Persons of the Year—2019

by Professor S Abdallah Schleifer

Twenty-five years after the signing and almost immediate betrayal of the Oslo Agreement, this is a time that is witness to the Trump-Netanyahu alliance kicking away the crutches of a defeated but still defiant Palestinian people; but now after decades of setbacks and defeats—there is a hero on the field. Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian teenager who dared to kick and slap an Israeli soldier. She is The Muslim 500 Woman of the Year.

Hours earlier an Israeli soldier had shot her stone-throwing cousin in the head with a so-called “rubber” bullet severely wounding him. Then an Israeli soldier came to her West Bank home in the village of Nabi Saleh, some 50 miles from Jerusalem. She slapped and kicked him, and the video made of that act of defiance went viral and raised the spirits of millions of Palestinians and the millions more across continents who grieve for Palestine.

Right after the slap that resounded around the world Knesset members and ministers called for action. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said “Whoever goes wild during the day, they will be arrested at night.” Israeli’s Education Minister suggested she should spend her life in prison.

A few days later Ahed, aged 16, was arrested at her home at night. The army spokesman’s camera documented the handcuffed girl surrounded by masked combat soldiers and proudly promoted the video as if this was a picture of the Palestinian Governor of Jerusalem surrendering the Arab city to Moshe Dayan towards of the end of the June 1967 Arab Israeli War.

The attempts to break Tamimi’s spirit continued after her arrest. Gaby Lasky, an Israeli human rights activist and an attorney, says she was privileged to have represented Tamimi in all her hearings in military court. Lasky described the interrogations that preceded the trial as “aggressive, questionably illegal with threats to imprison her relatives and harassment by one of the interrogators. In the face of these violent men, seeking to terrorize anyone who dares resist the occupation, this courageous girl stood up and did not give in for a minute.”

The Palestinian public was already aware of Tamimi’s patriotism well before she slapped the Israeli soldier. At the age of 11 a photograph was published of her raising her fist to an Israeli soldier. The picture of her staring down the soldier made her instantly famous, as did another photo also taken at approximately the same time of her carrying the Palestinian flag which inspired the Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick to produce a painting of that same scene. This is the same painter who had produced some years ago the historic Che Guevara poster which was also based upon a classic photograph.

The authorities in Israel could not ignore the fact that Tamimi was seen as an international heroine and received widespread support. As Lasky noted in an article she published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “In the face of the posters published around the world and the flood of diplomats and reporters who came to support her or cover the hearings, someone remembered that shame, lost here years ago, still exists and the decision was made to hold the hearings behind closed doors… although Ahed, her family and the defense opposed a trial behind closed doors. The military court sentenced her to eight months imprisonment.”

In July 2018 Ahed Tamimi, who had gone into prison as a teenager, came out as an icon to Palestinians. Every hearing of her military trial received international attention and she was often seen smiling in court.

“Upon her release,” Lasky reported, “Tamimi was to visit the Bedouin village of Khan al Ahmar, which is to be demolished. The solidarity she will show with the inhabitants of the village will focus people’s attention on their cruel expulsion, an expulsion that constitutes another example of the Israel government’s attempt to block any possibility of Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank, and thus bring us closer to institutionalized apartheid between the River Jordan and the sea.”

“It makes me happy and so proud” Tamimi has said, “that I succeeded to deliver the message of the prisoners, my homeland and nation. God willing, I will succeed to deliver the message that the Palestinians are suffering because of the occupation.”

The Muslim Man of the Year is Tun Dr. Mahathir Prime Minister of Malaysia—the second time he has served in this position—and at 93 years old Mahathir is now the world’s oldest sitting head of government. This quite extraordinary man has had a dynamic political career spanning 70 years and yet at the same time been the author of 17 published books. Aside from two memoirs, all of them are direct narratives responding to the immediate problems confronting Malaysian governance and economy, a concern often extended to Asia as a whole and the global economy and his plans for rectifying those problems.

Among rulers of those basically capitalist economies in the developing world, he was the first to stress the necessity of government regulation and correctly alluded to a reading of Adam Smith that recognizes Smith’s own recognition of a role for government in economic affairs to have been of far greater importance for Adam Smith than many advocates of total free market economies prefer to acknowledge.

