RIP, Barry Wain

February 5, 2013

RIP, Barry Wain

Veteran Journalist and Editor dies in Singapore

by Asia Sentinel

barry wain

Barry Wain, who died Tuesday in a Singapore hospital, was one of the finest, most dedicated foreign journalists to have worked in Asia, with a career in the region spanning more than forty years. His last major published work, Malaysian Maverick, a biography of Mahathir Mohamad, is ample testimony to his combination of in-depth research, fair judgment and willingness to confront his subject with some unpalatable truths.

Barry, an Australian from Brisbane, worked for The Australian in Canberra before moving to Hong Kong where he worked on a local newspaper and then on the desk of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He joined the Asian Wall Street Journal when it was established in 1976 and was soon posted as its correspondent in Kuala Lumpur and to Bangkok in the early 1980s. During his time there he wrote, The Refused, a book about the plight of Vietnamese refugees. He later moved back to Hong Kong as Managing Editor of the Journal and subsequently became a roving correspondent and columnist focusing on Southeast Asia.

For the past several years he has been a scholar at the Institute for South East Asian Studies in Singapore. His position as writer in residence enabled him to undertake the research for his book on Mahathir  a work widely praised as the only balanced account of the career of one of Asia’s leading and controversial political figures.

Barry was a fine tennis player as well as an amiable colleague who kept trim and fit. His death followed months of complications from what was supposed to be a routine operation earlier last year.

He is survived by his wife Yvonne and son David. He will be missed by his many former colleagues and by the readers who learned so much from his dedication as a journalist who combined hard work with high principles.

Read Asia Sentinel’s review of Barry’s last book: Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times

Book Review: Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times
Written by John Berthelsen
Friday, 04 December 2009
Imageby Barry Wain. Palgrave Macmillan, 363pp. Available through Amazon, US$60.75. Available for Pre-order, to be released Jan 5.In 1984 or 1985, when I was an Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent in Malaysia, an acquaintance called me and said he had seen a US Army 2-1/2 ton truck, known as a “deuce-and-a-half,” filled with US military personnel in jungle gear on a back road outside of Kuala Lumpur.

Since Malaysia and the United States were hardly close friends at that point, I immediately went to the US Embassy in KL and asked what the US soldiers were doing there. I received blank stares. Similar requests to the Malaysian Ministry of Defense brought the same response. After a few days of chasing the story, I concluded that my acquaintance must have been seeing things and dropped it.

It turns out he wasn’t seeing things after all. In a new book, “Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times,” launched Dec. 4 in Asia, former Asian Wall Street Journal editor Barry Wain solved the mystery. In 1984, during a visit to Washington DC in which Mahathir met President Ronald Reagan, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and others, he secretly launched an innocuous sounding Bilateral Training and Consultation Treaty, which Wain described as a series of working groups for exercises, intelligence sharing, logistical support and general security issues. In the meantime, Mahathir continued display a public antipathy on general principles at the Americans while his jungle was crawling with US troops quietly training for jungle warfare.

That ability to work both sides of the street was a Mahathir characteristic. In his foreword, Wain, in what is hoped to be a definitive history of the former prime minister’s life and career, writes that “while [Mahathir] has been a public figure in Malaysia for half a century and well known abroad for almost as long, he has presented himself as a bundle of contradictions: a Malay champion who was the Malays’ fiercest critic and an ally of Chinese-Malaysian businessmen; a tireless campaigner against Western economic domination who assiduously courted American and European capitalists; a blunt, combative individual who extolled the virtues of consensual Asian values.”

