Mahathir’s Last Day

The Malaysian newspapers today and yesterday were thick and heavy, filled with special supplements. Each supplement was headlined as some sort of tribute to outgoing Mahathir, who released his chokehold on Malaysia earlier today after 22 years. When you open the supplements, there are scattered articles and letters, everyone nearly exactly the same, expressing love and thanks to the good doctor.

But that’s not why the paper is so thick. It appears that every company, from multinational financial institutions to local coffee shops feel that they need to pay for an ad wishing their leader farewell. Page after page after page after page after page — it’s really amazing. And just like the letters and articles and editorials, all of the ads read the same way. Nearly all of them even use the same photo! (Virtually every one has a photo of Mahathir splashed in the center.)

It’s all anyone is talking about, from cab drivers to hotel bellmen to the attendees at the conference I’m speaking at. And I have to say, it sounds as though the Malaysians absolutely revere him. (Some of the non-Malaysians at my conference have less flattering things to say, but I’m afraid to type them down, being in a Malaysian Internet cafe. I know how Thais are fiercely loyal to their king, and it seems many Malaysians feel the same way about Mahathir.)

So I suppose I’m lucky to be here in KL on the day he rides off into the sunset. It is definitely living history, on the level of the return of HK to China. Will it be the same country tomorrow? I’ll say yes, and speculate further that, just as in the case of Lee Kuan Yew (and Jiang Zemin), Dr. Mahathir may be off the stage, but to a large extent he’ll still be running the show.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

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