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MBD: TheNation: Mahathir, Foreign Media No Bitter Foes
By Khoo Boo Teik

2/1/2002 12:32 am Wed

[In the days leading to the election, local media were unleashed to attack foreign press and critics, accusing them of trying to destroy racial unity in the Muslim-dominated country. - The Nation]

The Nation

5th August, 1999

Mahathir, Foreign Media No Bitter Foes

By Khoo Boo Teik

When it comes to Malaysian Premier Mahathir and the foreign media, Khoo Boo Teik says that they have had an enduring, mutually profitable, if love-hate relationship.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia has so often reviled the 'foreign press' that an unsuspecting person might believe that either the foreign media has long had it in for Mahathir and Malaysia, or that Mahathir is a 'foreign-media hater'. Neither view is correct.

Were the mainstream foreign media truly anti-Mahathir, it would have shunned him as it shuns its truly 'unacceptable' leaders of 'pariah' regimes. But knowing Mahathir to be, ultimately, a friend of the West, the foreign media has learnt to transform his testiness and superficial anti-westernism into newsworthy 'controversial opinion'.

Had Mahathir truly hated the foreign media he would have shut it out as some regional leaders have. Even while complaining of unfair media treatment, Mahathir has spoken to, been interviewed by, and even written for the foreign media. He values the foreign media's international reach that helps him acquire a statesmanlike stature incommensurate with Malaysia's position in the world.

Thus, Mahathir and the foreign media have had an enduring, mutually profitable, if love-hate relationship. That each takes occasional potshots at the other only enhances their credibility among the constituencies important to them.

Some developments, following from the July 1997 currency crisis, and the crisis sparked by Mahathir's sacking of his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim on September 2, 1998, affirm the validity of this 'contrarian view'.

Mahathir, his allies and their public relations people have lately erected giant billboards around Malaysia denouncing foreign plots to recolonize the country. Their purpose is clear: Simulate a state of siege to rally Malaysians around the government ahead of the next general election.

The supposed villainy of the foreign media is an important part of such a campaign, not least because so many Malaysians find the domestic media contemptible for its role in the 'Anwar affair', and turn to the foreign (English language) media as an alternative source of news.

Two things are not quite right here.

The more obvious one is, the anti-foreign accusations are meant to sway domestic opinion. No one, surely not Mahathir himself, expects his vituperations to cut any ice with foreigners.

The lesser known, and ironic, thing is, an important part of the foreign media, which ridiculed Mahathir for his anti-money market outbursts and forex control policies, has been subtly expressing its support for Mahathir.

How has this embrace of Mahathir been attempted? Let us count the ways.

One way is to have features which compare Mahathir's record with the faults of someone who had become totally unsupportable - say, Suharto in 1998. Understandably Mahathir comes off being 'not as bad as some other guys'. In fact, Michael Backman shows Mahathir to be quite good compared to Suharto (and Mahathir's sons to be similarly good compared to Suharto's children) in the Asian Wall Street Journal (October 15-16, 1998).

A second way balances Mahathir's 'excesses' against his 'achievements', and what he has done for his country, so that the man is judged to be 'not such a bad guy'. In fact, William Case, in the Australian Financial Review (April 15, 1999), thinks Mahathir's 'benign policy outcomes' distinguish him as a 'benevolent despot', really an 'enlightened ruler'.

A third way is to be unapologetically positive about Mahathir while attributing his shortcomings to obstructions and obstacles. By this method, Mahathir emerges as a half-tragic figure who shoulders an ill-appreciated 'Herculean task', which only he can perform, as Karen Elliott House clarifies in the Asian Wall Street Journal (November 17, 1998).

A fourth way misrepresents Mahathir's opposition to make it scarier than life so that the cost of supplanting Mahathir seems unbearable. In The Nikkei Weekly (May 10 1999), Yeoh Oon raises 'fundamentalist fears' of 'Malaysia's political upheaval benefitting opposition parties' which are collectively transformed into a 'fiercely pro-Islam group'.

A fifth way lies in making the opposition seem unable to get its act together so that it looks unlikely that Mahathir can be successfully challenged. In Asiaweek (July 2, 1999) Arjuna Ranawana barely reports on the genuinely difficult but genuine attempts by the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM), and Parti KeADILan Nasional (KeADILan) to develop a widely popular electoral pact. Instead the coalition appears as a 'squabbling' 'mixed bag' destined to flounder between PAS's 'call for an Islamic state', DAP's 'aim to make Malaysia a meritocracy', and keADILan's 'affirmative-action policy'.

There is a sixth way of using a lengthy interview that permits Mahathir to present 'his side' of the story in reply to soft questions. Especially when accompanied by a favourable background report, Mahathir gets the last word on himself and everything else, as can be judged from the 'Cover Story' of the Far Eastern Economic Review (June 24, 1999).

All this does not rule out newsreports that may be critical of this or that political or economic development in Malaysia. Not monolithic, the foreign media does not preclude critical or dissident opinion. Not state-controlled, it can protest Mahathir's outbursts.

However, this generally Mahathir-friendly coverage bears no resemblance to any depiction of an implacably anti-Mahathir foreign media. It is nothing like the foreign media's horror at Mahathir's seeming madness from July 1997 to September 1998.

Then the foreign media thought Anwar's policy preferences matched the IMF's prescription for economic recovery in East Asia. For that it lauded Anwar as Malaysia's voice of financial reform.

As a consequence, Anwar is today tarred as a 'foreign agent'. But a good segment of the foreign media and its constituencies - governments, investors, businesses - which praised Anwar before have 'switched back' to Mahathir.

One does not need a conspiracy theory to explain this media switch.

One need only to see the consensus on Mahathir at which the regional financial newspapers, if not others, have arrived. Mahathir's forex controls, imposed one day before Anwar's dismissal, have not been as disastrous, or contagious, as once predicted. Anyway, the controls have been relaxed, and Malaysia remains an open economy.

The Malaysian government's newly-raised US$1 billion bond signals that the real show of money-making must go on. Anwar's reform movement, Reformasi, was only a sideshow, he is finished, Mahathir's word goes - at any rate, for hard-nosed people managing short-term scenarios.

Mediapolitik, if you will, because, as they say, 'better the devil we know'.

Khoo Boo Teik is a visiting research fellow at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University, Western Australia.