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Malaysia's controversial leader hands over power

Asia's longest-serving leader, Mahathir Mohamed, stepped down Friday, leaving a legacy of a modern Muslim nation that he molded on the back of often autocratic rule and the use of tirades _ often anti-Western and anti-Semitic _ intended to create national cohesiveness.

Mahathir, 77, better known on the international stage for his crude outbursts than for his economic and political accomplishments at home, handed power to a handpicked successor, Abdullah Badawi, 63, in a nationally televised ceremony in the new government capital, Putrajaya.

Mahathir's departure, which he announced 16 months ago, was peaceful, in contrast to the bloody ends of the reigns of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Gen. Suharto of Indonesia, two other strongmen of his era.

Mahathir said his greatest achievement abroad was putting Malaysia on the world's radar.

"Malaysia now is better known," he said during his final news conference. Even if other countries disagree with Malaysia, there is "no way they can just ignore (us). We have made some impact."

During his 22 years as prime minister, Mahathir managed to forge a nation out of a disparate ethnic mix of a Malay majority and Chinese and Indian minorities. He transformed an economy dependent on tin, rubber and palm oil into one of the major trading nations of Southeast Asia, and into the exporter of most of the world's Dell laptop computers and Intel high-end processors.

"It has been a remarkable transformation," said Joseph Stiglitz, a professor of economics at Columbia University. "They have attracted foreign direct investment, improved technologically and become a country that is helping other developing countries. I think it is an alternative to the extremism we see in much of the world."

Mahathir's rants against Jews, who he said earlier this month "ruled the world by proxy," served a political purpose at home, analysts here said. They also represented his own beliefs, which, when amplified in public forums like this month's meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, propelled him onto the world stage. That is where, analysts say, he felt he belonged, along with the better known senior minister of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew.

Badawi is expected to present a more subdued image. He will probably dispense with the anti-Semitic outbursts, in part, officials here say, because his own background as a graduate in Islamic studies sits better with the Islamic religious leaders.

On the economic front, Badawi inherits an economy that is expected to achieve 4.5 percent growth this year, second only to Thailand in the region.

Mahathir got high marks for daring to rebuff the International Monetary Fund's prescriptions for Malaysia during the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

Now, six years later, Malaysia has an economic situation that was the envy of others, Stiglitz said. "They managed their way through the crisis," he said, "and that gives them a certain amount of confidence."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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