28 October 2003

Never mind the talk, Mahathir's legacy is Muslim democracy

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.

The most extraordinary part of the Mahathir incident has been that Mahathir and Howard have a great deal in common, including a willingness to troll votes from the alienated by saying outrageous things and a distinct taste for the main chance. Perhaps John Howard is a modernising Occidental leader.

A consistent policy based on human rights (perhaps starting at home with certain detention centres) is going to enhance our standing a lot more than these occasional and inconsistent flurries of finger-wagging. Someone more cynical than I am might even mutter that the finger-wagging plays to a domestic audience, as did the Howard doctrine, the Tampa incident and one or two other things.

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