Mahathir’s first tenure as Prime Minister lasted 22 years, the longest period for any Malaysian ruler, and in which he won five consecutive general elections. During this time, Malaysia experienced a period of rapid modernization and economic growth, and he initiated a series of bold and successful infrastructure projects. Malaysia was clearly a major participant in the East Asia boom that began with Japan’s spectacular post World War Two revival from ashes to the world’s second largest economy within 15 years. As for Mahathir, his years of leadership, first as deputy and then as prime minister, coincided with an era of spectacular economic and social development in Malaysia, and with annual growth rates ranging from 7 percent to more than 9 percent during those years global journalists and economists recognized that Malaysia was the leading nation of East Asia’s “Economic Tigers.” What many did not recognize was that the strong base upon which Malaysian growth rested was secured by Mahathir’s recognition in 1969 when race riots between indigenous Malays and Chinese occurred in the capital, Kuala Lampur. The riots revealed the difficulty of running a multi-racial society and in Mahathir’s own words laid bare the deep rifts that had emerged between the Chinese and other, poorer ethnic groups, in particular the Malays. In Malaysia, the Chinese made up about a third of the population, but in the 1960s they dominated most of the commercial sectors of the country. The Malays, compromising some 56 percent of the population, were mainly peasants and showed little interest in business and commerce. In the late 1960s only a few hundred small and medium sized business were run and owned by Malays. There were very few Malay university graduates and still fewer qualified professionals. Of the total registered professionals in 1970 only some 4.9 percent were Malays. First as deputy prime minister from 1976 to 1981 and then as prime minister, Mahathir played the key role in implementing the new Economic Policy (NEP), which was basically the concept of “positive discrimination” known in the US as “affirmative action” in both the economy and the educational systems. A very important aspect was to create more wealth, to expand the economy (in which foreign investment rather than foreign loans played a major role) and leveling up the Malays rather than leveling down the Chinese. Many secondary schools were built in the rural areas which were overwhelmingly Malay, scholarships were given to Malays to attend residential schools in urban areas, and quotas were set for admission to universities to ensure more Malays would be able to receive higher education. In business a larger number of government contracts and licenses were given to Malays in order to encourage them to move into fields dominated almost entirely by the Chinese. When the 20 year duration of the NEP ended in December 1990 the policy was a resounding success. The eradication of poverty, which had overwhelmingly plagued Malays, had largely been achieved. The Malays had become more urbanized, entered the mainstream economy, and gained access to a much larger share of the wealth of the country.

But in the first week of July 1997 the Asian economic boom turned into the Asian economic bust as pressure from currency traders forced the Thai government to abandon the peg of the country’s currency, the baht, to the US dollar, and immediately on July 2nd the baht collapsed. According to the contagion theory, what Mahathir has called the “theology of currency trading”, if one economy is significantly weakened this will naturally spill over and damage the economies of neighboring countries. Global economists and currency traders insisted that the devalued Thai currency would make Thailand become more competitive than Malaysia and this would erode Malaysia’s trade. It hadn’t yet happened in July 1997 but the economists and traders said it was certain to occur. The same held true accordingly to Indonesia and the Philippines. In all three countries factories would close down because the Thai devaluation would render them uncompetitive. All the predictions were examples of self-fulfilling prophecies. Panicked by this hypothetical future, currency traders, acting like a herd, began to trade off their local currencies into exportable dollars; the foreign investors panicked and worried about the rapid deflation of their holding a local currency. Lacking any regulations on the movement of investment dollar capital out of the concerned countries, foreign investors pulled out their money, and the Malaysian stock market lost 75 percent of its value. When the East Asian economies including Malaysia all tanked, every conceivable explanation was offered up by the global economists—corruption, crony capitalism, and overly rapid growth—but the fundamental and almost overnight cause: currency traders dumping currencies based on the contingent theory and the self-fulfilling prophecies among foreign investors “protecting” their investments by ending them.

