(Petaling Jaya, Thursday): Last Friday, in Khartoum during his visit to Sudan, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad stoutly defended President Suharto, declaring that during his meeting with the Indonesian President in Cairo during the G-15 Summit two days earlier, he had assured Suharto of Malaysia’s support for measures being taken for Indonesia’s economic recovery.
The New Straits Times of 16th May 1998 in its report, under the heading "Suharto is not cause of the troubles, says Dr. M" quoted Mahathir as telling a gathering of Malaysian students in Khartoum that "Suharto was not the cause of the economic decline, the lowest in 30 years, experienced now".
Mahathir said Indonesia had actually become a very advanced developing country under President Suharto, unlike before, and added:
"During President Sukarno’s rule previously, we in Malaysia always heard of how very poor Indonesians were…there was not enough food and there were some reported to have eaten rats."
Mahathir said Indonesia, under President Suharto, achieved so much progress and prosperity but what happened now was actually the result of the economic crisis, just like in Malaysia, due to depreciation of the Indonesian currency.
He said the Indonesian rupiah was devalued by 80 per cent while the Malaysian ringgit had gone down by 50 per cent due to the currency manipulation.
Mahathir said: "Certainly there are attempts to topple President Suharto by outsiders. As for Malaysia, there are attempts to topple me by outsiders."
Mahathir’s expression of support for President Suharto in Cairo last Wednesday could not save Suharto, as it is not only the students and the ordinary Indonesian people, but also Suharto’s own-hand-picked Parliament and the Indonesian military who have come to the conclusion that Suharto was part of the problem and not part of the solution of the Indonesian crisis.
Mahathir has clearly misread not only the causes of the Indonesian economic crisis, he has also misread the aspirations of the Indonesian people that there can be no effective economic change without political and democratic reforms.
Mahathir must be baffled why Suharto’s resignation has been greeted with such joy by the Indonesian people and students, or why the Asian markets responded with an euphoric rebound at the news of Suharto’s resignation.
With Suharto’s resignation, Indonesia joins Thailand and South Korea in being set on the path of political reforms, leaving Malaysia as the only Asian country worst hit by the economic turmoils which is resisting political reforms and in the grip of the "denial syndrome".
I call on Mahathir to embrace political reforms and democratisation in Malaysia, including an all-out war against corruption, to create the conditions necessary for successful economic and financial change.
Mahathir should not misread the aspirations of Malaysians for political, economic and financial reforms in the way he had misread the aspirations of Indonesians.
Mahathir should summon an all-party political meeting to discuss the political and democratic reforms that should be introduced in Malaysia so that the government, society and people in Malaysia can respond as one unit in the face of the worst economic crisis to effect the fastest economic turnaround and recovery with the minimum of avoidable pain, sufferings and hardships to the people.