Soeharto vs. Mahathir

It’s really interesting to compare the way that different dictators act.  (Here’s to hoping the censors are looking the other way today.)  As far as I (TP) can tell, Soeharto and Mahathir could not have been more different when it comes to personality.  In the Western press, Soeharto was often known as the "Smiling General."  The image we are supposed to get is quiet, balanced, harmonious, but also willing to kill half a million "Communists" if need be. Authors have made a great deal about whether or not this reflects some mystical Javanese cultural quality or what, but Soeharto never lost his temper, never said anything that could be considered controversial, and rarely even spoke in public.  He couldn’t even speak Indonesian very well–whenever he had to express a complex thought, he reverted to Javanese.  Yet he managed to hold onto power for 32 years, and surrounded himself with eminently capable politicians and technocrats who reverted to complete and utter babbling idiots when around him as they fell over themselves to compliment him.  My favorite story is of B.J. Habibie, who became his vice president in early 1998 and eventually succeeded him in office.  Habibie is no dummy–Ph.D. in Aeronautical Engineering from a Western University, etc.  Yet he used to refer to Soeharto–to his face–by the nickname of "SGS," which, I am not kidding, stood for "Super Genius Soeharto." 

Mahathir could not be more different.  He prides himself on being loud and abrasive, displaying a remarkable penchant for shooting his mouth off without thinking first. (I refer to him in the first person because he, like Soeharto, is still alive, just retired.)  While Soeharto quietly and respectfully pretended to comply with IMF directives during the financial crisis of 1997-98, Mahathir went around the world blaming people for the crisis.  From currency speculators to Western capitalists to Jews to Bill Clinton to George Soros, he left few groups out, becoming famous for his loud mouth and brash demeanor.  If you get the minute-by-minute data from the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange, you can actually watch the Malaysian stock market decline during the course of his speeches.  In the University of Malaya library there is a whole shelf full of speeches by, biographies of, and testimonials to the greatness of Mahathir.  To my knowledge, Soeharto dictated an autobiography in 1989, and that’s it.

There’s not much English language content, but you can check out a scrolling set of pictures of Soeharto and his wife at the Soeharto Center online.  You can compare this to Mahathir’s page, full of his speeches and viewpoints.