On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Leadership skills now better valued

For Malaysians, who see the chaos in Indonesia and the
worst economic downturn hitting Singapore, our political and economy stability
have been counted as a blessing, even as the government attempts to ward off
the effects of a recession.

Most Malaysians have enough work to keep themselves busy rather than take part
in massive demonstrations outside the US Embassy or search for western tourists
at hotels, as is happening in Indonesia.

Dr Mahathir has emerged as the undisputed leader of the region; the West seeks
his support and opinion in their fight against terrorism and the Taliban
regime. He has credentials which other leaders do not – he heads a model
Islamic country, led by a moderate and liberal political party.

Singapore elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew's views may be good on East Asian
affairs but it is Dr Mahathir who is taking centre stage because the war
involves the Islamic world.

But what Dr Mahathir is saying is actually nothing new. His views on extremism
have never changed. Even before the Sept 11 attacks in New York, Dr Mahathir
had been hard on religious radicals – an approach that some people perceived as
political action against PAS. Like Osama bin Laden, religion has been used to
legitimise the political agenda of these radicals. Preventive laws were used
against these militants but the action was attacked as draconian. Today, Dr
Mahathir has been vindicated.

As PAS declared jihad against the United States, demonstrated outside the US
Embassy, burnt the American flag and urged its members to fight alongside the
Taliban, the same western diplomats who used to turn up at PAS gatherings to
give moral support are looking at PAS leaders with alarm.

In the West, governments are rescuing companies and airlines in the same manner
which they once ridiculed Malaysia for what they termed as bail-outs.

As the top western leaders begin to understand Dr Mahathir, there are still
many in the western media who have to yet to grasp the diplomatic changes that
are taking place.

In their news reports, many still have the misconception that Malaysia is
anti-US and supportive of Osama. CNN has not helped clear this cloud of
confusion. For example, it leaves out Dr Mahathir's strong line against
terrorism but highlights his objection to the US retaliations against the

In reality, the lines of communication between Kuala Lumpur and Washington have
increased in frequency as Dr Mahathir and US President George W. Bush meet at
the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit.

The US Embassy here, with access to correct information, has taken great pains
to clarify inaccurate reports, swiftly sending out notes to the press. At a
recent luncheon with over 100 American businessmen last week, Dr Mahathir was
given a standing ovation after a question-and-answer session.

Malaysia is fast emerging as a reliable partner because Dr Mahathir enjoys
strong ties with most West Asian countries. As efforts are made to hold an
international conference on terrorism, Asean has already decided to host such a
conference, the first in the region.

On the home front, those who have written off Dr Mahathir are re-evaluating
their predictions. The opposition front, which confidently sees itself taking
power in the next general election, is breaking up.

The DAP has pulled out from the front as top leaders start to
"resign" from Parti Keadilan Nasional. PAS, the dominant party in the
opposition front, is now regarded as an extremist party, even among opposition

The alleged involvement of PAS supporters and members in the militant KMM has
tarnished the image of PAS while many have questioned how the party intends to
set up an Islamic state.

During the recent Sarawak elections, the DAP, PAS and Keadilan openly fought
each other but all were defeated by Barisan Nasional, even as some analysts and
observers predicted that the political landscape in the state will change once
these three parties win some seats.

Sitting in the comfort of their air-conditioned offices and sipping drinks in
Bangsar to exchange political stories, they could not see the humorous reaction
of the Ibans in the longhouse when greeting a PAS leader. In his robe and
turban, the PAS leader insisted on shaking their hands with gloves on.

At ceramahs in Bandar Kuching, DAP and Keadilan campaigners traded verbal blows
openly as they criticised the existing political structure, saying their
alternative should be given a chance. Within Keadilan, leaders who have quit
have talked about returning to Umno, believing that their struggle is futile.

The talk now is that the Prime Minister will call for a general election by
2003 – and there are good reasons for it. The opposition front has lost its
direction and the broad-based nature of Malaysia's economy should provide a
strong buffer against the recessionary winds.