Exit for an Asian Strongman

One of Asia's lesser-known but pivotal nations, Malaysia, will soon see an end to the two-decade reign of its prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.

The leader of 23 million native Malays and minority Chinese and Hindus plans to step down in 15 months, leaving behind a mixed record of steady economic growth and an illiberal political system.

Despite his often ruthless ways of dealing with domestic opponents, and his verbal sparring with the West on behalf of ever-obscure "Asian values," Mr. Mahathir has lately been embraced by the US for his help in the war on terrorism.

For two decades, he's been able to suppress two potentially explosive tensions in his Southeast Asian nation: growing Muslim militancy, and native Malay resentment at the wealth of the minority Chinese.

A smooth exit by Mahathir will offer Asia an example of a peaceful transition of power, although not a transfer between parties. His Malay-dominated coalition, UMNO, keeps a tight rein on much of society, a source of much corruption. Mahathir's tolerance for such corruption has only boosted support for a radical Islamic party, PAS.

His successor, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, will likely bring a less authoritarian style. That's appropriate for a people with higher incomes and rising expectations of more political freedom.

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