Jewish Editor and Jewish Filmaker Brand Criticism Of Soros As “Anti-Semitism”

By Edward A. Gargan

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September 22, 1997, Section A, Page 6Buy Reprints
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It was high noon in Hong Kong this weekend.

Like gunfighters on a dust-blown street, one of Asia’s most outspoken leaders, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, faced off against one of the world’s most formidable currency speculators, George Soros. In their holsters were weapons of oratory, currency and clout.

At stake was nothing less than Malaysia’s national prestige, the future of Southeast Asian economies and, by some accounts, the very shape of the global financial system.

Even more, the standoff pitted two worlds against one another, an Asia of growing economic might and a West convinced that free-wheeling trade — in ideas, capital and goods — is the best recipe for development.

The forum was the usually somber gathering of finance ministers, bankers and economists at the annual meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. On successive evenings, Mr. Mahathir and Mr. Soros squared off, denouncing each other in vitriolic language seldom heard in such settings.

Yet Malaysia’s economy is in crisis, its currency has collapsed and blame had to be fixed.

Lashing out at currency traders like Mr. Soros as ”morons,” Mr. Mahathir castigated them on Saturday as ”a group of ultra-rich people.”

”For them wealth must come from impoverishing others,” Mr. Mahathir said, ”from taking what others have in order to enrich themselves. Their weapon is their wealth against the poverty of others.”

While not mentioning Mr. Soros by name — although in previous comments to newspapers in Malaysia, Mr. Mahathir specifically blamed Mr. Soros for orchestrating Malaysia’s economic crisis — he told the assembled bankers and economists that Mr. Soros’s ilk had to be stopped.

”I am saying that currency trading is unnecessary, unproductive and totally immoral,” Mr. Mahathir declared. ”It should be stopped. It should be made illegal. We don’t need currency trading.”

Then tonight, before a standing-room-only crowd, Mr. Soros fired back at the Malaysian leader.

”Dr. Mahathir’s suggestion yesterday to ban currency trading is so inappropriate that it does not deserve serious consideration,” Mr. Soros said.

”Interfering with the convertibility of capital at a moment like this is a recipe for disaster. Dr. Mahathir is a menace to his own country.”

Since July, in the churning wake of the collapse of Thailand’s currency and banking system, Malaysia has foundered. Its currency, the ringgit, has plunged 20 percent against the dollar. On the heels of the tumbling ringgit, the Malaysian stock market crashed and the country’s banking system began to creak. Foreign investors fled.

For Mr. Mahathir, who has seen his country’s annual per-capita output soar from $350 to $5,000 in four decades, the assault on the ringgit smacked of a conspiracy wrought by international currency traders.

For a man who has built the world’s tallest buildings and Southeast Asia’s largest airport and who harbors visions of a glittering new capital, a high-tech corridor intended to rival Silicon Valley and immense hydroelectric dams, the economic train wreck has been an affront, to him personally and to Asia.

”We like to think big,” Mr. Mahathir said. ”But we are not going to be allowed to do this, because you don’t like us to have big ideas. It is not proper. It is impudent for us to try, or even to say we are going to do it. If we even say that when we have the money we will carry on with our big projects, you will make sure we won’t have the money by forcing the devaluation of the currency.

”If the countries of Europe and of North America can be almost uniformly prosperous, we don’t see why we cannot be allowed to be a little prosperous.”

Then tonight, 24 hours after Mr. Mahathir’s broadside against Mr. Soros, currency traders and the international financial system, Mr. Soros stood behind the same lectern and declared that the problem with Malaysia was not the world, but Mr. Mahathir himself.

”He is using me as a scapegoat to cover up his own failure,” Mr. Soros said. ”He is playing to a domestic audience, and he couldn’t get away with it if he and his ideas were subject to the discipline of an independent media inside Malaysia.”

Later, at a news conference, Mr. Soros elaborated on his comments. ”I want to express my sympathy for poor Malaysians who were hurt” by the collapse of the country’s currency and stock market, ”but not for Dr. Mahathir, because he’s responsible.”

The war of words reverberated through the cavernous conference halls, startling government officials and private bankers used to more measured language.

An Indonesian Government economist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was angered by Mr. Mahathir’s pronouncements.

”It’s very unfortunate that we are neighbors,” the economist said. ”I know we shouldn’t interfere in other countries’ policies. But all I can say is that it was very interesting. As an economist there are things that I disagree with. But because of our good neighbor policy, I can’t really comment on his speech.”

A Malaysian banker, who also insisted that he not be quoted by name, suggested that the Prime Minister was out of touch with reality.

”There are not two ways of doing these things,” the banker said. ”We have to get our own house in order. He really hasn’t thought these things out. He’s just spouting off.”

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