Wain was granted access to the former premier for a series of exhaustive interviews. It may well be the most definitive picture painted of Mahathir to date, and certainly is even-handed. Wain, now a writer in residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, is by no means a Mahathir sycophant. Advance publicity for the book has dwelt on an assertion by Wain that Mahathir may well have wasted or burned up as much as RM100 billion (US$40 billion at earlier exchange rates when the projects were active) on grandiose projects and the corruption that the projects engendered as he sought to turn Malaysia into an industrialized state. Although some in Malaysia have said the figure is too high, it seems about accurate, considering such ill-advised projects as a national car, the Proton, which still continues to bleed money and cost vastly more in opportunity costs for Malaysian citizens forced to buy any other make at huge markups behind tariff walls. In addition, while Thailand in particular became a regional center for car manufacture and for spares, Malaysia, handicapped by its national car policy, was left out.

Almost at the start of the book, Wain encapsulates the former Premier so well that it bears repeating here: Mahathir, he writes, “had an all-consuming desire to turn Malaysia into a modern, industrialized nation commanding worldwide respect. Dr Mahathir’s decision to direct the ruling party into business in a major way while the government practiced affirmative action, changed the nature of the party and accelerated the spread of corruption. One manifestation was the eruption of successive financial scandals, massive by any standards, which nevertheless left Dr Mahathir unfazed and unapologetic.”

That pretty much was the story of Malaysia for the 22 years that Mahathir was in charge. There is no evidence that Mahathir himself was ever involved in corruption. Once, as Ferdinand Marcos was losing his grip on the Philippines, Mahathir pointed out to a group of reporters that he was conveyed around in a long black Daimler – the same model as the British ambassador used – that the Istana where he lived was a huge mansion, that he had everything he needed. Why, he asked, was there any need to take money from corruption? Nonetheless, in his drive to foster a Malay entrepreneurial class, he allowed those around him to pillage the national treasury almost at will, which carried over into UMNO after he had left office and which blights the country to this day.

Wain follows intricate trails through much of this, ranging from the attempt, okayed by Mahathir, to attempt to rescue Bumiputra Malaysia Finance in the early 1980s which turned into what at the time was the world’s biggest banking scandal.

In the final analysis, much as Lee Kuan Yew down the road in Singapore strove to create a nation in his own image and largely succeeded, so did Mahathir. Both nations are flawed – Singapore in its mixture of technological and social prowess and draconian ruthlessness against an independent press or opposition, Malaysia with its iconic twin towers and its other attributes colored by a deepening culture of corruption that has continued well beyond his reign, which ended in 2003. Mahathir must bear the blame for much of this, in particular his destruction of an independent judiciary, as Wain writes, to further his aims.

Mahathir, as the former Premier said in the conversation over his mansion and his car, had everything including, one suspects, a fully-developed sense of injustice. He appears to this day to continue to resent much of the west, particularly the British. Wain writes exhaustively of Mahathir’s deep antagonism over both British elitism during the colonial days and the disdain of his fellow Malays (Mahathir’s parentage is partly Indian Muslim on his father’s side), especially the Malay royalty. That antagonism against the British has been a hallmark of his career – from the time he instituted the “Buy British Last” policy for the Malaysian government as prime minister to the present day.

Robert Mugabe, in disgrace across much of the world for the way his policies have destroyed what was one of the richest countries in Africa, remains in Mahathir’s good graces. Asked recently why that was, an aide told me Mugabe had driven the British out of Zimbabwe and was continuing to drive out white farmers to this day, although he was replacing them with people who knew nothing of farming. That expropriation of vast tracts of white-owned land might have destroyed Zimbabwe’s agricultural production. But, the aide said, “He got the Brits out.”

For anybody wishing to understand Mahathir and the nation he transformed, Wain’s book is going to be a must – but bring spectacles. The tiny type and gray typeface make it a difficult read. And a disclaimer: Wain was once my boss.

