BBy James Fallows Anyone familiar with modern Malaysia—and hey, that should include almost everybody in this era of MH370 coverage—knows the name “Dr. Mahathir.” For more than two decades, Mahathir Mohamad, originally trained as a medical doctor, was prime minister of Malaysia. To put it in perspective for Americans, this was a span that included all of Ronald Reagan’s time in office, plus that of the first George Bush, plus all of Bill Clinton’s, plus much of George W. Bush’s first term. “Dr. M” first came to political prominence with a famous/notorious book called The Malay Dilemma, which argued that the country’s more-numerous, less-prosperous ethnic Malays deserved special favors from the government, because eons of life in their lush tropical paradise had made them less fit for economic competition than the hard-driving Chinese minority. (Mahathir was head of the dominant ethnic-Malay political party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO.) To say that Dr. M is prickly undervalues that term. While serving as prime minister, he once got into what we’d now call a flame war with a 10-year-old schoolboy in England.* When Mahathir had a heart operation in the late 1980s, the local joke was that the point of the operation was to give him one (a heart). For decades Dr. M governed with a giant chip on his shoulder, and even out of office he’s retained his trademark style, as he shows with his views on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. Are most people puzzled by what happened to the plane? Do nearly all fault the Malaysian government’s handling of the situation? They should shut up, Dr. M has explained. It’s actually Boeing’s fault. As he put it on his personal blog, picked up yesterday by the Malay Mail online: I am very upset over MAS [Malaysia Airline System] employees being held hostage in Beijing by the relatives of the passengers of MH 370. I am upset because they are blaming the wrong people. The loss of the plane is due to the makers Boeing. How can Boeing produce a plane that is so easily disabled? [And so on.] … MAS is not at fault, lax security or not. MAS flew a plane fully expecting it to perform the task. But the plane has somehow behaved differently. Who is responsible? Not MAS but certainly the makers of the plane — Boeing Aircraft Corporation. The perfidy of the West knows no bounds. Meanwhile, even as Dr. M is solving the mystery, airline pilot Patrick Smith, of the Ask the Pilot blog, says that it is farther than ever from explanation: Count me among those who feel that this is how ends: a mystery. The plane is out there somewhere, at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and in all likelihood we’re not going to find it…. While I am not ruling anything out, my hunch is that a malfunction, rather than foul play or a pilot suicide mission, brought the plane down. A poorly handled decompression, for example, caused by a structural problem or windscreen failure. Or a catastrophic electrical failure combined with smoke, fire or fumes that rendered the crew unconscious. Granted that doesn’t totally jive with the evidence, but none of the theories do. That’s what makes the situation an enduring and perhaps permanent mystery. No explanation makes sense. Except, of course, Dr. Mahathir’s.
* While we were living in Malaysia in the 1980s, a British schoolboy wrote to Mahathir lamenting the destruction of the rain forest, mainly for conversion to palm-oil plantations. Dr. M took the time to write a blistering personal note back to the boy, lambasting the hypocrisy of Western hand-wringers and their late discovery of environmental concerns. “They should expel all those people all the people living in the British countryside and allow secondary forests to grow and fill these new forests with wolves and bears etc., before studying tropical angles.” The man had an edge. I described this episode and the general Malaysian situation in Looking at the Sun.
The more consequential side of his approach was his long legal persecution of his one-time protege, Anwar Ibrahim. For background see this. We loved living in Malaysia, but a notable item on the minus side of the ledger was the Mahathir-era governing style.