The IMF urged austerity as the panacea for recovery. Mahathir eventually would refuse, and insist instead that global capitalism must be regulated. But in the troubled, depressed decade that had just begun, Malaysia initially implemented IMF’s call to cut government spending and raised interest rates, which only served to exacerbate the economic situation, So Mahathir reversed course and defied the IMF. As a result the Malaysian economy was the first East Asian economy to recover.

Much of the negative attitude towards Mahathir among the American political elite was connected with his restrictions on Malaysian democracy. In the course of a challenge to his leadership of the ruling UMNO, in which the opposition to Mahathir had lost the vote for party president and vice president by a narrow margin, the opposition turned to the courts. The High Court ruled that UMNO was an illegal organization as some of its branches had not been lawfully registered. Both sides raced to register under the UMNO name. Mahathir’s side must have gotten to all the district registration branches first because he successfully registered UMNO Baru meaning the New UMNO, whereas the opposition bid to be recognized as UMNO Malaysia was turned down.

Concerned that the opposition would appeal to the High Court to dismiss the successful registration by Mahathir’s faction of the UMNO, he limited by constitutional amendment the ability of the High Courts to exercise judicial review. The High Courts could only exercise judicial review on any given issue when specific acts of parliament gave them the authority to do so.

The negative attitude towards Mahathir intensified as he criticized the US invasion and occupation of Iraq and the harm the US was doing to the civilian population of Afghanistan. But most shocking for the American political elite was a speech he gave at an ASEAN meeting in 1997 condemning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—calling it an oppressive instrument to impose Western values on Asians. He added that Asians needed stability and economic growth more than civil liberties. His real mistake was declaring his analysis in public for many developing countries, particularly in Asia and Africa; share that analysis but do not declare it publically as policy.

Indeed the most successful economy in all of Asia, and perhaps soon, in all of the world, is that of the People's Republic of China, which adheres as a relatively free-market economy governed by a Communist Party dictatorship far more authoritarian than Malaysia’s slightly hedged democracy under Mahathir.

Mahathir has also been criticized for a few remarks that he has made which are considered as anti-Semitic. Now there are, in any measurable number, no Jews in Malaysia. The only Jews he knows of are the Israelis and the American Jews universally credited for America’s invariable protection of Israel from the Security Council imposing sanctions for Israel’s perpetual violation of relevant UN Resolutions. And he shares with most of the anti-colonial developing world a deep sympathy for the Palestinians. No doubt Mahathir has taken note that Netanyahu and other Israelis aligned with Netanyahu have declared that not only is Israel a Jewish state, based on the claim to a right of Jewish self determination, a state which has denied Palestinian refugees and their descendants the right of return to their homes in what became Israel, as the victor in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

In 2003 Mahathir retired, but by 2006 he was back in the political game, a strong critic of his hand-picked successor Abdallah Ahmad Badawi for undermining aspects of his economic program for Malaysia. He would become a critic of another protégé who was next to assume the post of Prime Minister, Najib Razak. In 2015 Najib was implicated in the 1MDB Scandal. 1MDB is a government investment company—1Malaysia Development Bhd—that took shape under Najib who went on to lead its advisory board. The fund proved better at borrowing, accumulating $12 billion in debt, than in luring in large scale investment. The US Justice Department says more than $4.3 billion was embezzled. The Swiss say $7 billion was stolen. Some of that money is alleged to have ended up with Najib and his family. That includes $681 million that landed in Najib’s personal bank account.

Starting in 2015 Mahathir repeatedly called on Najib to resign, which he refused to do. Instead Najib tightened his grip on power. By 2017 Mahathir had registered a new party and officially joined the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan. On January 8, 2018 Pakatan Harapan announced that Mahathir was their candidate for Prime Minister in elections scheduled for May 9, 2018. Pakatan Harapan defeated Najib’s Barison National Coalition, and Mahathir was sworn in as prime minister. Mahathir created a special task force to investigate the 1MDB scandal and prosecute suspected embezzlers. On July 3, 2018 Najib was arrested.

Not bad for a 93 year old politician with a history of two heart attacks and one bypass surgery.