also saw the provocative comments about Jews as a diversion.

"It is nothing but pure and utter sensationalism -- primarily to deflect attention [from] his misdeeds and the stench from the rot in his own back yard," Anwar said.

The reaction from Australia, which Mahathir has described as "some sort of transplant from another region," was also muted.

"I don't have any comments to make except to re-emphasize the fact the links between Australia and Malaysia are very long, they are very deep," Australian Prime Minister John Howard told a Melbourne radio station.

Malaysia's former colonial ruler Britain, which experienced Mahathir's combative nature when he launched a "Buy British Last" campaign in the 1980s, stuck to diplomatic protocol.

"A message of goodwill is being sent to Abdullah Badawi. It is normal practice to send one to the incoming leader," said a senior official at the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur.

Asian leaders were far more appreciative of Mahathir.

"I will be missing my elder brother," Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told Malaysia's New Straits Times daily.

China expressed its "sincere admiration" for Malaysia's accomplishments.

Malaysia's 24 million ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians have enjoyed peaceful relations and increased prosperity under his rule, but many agreed Mahathir's time was up.

"We change kings every five years, but the prime minister lasted 22 years," said Othman, a member of the ruling United Malays National Organization, referring to the figurehead monarchy rotated between the Malay sultans.

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