I last met Mahathir Mohamad in London in 2011. The former Malaysian prime minister was visiting the Houses of Parliament and addressed a selected audience on the ‘miracle of Malaysia’s economic success’. He came with quite an entourage.
He spoke engagingly, softly, charismatically with erudition and the confidence of an elder statesman. As prime minister of Malaysia for over 22 years (1981 to 2003) he had well-honed political skill. His facts and figures were impressive, surprising, encouraging and even filtered through a cynical lens, verged on tantalising. Whilst economic achievement is seductive, his critics understand his legacy to be an atrophied political system intertwined with something entirely more sinister.
The economic miracle was not delivered through universal fairness, equality of opportunity or the highest ideals of multiculturalism. It could be nationalistic and ruthless. To its beneficiaries it was popular as the popularity of its creator is enduring.
On the cusp of leaving office in 2003 Mahathir Mohamad made shocking anti-Semitic comments in an outlandishly callous speech. In one excerpt he claimed that the “Jews rule the world by proxy” and “invented socialism, communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong so they may enjoy equal rights with others.”
His well-packaged London speech sharply contrasted with disgraceful remarks he made in 2010 claiming that Jews had always been a problem in European countries.
Knowledge of these ghastly utterances was lacking ‘in the room’ as the former prime minister beamed about engineering projects, exports and Malaysia’s gross domestic product. Within a year Mahathir Mohamad would openly declare himself glad to be anti-Semitic in a blog post following the ruling on the death of Rachel Corrie.
There seems to be a well-worn if cliched pattern for seeking post-prime-ministerial immortality. First build immense personal wealth, then build (optionally phallic) industrial super-structures, then build a peace foundation. Mahathir Mohamad’s ‘phase 3’ is being realised through the Perdana Global Peace Foundation.
As the Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren reported, the United Nations has accredited an NGO whose head is ‘glad to be labeled anti-Semitic’. That NGO is unsurprisingly the Perdana Global Peace Foundation and its head is Mahathir Mohamad. The granting body was the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People.
In my encounter with the former prime minister I asked him to comment on his reputedly anti-Semitic views. Pensive, polite and stubbornly elusive he was unwilling to have these particulars discussed. He is often a great deal less discrete.
If my challenge was effective, the accompanying picture might be captioned “I made you think!” As I look at it more, the wily old politico was trying to think of a segue from anti-Semitism to living standards in Kuala Lumpur.
He was not adequately held to account that evening and that is a personal regret. The moral of the tale is do not find yourself looking back at opportunities to challenge anti-Semitism and anti-Semites thinking there was room for improvement. It is better to caption all of life’s photos “that was the day I exposed truth in all its rawness.”