Monday 23 May 2022 | 04:32 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 May 2022 | 04:32 | SYDNEY

Mahathir agrees he was a 'recalcitrant'


Graeme Dobell

21 October 2011 10:30

The word 'recalcitrant' has been woven through the Australia-Malaysia relationship for two decades — denoting opposing views of Asia, middle power competition and clashing personalities. The shift beyond the recalcitrant era is illustrated by the Gillard Government's vain quest for something dubbed the 'Malaysian solution'.

During the long years that Mahathir Mohamad reigned in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was no solution for anything in Canberra. Recalcitrance ruled. These days, the sting is out of 'recalcitrant' to the extent that it has become a wry emblem of the Malaysia-Australia relationship.

When Prime Minister Najib Razak visited in March, he declared: 'We will delete the word recalcitrant from our dictionary. None of us are recalcitrant: every one of us is very positive.' He was responding to the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, who declared: 'When it comes to the relationship with Malaysia, we stand united in our determination never, ever to be recalcitrant.' The Najib-Abbott comments mark a bit of history that still echoes. 

Step forward, then, Mahathir Mohamad, who has embraced with gusto the label Paul Keating pinned on him on a wintry day in Seattle back in 1993. Dr M, in fact, agrees that he is a recalcitrant. He has two goes at the recalcitrant issue in separate parts of his autobiography.

First, to set the stage, come back to Seattle in November, 1993. Snow is gusting towards the city, but Australia's Prime Minister, Paul Keating, is about to leave in the sunniest of moods. The first APEC summit has just been held and Indonesia's President Suharto has agreed to hold a second summit the next year.

Keating has just completed the final item on his Seattle itinerary — a visit to the Boeing factory. The Australian hacks gather for a doorstop. For them, 'Keating triumphs in Seattle' was the story from the previous day. Now they want to talk about Dr Mahathir, the one Asia Pacific leader who declined to attend. Take it away, Prime Minister:

Keating: 'Please don't ask me any more questions about Dr Mahathir. I couldn't care less, frankly, whether he comes or not.'

Question: Will you see him next year, Prime Minister?

Keating: 'Yes. I'll see him in his own right. Malaysia is a country which Australia has interests with, and which is a neighbour, and I'll see him on those terms. But APEC is bigger than all of us; Australia, the US and Malaysia and Dr Mahathir and any other recalcitrants. I mean, APEC is a very big development in world affairs and, I think, ushers in a period of important cooperation.'

By Keating standards it was the gentlest of swipes. But Dr M had just been hugely outplayed — even outclassed — by the success of the summit he'd boycotted. Australia had a win — and to make matters worse, Suharto had embraced the achievement. On his flight back to Jakarta from Seattle, Suharto was asked by journalists traveling with him whether Mahathir was likely to attend the 1994 summit to be hosted by Indonesia. Suharto's response was a one-sentence masterpiece: 'I will invite him and I expect that he will come'. Whatever his anti-APEC language before Seattle, the Malaysian leader could not ignore such a Javanese command from Suharto.

'Recalcitrant' gave Dr M the chance to be offended instead of embarrassed. And the Malaysians went into full-on offended mode. Here is Mahathir embracing the 'r' words as a badge of honour:

...when Keating called me recalcitrant I was not angry — he was just saying that I was refusing to fall in line with everybody else and that description generally applies quite well to me. I don't always do what others do. Most Malaysians like this side of me, as it has allowed our country to show that it is able and ready to stand up for itself. But people expected me to be offended by Keating's remark and they were insulted on my behalf. As I did not want to embarrass them, I played along. (p. 697)

As anyone who dealt with Mahathir in his prime knows, this is tosh. This was not a man who 'played along' unless it suited him. A more accurate account of Mahathir motivations is offered earlier in his own tome. The most succinct version of Mahathir's Australia hangup is bracketed with his dismissal of John Howard as the US 'deputy sheriff in Southeast Asia', linked to this broader putdown: 'Australia liked to be an appendage of the US and if that is what it wants, then so be it. It certainly is not East Asian or Asian.'

The Mahathir view was always that Australia, if pressed, would side with the US rather than Asia. In the Mahathir conception of Asia, the Australians did not belong. And to counter APEC, Mahathir set out to build his own East Asia Caucus — the caucus without caucasians. Mahathir writes that Australia used APEC to counter his Caucus initiative, and that was why he refused to go to Seattle:

I thought it improper for Australians to use the President of the US to force East Asian countries to promote an Australian initiative. I stood firm and refused. Paul Keating, the then Australian Prime Minister, was very upset. He saw the formation of APEC as a glorious Australian achievement. Awed by the power and wealth of the US, he could not imagine anybody refusing to do their bidding and he famously branded me a recalcitrant. I really did not mind because I did not set much store by what he thought. I preferred simply to ignore his indiscretion. But Malaysians and the Malaysian press, thinking I had been insulted, condemned Keating for his bad manners. After that I had to show my displeasure as well, because as a politician, I could not dissociate myself from strongly-held public opinion. (p.615)

In retirement, Keating said that 'deep issues about the future of the region rather than personal animosity' lay behind his disagreements with Mahathir over APEC and the East Asia Economic Caucus: 'Dr Mahathir is a formidable leader who has transformed Malaysia in ways I greatly admire, but we have different visions of the region into the 21st century. The driving force in his vision was a strong pan-Asian nationalism which asserted that the time had come after centuries of colonial rule for Asia to take control of its own future.'

Australia's interests were clearly at odds with Mahathir's Asian triumphalism. Australia wanted membership of any new regional bodies. And Canberra saw the Malaysian Caucus as creating a split in the Pacific which would exclude the US as well as Australia. Keating perceived multiple dangers — economic, social and strategic — in such institution-building by Mahathir. But Keating's fierce advocacy of APEC as the pre-eminent regional organisation tended to slip into a campaign for APEC as the only institution.

Next month, the body that stands closest in imagination and lineage to Mahathir's vision, the East Asia Summit, welcomes the US President for the first time. The EAS structure, if not all the members (the US, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand) answers elements of what Mahathir reached for.

Asia still argues about who is in, who is out and who drives. There's still a lot of room for a recalcitrant.

Photo by Flickr user World Economic Forum.