smh, Mahathir Mohamad is retiring as Prime Minister of Malaysia. Retiring, not fleeing in disgrace, not moving to Saudi Arabia to hide from international law, not avoiding a looming corruption scandal, not forced out by street protests, and not facing a firing squad.
As leadership changes in developing nations go, the hand-over to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is as good as it gets. Mahathir is not seeking immunity from prosecution from his successor, will not be waging a guerilla war against the forces of liberation, and uncertainty about Malaysia's future has not upset the financial markets.
We can, unfortunately however, look forward to hearing him continue to speak out on international affairs, including the many apparent shortcomings of Australia and its leaders. Nevertheless despite his race-baiting, we should listen.
Unfashionable as it may be to say, Mahathir has been the greatest leader of any developing country since the postwar independence movement began. In truth, he doesn't have a lot of competition, given the rogues' gallery of genocidal dictators that has populated the Third World in that time. All the more reason to pause and reflect upon the good, with the bad, in Mahathir.
Malaysia is on track to become a prosperous, multicultural democracy. In the Islamic world, in particular, this is an unheard-of trifecta. Elsewhere in South-East Asia we see poverty, civil war and dictatorship. Malaysia's is a mighty achievement of peaceful economic and social development in a volatile region.
In spite of the Asian financial crisis, during which Mahathir alienated polite opinion by rejecting the advice of the IMF, Malaysia's economy is in reasonable shape. It has been a remarkable transformation.
In their divide and rule style, the British colonists left a poisonous legacy of racial division in Malaysia. The majority Malays ran the bureaucracy and the Chinese were dominant in commerce and mining, while Indian immigrants provided the labour on rubber plantations. The early years of independence were marked by ethnic tension, culminating in riots after the 1969 federal elections.
Contrary to the accepted view in Western societies, Mahathir has sought to overcome this division by dealing head-on with the differences between ethnic groups. His 1969 book, The Malay Dilemma, castigated his fellow Malays for their poor work habits in comparison with the industrious Chinese minority.
As Prime Minister he continued to lecture his fellow Muslims, while giving them a leg-up with a program of preferential educational and employment opportunities.
There was more than an echo of this approach to development in Mahathir's much castigated but little-read speech to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference this month.
In between the disgraceful anti-Semitic rhetoric came a passionate call for a modernising Islam, a peaceful civilisation that respects the pursuit of knowledge, trade and technology. The path of modernisation, he argued, would be much more successful in guaranteeing the security of the Muslim world than resorting to violence.
Of course, with Mahathir still far from impressed with the diligence of his fellow Malays after 30 years of his haranguing, we shouldn't expect miracles in response to the goading of his fellow Islamic rulers. But Mahathir has been the model of a moderate Islamic leader, wrestling with the forces of Western-dominated globalisation on one side, and the cave-dwelling bin Laden wannabes on the other.
This balancing act is an enormously difficult task for a political leader. Mahathir's anti-Western and anti-Semitic tirades are aimed at building a sense of nationalism in an ethnically diverse state. Malaysians are proud hosts of the world's tallest buildings and revelled in the spotlight of the Commonwealth Games. In the minds of voters, Mahathir's nationalism compensates for his less popular policies, such as his criticism of theocratic politics and the ethnic Chinese resentment of racial preferences.
The path of Islamic modernisation is a balancing act that Western nations should encourage. The only alternative is to continue to cultivate pro-Western regimes that don't rely on popular support. That is a short-term solution. All dictators fall on their sword eventually, and the result is usually more turmoil rather than less.
This is a lesson that we should have learnt after the collapse of the Soeharto regime in Indonesia, and again when the pro-Western Saudi Arabia and Egypt produced the bulk of the September 11 terrorists. Moderate Muslim governments, not Western belligerence, will win the war on terrorism.
The prickly relationship that all contemporary Australian prime ministers have endured with Mahathir is curious in light of the 30-year lovefest our leaders enjoyed with Soeharto. He was responsible for the deaths of as many as a million Indonesians and left a legacy of militarism, social division and an economy in smoking ruins. And we wonder why Indonesia's President Megawati Soekarnoputri continually snubs Australia – our once friend Soeharto deposed her father in a coup. Such is the morality of international affairs that our leaders threw barbs at Mahathir while toasting Soeharto.
Putting aside the shocking treatment of Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian Government's treatment of its opposition is positively respectful in comparison with its neighbours where torture, exile, repression and civil war have been the norm. Opposition parties do win elections in some states. And it's not a pretty sight. PAS, the Islamic party, is held back from implementing a brutal form of sharia law in the states it controls, Kelantan and Terengganu, by only the strictures of the federal constitution.
Condemn his racist words, by all means, but remember that Mahathir's Malaysia is the most successful model of a modern Muslim nation that the world has to offer.