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Mahathir retires to praise, silence

Kuala Lumpur, Oct. 31 (Reuters): Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, one of Asia’s longest-serving and most controversial leaders, retired today to a mix of Asian praise and Western silence after an international outcry over his remarks about Jews.

In a sombre ceremony at the royal palace following prayers at the national mosque, Malaysia’s King Syed Sirajuddin Jamalullail accepted Mahathir’s resignation and swore in his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, as the country’s fifth Prime Minister.

Fittingly, a tropical thunderstorm broke out over Kuala Lumpur around the time Mahathir handed Abdullah the keys to his office in nearby Putrajaya, ending 22 years in power.

The 78-year-old leader of the mainly Muslim southeast Asian nation spent much of his time rubbing Western governments the wrong way, while becoming a respected spokesman within the Islamic and developing worlds. But Mahathir’s speech to an Islamic summit two weeks before he stepped down, in which he referred to what he called Jewish domination of the world, raised a storm of protest from the US, western Europe, Australia and, of course, Israel. Leaving his old office for the last time, Mahathir was asked by journalists if he had any advice for President George W. Bush. He replied: “It doesn’t pay not to tell the truth.”

Bush said he had rebuked Mahathir over his comments on Jews when they met at a summit in Bangkok earlier this month. Mahathir denies this, and has also questioned the US justification for invading Iraq. The US and other Western governments had little to say on an historic day for Malaysia. “The embassy has not received any message from the White House,” said a US embassy official in Kuala Lumpur, adding that many of the mission’s staff were more focused on Halloween festivities than on Mahathir’s last day in office.

The only time Mahathir has upset the West more was when his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, was jailed for 15 years for abuse of power and sodomy following trials Washington said were politically tainted. Anwar, in a written response to Reuters, fired a parting shot at Mahathir from prison, accusing him of wrecking public governance and racking up debts on mega projects.

The ex-protege, jailed in 1998, also saw the provocative comments about Jews as a diversion “to deflect attention (from) his misdeeds and the stench from the rot in his own back yard”.

The reaction from Australia, which Mahathir has described as “some sort of transplant from another region”, was also muted.

“I don’t have any comments to make except to re-emphasise the fact the links between Australia and Malaysia are very long, they are very deep,” Prime Minister John Howard told a Melbourne radio station. Former colonial ruler Britain, which experienced Mahathir’s combative nature when he launched a “Buy British Last” campaign in the 1980s, stuck to diplomatic protocol.

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