Commentary: ASEAN: Before Mahathir's durian season ends

Kornelius Purba

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta

Jakarta, posted: Wed, August 8, 2018 | 09:51 am

Stronger ties: President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo (right) shakes hands with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad after giving a joint statement at the Bogor Palace on June 29. (Antara/Puspa Perwitasari)

The comeback of Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister coincided with an abundant harvest of durians across Malaysia. The abnormally hot weather, combined with heavy downpours, has resulted in a prolonged and plentiful durian season. The “love it or hate it” fruit is now available not only to Malaysians, but also neighbors in Singapore.

Indonesians, as well as Malaysians, describe unexpected god fortune as “mendapat durian runtuh” (to get a falling durian). The proverb applies for supporters of Mahathir and his political coalition — and now hopefully also for all Malaysians — that shockingly defeated graft-ridden then-prime minister Najib Razak in May’s general election. 

It’s time for Malaysians to share their “durian runtuh” with fellow ASEAN members. We need the elder statesman Mahathir to play an active role, because he previously dealt with ASEAN for 22 years, including during some difficult times for the group. We need him to be in the vanguard, at least for a while, amid the challenges facing ASEAN. 

Given his age, the Malaysian prime minister is often described as a transitional leader who will transfer power to his former political foe Anwar Ibrahim. Knowing his past record, however, the former dictator will maintain his grip as long as possible. 

But I do not intend to discuss Mahathir’s domestic politics, but the larger picture, which is ASEAN.

The 10-member ASEAN celebrates its 51st anniversary today (Wednesday) amid very real threats of a global trade war and a more assertive China in the South China Sea. ASEAN leaders are committed to unity in confronting the economic and security problems because they know the issues are too complicated to handle individually. But how? 

ASEAN currently has a major leadership vacuum and therefore it needs to cultivate Mahathir’s 22 years of experience as Malaysian leader. Although Indonesia’s former president Soeharto often belittled Mahathir and described him as “Little Sukarno”, Mahathir worked hand-in-hand with Soeharto in navigating ASEAN until Soeharto’s fall in May 1998. 

Mahathir’s blunt statements often angered Western leaders, including those of the United States and Australian, leaders, but unlike Soeharto he succeeded in overcoming the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Now ASEAN needs Mahathir’s involvement to help the regional grouping face the global difficulties. 

ASEAN is facing a serious leadership crisis because, among other reasons, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, as the leader of the group’s largest economy, seems uninterested in foreign policy. Jokowi will also be preoccupied by his reelection bid in April next year.

Other leaders, like the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, apparently prefer a bilateral approach. Duterte decided to sideline his country’s territorial dispute with China for pragmatic economic reasons. Cambodia’s Hun Sen takes advantage of all possible opportunities from his relationship with China, although he could do this without upsetting fellow ASEAN leaders.

ASEAN actually has veteran leaders such as Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, but he almost never talks about ASEAN affairs. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also has extensive experience and has learned a lot from his father Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of the city state.

Mahathir is scheduled to make a state visit to China and will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing next week. The Malaysian leader is very firm in his determination to convey an unpleasant message to his hosts, yet Beijing still intends to give Mahathir a red-carpet welcome.

During his previous tenure as prime minister, Mahathir was the favorite of the international media and journalists because he did not hesitate to provoke the anger of other countries, especially in the West, with his frank and straight verbal expressions.

During the election campaign earlier this year, he strongly criticized China’s heavy investment in Malaysia, which he described as unilaterally benefitting China. He canceled some of China’s US$20 billion mega projects immediately after he was sworn in as prime minister on May 10.

In a recent interview with CNN Mahathir openly spoke his mind about the world’s second-largest economy, which will have upset Beijing. After his recent 90-minute discussion with Mahathir in Kuala Lumpur, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi opted to remain silent about Mahathir’s criticism of China-Malaysia relations. 

When CNN asked him about China’s claim over nearly all of the South China Sea, Mahathir cited an old saying “the powerful will take what they will and the weak will yield what they must.” Malaysia, like its ASEAN neighbors Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, is a claimant in the South China dispute, but Mahathir has chosen to “accept the reality of the situation”.

“If they declare South China Sea belongs to them we are not going to war with them,” Mahathir said. “They are the powerful and we cannot fight against them [so] how do we benefit from their wealth and their power?” 

He does not hesitate to express his dislike of US President Donald Trump, whom he describes as a leader who “can change his mind three times in 24 hours.” “He thinks he is powerful so he can ask people to pay for what he wants to do.”

In Mahathir’s view, ASEAN has little choice concerning the South China Sea, but it still could work together to profit from China’s economic might. At least for a while, it is clear that only Mahathir has the capacity to openly talk with China and Trump on behalf of ASEAN. 

So Malaysia, please share your abundant falling durians with us.

TOPIC

ASEAN Mahathir Mahathir-Mohamad Southeast-Asia Malaysia democracy