Combative Leader Challenges Both His People and Foreign Press.

Malaysia's prime minister holds on to power, accuses media of untruths.

Several times in the past few days, at political demonstrations in Malaysia's capital, people have grabbed my arm and whispered their encouragement: "Write the truth," "Tell the world," "Expose this situation."

Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad's view of foreign journalists is somewhat less supportive. Asserting that his former deputy prime minister is now "trying to create a law and order situation for his own purposes," he says, "Of course when people are hurt, there's bleeding, and the foreign press will be so happy. They will descend on Malaysia and spend their time here taking pictures of blood on the road." For the foreign media at a news conference, Dr. Mahathir added, "[T]his is a great thing - to be able to say nasty things about Malaysia. You have never liked Malaysia, and particularly myself, so you have a field day."

For Mahathir, this sort of verbal aggression is part of his style. Some would say it's part of his charm. The longest-serving elected leader in Asia, Mahathir has long been known for his willingness to say what he thinks, particularly if his comments serve to deflect criticism of his own policies and decisions.

Malaysia's political turmoil doesn't have the global impact of Japan's banking crisis or Russia's instability. It isn't as brutal as events in Kosovo or as tumultuous as Indonesia's upheaval this year. But it is a place where the political power of language is clearly seen.

Mahathir's outspokenness is pragmatic, says David Denoon, a professor of politics and economics at New York University. "He gains strength with his core constituency by poking his finger in the eye of foreigners, and he has every right to be proud of what he's done.... the economic transformation of Malay-sia is truly stunning.''

Mahathir's testiness is also part of a nationalist appeal that unites a people divided along ethnic lines, says Donald Emmerson, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Despite impressive accomplishments, Mahathir is "a man with a large ego born on a small stage," Mr. Emmerson adds.

Malaysia's economic problems are turning political. Early this month Mahathir fired his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, saying he was morally unfit for office. People angry about the charges have drawn police downtown four times in the past eight days to tamp down demonstrations. This weekend police chased people out of the National Mosque and shut down the central square, called "Merdeka," or "freedom." Opposition and nongovernmental groups may be assembling a campaign to promote civil liberties and, by implication, push for Mahathir's resignation.

Reporters, particularly those from the West, find themselves encouraged to tell the "truth" on the streets and blamed for telling "lies" by Mahathir. But it's not as if Malaysia does much to keep the media out. The government grants visas on arrival, and the prime minister himself is easily the most accessible leader in Asia. Sometimes he seems to enjoy sparring with questioners.

Mahathir denounces the foreign media repeatedly for gullibility and not telling the truth. Yesterday the country's leading newspaper ran an opinion column purporting to outline a conspiracy linking the "Western media" with Anwar. Wrote A. Kadir Jasin, "It gives rise to suspicions that they are promoting an agenda rather than reporting facts."

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