11 thoughts on “RIP, Barry Wain

  1. Dr. Kamsiah and I met Barry at the ISEAS Regional Outlook Conference and also at the University of Malaya a few year ago when he discussed his book, The Malaysian Maverick. He was a very intelligent and soft spoken journalist-author. We wish to convey our deepest condolences to Mrs Yvonne Wain and their son David on Barry’s passing. May he rest in peace.–Din Merican

  2. There was upon a time we thought he had the Malaysian good wine formula…..hah..he LAMA beyond 2 terms and the wine oxidized into vinegar.
    LAMA=Lagi Ada Mahathir Ambil

    About the same can be said by people across the bridge about in different dimension about importing people from non-traditional sources. Now no need to go anyway about culture: there got little India, little Arab, little China…little this and that on a little dot in a little planet.

  3. Yes, RIP

    The Barry Wain pen is mightier than the Mahathir sword/ISA etc.

    He has done Malaysia a very great service by writing the book
    “Malaysian Maverick” and beginning the process of exposing the misdeeds and even lawlessness of people who held high political positions.

  4. RIP Mr Wain. He has contributed a fair account of the man who ruled this country for 22 years which our children and our children’s children can assess and judge for themselve the legacy of Mahathir Mohamed Iskander Kutty… Malaysia’s 4th Prime Minister….

  5. I can hear the sigh of relieved from Mahathir coz from now on he can attack Barry without fear of retaliation,sorry Mahathir,the late Barry Wain can’t entertain you anymore.His book which I have read will be use to educate my children as my late father once told me, Absolute power corrupts absolutely….Oouch!!!

  6. Sorry Berthelsan,
    There are few things that I have to say about this. Firstly, I disagree you in equating LKY with mahathir. Rule of Law exists in Singapore. Even an opposition leader can sue PAP & win but same can’t be said for Mahathir. For Mahathir, he’s GOD in Malaysia
    Come to think of it…..It’s all westerners fault…..Because of Western Power, Mugabe come to power…..Perhaps, you should ask yourself why you give away Zimbabwe to Mugabe

  7. There was a time Mahathir wanted to go down in history as “Father of Modern Malaysia” just like Jiang Zemin wanted to be known as the man who reformed China.

    What happen to people who went a step too far?
    The PRC people young and old to this way very much revere Deng Xiao Peng and Jiang is soon forgotten.

    Malaysians too of all races and age at one time so darn proud of Mahathir.
    Now his lonesome invincibility had only dragged UMNO down esp when he fought hard to discredit our Bapa Malaysia who isn’t around to defend but Tunku’s spiril lives on and on just like Deng Xiao Peng.

    Morale of the story:
    Don’t go overboard, don’t hit below the belt.
    People’s power will get you back.
    Fade away gracefully and you will be remembered forever like Deng, Baroness Thatcher and Reagan. Go away forcefully and you will also be remember MOST negatively like Hitler, Bush, Mussolini and Marcos
    Whose legacies are remember? Rockefeller and very probably Bill Gates and Warren Buffet……..ONLY those who did well for humanity are legacies worthy to rise in histories among histories.

  8. MatthewGoldman, help me understand how people forgot Jiang Zemin in favour of Deng Xiaopeng because Jiang Zemin actually ruled after Deng’s passing….

  9. See! How the western countries particularly USA has messed up peace in Far East. My demand to USA……Leave China alone…..Acknowledge the rise of China……..Even napoleon realised this. Why Nixon need to pay a visit to China to resolve Vietnam Conflict?

  10. My demand to USA……Leave China alone…loose74

    Go to WDC and see President Barack Obama.

    The US/China relationship is beyond our comprehension. Too many back room dealings between leaders of both nations and is not as simple as what you and me make it to be.

  11. Semper Fi,
    That’s the thingy! Obama must learn diplomatic manouevre from Eisenhower & Nixon. They are superb in foreign relation policy. But the shocking thing is that US has lost the plot in containing Japan instead of China. It’s Japan I am more worried about. Particularly Shinto Abe! China would not allow a second humiliation. If Obama is not careful, USA would suck onto it. USA lost Korean & Vietnam War because of China massive power. Nixon understood this……That’s why he made peace with Mao

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