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Mahathir: A winner in the war of words?

Happier days: Howard and Mahathir meet in Australia in March 1996.
Happier days: Howard and Mahathir meet in Australia in March 1996.

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start quoteSometimes you have to thumb your nose at people before they notice youend quote
-- Dr Mahathir in 1993, on his decision not to attend the first APEC summit in Seattle
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CNN's Maria Ressa reports on the career of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as he prepares to step down.
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A look at Mahathir's often combative rhetorical style.
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Mahathir Mohamad

(CNN) -- In the 22 years he has been Malaysia's prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad has shown an unerring ability to irritate and upstage his global counterparts -- particularly those in the West.

His willingness to trade barbs with any and all critics, his readiness to invoke racism and to blame notions of Western superiority, and his ability to harness Malaysian domestic sentiment against perceived outside slights, has seen a succession of high-level spats.

Sometimes the name-calling has had economic consequences, but mainly it is business as usual between Malaysia and the West.

Rather, Mahathir is seen as a fiery and unpredictable defender of the developing world whose comments are just as often designed to shock his local audience out of apathy. He frequently urges the Islamic world to use brainpower in combating its competitors or enemies.

Even his detractors acknowledge that Mahathir has led Malaysia on a remarkable development path, setting ambitious economic targets that have dramatically lifted living standards and enabled greater social interaction among its mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian-descent citizens.

At the same time, Mahathir has kept domestic political and religious extremists at bay, giving Malaysia a valued stability and a functioning democracy.

'Buy British Last'

In the early 1980s, Mahathir got stuck into his former colonizers, unleashing a "Buy British Last" campaign after differences on aircraft landing rights and student costs. Eventually, it was Britain's "Iron Lady", Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who struck a deal with Mahathir to end the campaign.

In the mid-1980s he was sparring with Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who called Malaysia's 1986 hanging of two Australian citizens for drug-trafficking offences "barbaric".

Mahathir's response was to claim Australians only complained because the hanged men were white.

In the 1990s, it was another Australian leader, Paul Keating, who enabled Mahathir to launch one of his by-then familiar attacks on Western leaders.

Responding to journalists' questions over Mahathir's failure to attend the inaugural APEC meeting in Seattle in 1993, Keating said the concept was bigger "than Mahathir and any recalcitrants".

The result was a storm of criticism in Malaysia, an "explanation" from Keating that failed to satisfy Mahathir, and a frosty period in leader-to-leader relations that has extended to Keating's successor, John Howard.


Howard most often ignores Mahathir's jibes at Australia, particularly when it involves the regional "deputy sheriff" tag assigned to Howard in recent months.

That name flows from Australia's willingness to commit forces to support U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it also is linked to Australia's lead role in the East Timor intervention and the Solomon Islands peace-keeping action.

Mahathir claimed U.S. financier George Soros (pictured) and others caused the Asian financial crisis.
Mahathir claimed U.S. financier George Soros (pictured) and others caused the Asian financial crisis.

But Howard could not resist responding to Mahathir's most recent outburst about Jews controlling the world by proxy.

After Howard called those comments "offensive", Mahathir used a post-APEC press conference in Bangkok to attack Australia's treatment of its indigenous Aborigines and to say Australian prime ministers had a fondness for making "nasty comments" about him.

Australia is not always in his sights. At the time of the 1997 Asian financial crisis -- which Mahathir claimed was caused by global capitalists such as George Soros -- Mahathir rejected orthodox economic theory as espoused by the International Monetary Fund.

His dramatic actions -- pegging the ringgit and imposing capital controls -- saw Malaysia taken off the screens of investment fund managers and estranged him from his then-deputy and finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim, with disastrous results for Anwar.

U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, attending the 1998 APEC summit in Kuala Lumpur, added to the enmity when he praised the pro-Anwar "reformasi" supporters demonstrating on the streets of the capital. Mahathir promptly labelled Gore "so rude".

Mahathir's barbs are not always against the West. He is always ready to criticize the "selfish" attitude of neighboring Singapore over trade and tourism relations.

His words often offend, but there is no denying Mahathir's pivotal role in Malaysia's remarkable progress of the past three decades.

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