The absent doctor

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 September, 1999, 12:00am

Notwithstanding speculation about an early general election in Malaysia, there is something symbolic about the decision of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to miss next week's annual summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum (Apec) leaders in New Zealand. Certainly, the election will be a key test of the prime minister's standing. Still, a short trip to New Zealand need not have been a major obstacle to his campaigning.

His absence will be viewed as a sign of his lack of regard for Apec, following the last summit in Kuala Lumpur which Bill Clinton missed. The prime minister has said he does not expect the Auckland meeting to achieve much, and he may well be right. Apec summits do not exactly have a track record of reaching conclusions that lead to firm action.

But the Auckland summit has a particular significance in that it comes just as the countries on this side of the Pacific are glimpsing signs that the worst of their economic crisis is over. The chance to confer with leaders of nations whose economies have remained remarkably buoyant is not only the opportunity for an exchange of views. It is also vital for regional recovery that these economies - particularly the United States - remain major buyers of Asian exports.

Malaysia has lifted some of the controls imposed a year ago. The prime minister must feel encouraged by the latest economic statistics, though the improved trade figures stem from reduced imports rather than booming exports. Still, he has renewed his call for a ban on the 'cancer' of currency trading, and is clearly set on continuing on his own economic path.

In that context, attendance at the Apec meeting may seem an irrelevance, particularly if set against a general election. But, with the sprouts of recovery appearing in the region, it seems just the right moment for the Pacific nations to discuss regional approaches for the future. Dr Mahathir's absence may make for a smoother meeting, but it would have been much better if he had found the time for a proper debate with his Apec colleagues, arguing a case which may win more sympathy than is generally recognised, rather than contributing to his own isolation by staying away.