Malaysian customs authorities have been holding up delivery of 800 copies of an authoritative new biography of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for the past three weeks at the Port Klang customs office.
The book, "Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times," written by former Asian Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Barry Wain, is a warts-and-all, critical but fair account of Mahathir's 22 years in power. It is certain to become an essential study for scholars seeking to understand the onetime premier's reign and its consequences. But maybe not in Malaysia itself unless the locals buy through Barns & Noble (available Jan. 10) or Amazon (Jan. 5) for US$60.75.
Reports of the book have created considerable stir in Malaysia after the popular Malaysiakini news website ran reports of it along with a review first published in Asia Sentinel.
The book will probably turn up on bookshelves eventually, said one Malaysian source. "There are lots of books on the shelves that are critical of Dr Mahathir. It might be some of his allies that stopped it. But everybody knows about it, it's just they're waiting for a hard copy."
Foreign published books air-freighted into Malaysia often go through customs without being checked, or with only a cursory check at the airport. Books sent by ship or by land from Singapore are often stopped for inspection, however, which can mean customs officers spending weeks reading the material. Sometimes they just sit on the book, leaving the publisher with little option but to withdraw it or be faced with being hit with storage charges, leaving the book effectively banned without the government having to face criticism for formally banning it.
The reform organization Aliran said the holdup of the books " is nothing short of crude and reckless censorship, although indirect, the effect is the same. It very undemocratically denies Malaysians reading material that should be made freely available to all and sundry. This book is of particular interest to citizens who are appalled by the disclosure that under Mahathir RM100 billion could
have been squandered. They have been waiting anxiously to find out how this atrocity involving a mammoth, mind-boggling amount could have happened without anybody commenting on this extravagance."
The book tells the story of an essentially pragmatic man who managed the always-fraught balance between the country's races, particularly the Malays and Chinese, relatively well although the New Economic Policy which he inherited from his predecessor, an affirmative action program for the majority race was deeply flawed, creating an entitlement mentality among Malays that largely failed to uplift them economically despite all efforts. Nonetheless, Mahathir, Wain wrote, "wasted no time in transforming Malaysia in line with his vision of a modern, industrialized nation, setting the goal of becoming fully developed by 2020."
Rubber, palm oil and tin, the mainstays of the economy, Wain wrote, gave way to the production of manufactured goods and embraced a high-tech future, making Malaysia one of the developing world's most successful countries. Mahathir, he said, "relentlessly badgered, berated and browbeat Malaysians, especially Malays, to shape up and convert his dreams into reality. If necessary, he would crucify opponents, sacrifice allies and tolerate monumental institutional and social abuses to advance his project."
Unfortunately that also produced some excesses that the country could take decades to correct. By Wain's reckoning, the country wasted as much as RM100 billion (US$40 billion at exchange rates at the time) on grandiose projects such as the Perwaja steel plant, which lost an estimated US$800 million and whose executive director, Eric Chia, was charged with embezzling large amounts of money. Chia, however, was freed by a Malaysian judiciary system that Mahathir had basically gutted and rebuilt to serve the interests of the state.
Wain writes about Mahathir's relationship with Daim Zainuddin, the onetime finance minister who dismissed concerns about the commingling of his public and private interests, among a wide range of cronies who ultimately became a rentier class that did huge damage to the country's coffers.
He could be stridently anti-western, breaking with the UK dramatically by establishing a "Buy British Last" program that only ended when Margaret Thatcher, then the iron prime minister of Britain, made a trip to meet with Mahathir himself. Nonetheless, Wain writes, Mahathir's anti-west rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s, though reminiscent of the first generation of developing world leaders feeling their way out from under the yoke of colonialism, "was accompanied by a diametrically opposite view of economics. Although a strident nationalist, he was pragmatic and favored the market system that brought prosperity to the industrialized nations."
Like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Indonesia's Suharto, "Dr Mahathir integrated his country deeply with the Western economies and achieved an enviable development record."
Wain wrote that during a visit to Washington DC in which Mahathir met President Ronald Reagan, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and others, he secretly launched an innocuous sounding Bilateral Training and Consultation Treaty, which Wain described as a series of working groups for exercises, intelligence sharing, logistical support and general security issues. In the meantime, Mahathir continued display a public antipathy on general principles at the Americans while his jungle was crawling with US troops quietly training for jungle warfare.
(On Dec. 16, Mahathir slammed what he described as Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's change in Malaysia's foreign policy to back the United States in a recent flap over an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution criticising Iran for its nuclear program.)
That's all good. But Wain's exhaustive reprise of the Bumiputra Malaysia Finance scandal of the early 1980s, for instance, in which as much as US$1 billion disappeared from the Hong Kong arm of the government-owned Bank Bumiputra Malaysia, ill-starred forays into currency manipulation by Bank Negara, the country's central bank, which cost billions, the attempt directed by Mahathir to attempt to corner the tin market in the early 1980s, and other huge missteps apparently didn't set will with the government's current leaders.
Wain's book remains on the loading docks, awaiting a decision to deliver it. But for readers who buy Kindle or another electronic reader, it's easy to get.