Is it really goodbye Dr Mahathir this time? He has apparently announced he will leave the premiership of Malaysia in October next year, but he also announced his resignation over the weekend until his acolytes convinced him to stay.
The most distasteful moment of my Davos career was hearing a stream of anti-Semitic invective from Mahathir in response to a question from Business Week’s Steve Shepard. Mahathir of course denied anti-Semitism but then launched into a diatribe against the international conspiracy of financiers.
In Malaysia itself I suspect the non-Chinese population, the Bumiputra, are so accustomed to Mahathir leadership that anything else in unthinkable. The minority Chinese ethnic population, however, which has been disadvantaged by Mahathir’s policy of positive discrimination in favour of the Bumis, will probably be glad to see the back of him. How much will change in his absence — if he is truly going to withdraw from power as well as position — is much harder to fathom.
I remember lamenting the absence of even a single decent bookshop in Kuala Lumpur on one visit. A prominent Malaysian executive, hearing my plaint, told me the only decent library in the city was held by the security services — courtesy of all the good books they had impounded.
Nicholas Kristof says the unsayable in The New York Times: “It’s catastrophic for muddle-minded liberals to join in and cudgel impoverished workers for whom a sweatshop job is the first step on life’s escalator.”
I remember the BBC report he cites which led to Nike leaving Cambodia. It did explain that the low-paid factory jobs were far preferable for Cambodian girls to the sex trade or staying in their impoverished villages. But the outcry that followed the accurate report overlooked those realities.
Phil Jones offers an intelligent reply to Kristof’s argument. I agree that the first condition — ensuring adequate health and safety standards, even in “sweatshops” — is fundamental. I know there have been documented cases of global corporations violating these standards, but from what I’ve seen in the developing world, multinationals are generally better upholders of standards than local companies. I don’t think this is altruism on their part. They are worried about reputational damage if they have woefully low standards.
As to the disparity between advocating openness for western manufacturers while slamming the door shut on the south’s agricultural exports, I couldn’t agree more. See Davos Newbies passim.
On Phil’s other points, there are no easy answers and he’s right to say there is need for more research. What I object to in less intelligent viewpoints is the arrogance that we need to save the world’s poor from exploitation by neo-colonialist corporations. That smacks of the “white man’s burden” fallacy.
I’d like to spend more time than I do hitting a tennis ball. But I have to confess that I’ve never given much thought to its manufacture. Fortunately, Fran Abrams has looked into how tennis balls are made, appropriately for the start of Wimbledon. It’s a fascinating story, marred only by her assertion that “tennis balls are big business” — what’s remarkable is that such global efforts are worthwhile for a product that generates such trivial revenues.