APEC summit hosts outraged by Gore speech


It was as if Dr Mahathir Mohamad had called a party and most of the guests refused to speak to him or told him the food was off. The Malaysian prime minister was snubbed yesterday by several world leaders arriving in Kuala Lumpur for a Pacific rim summit of which he is the host.

The most stinging rebuke came from the US Vice-President, Mr Al Gore, who at a candlelit dinner attended by Dr Mahathir praised the brave people of Malaysia who called for reformasi.

The US vice-president left the function without eating, giving only a perfunctory handshake to Dr Mahathir.

Malaysia wasted no time showing its anger at Mr Gore's speech. Dr Mahathir himself was overheard saying "I've never seen anybody so rude", while the Malaysian Trade Minister, Ms Rafidah Aziz, told reporters as she left it was "the most disgusting speech I've heard in my life".

US officials said President Clinton supported Mr Gore's speech. "No question that the President backs everything the Vice-President said," the White House commented.

Reformasi is the catch-cry of supporters of the ousted deputy prime minister, Mr Anwar Ibrahim, who daily call for Dr Mahathir's resignation.

Outside the World Trade Centre where Mr Gore was speaking, two water cannon trucks and 15 riot control vehicles waited to spray pepper gas or yellow dye at any protesters who dared raise a placard with the word reformasi. No protesters showed up.

Mr Gore, taking the place of Mr Clinton, who stayed in Washington because of the Iraq crisis, refused to hold a bilateral meeting with Dr Mahathir. Several others among the 21 leaders arriving for the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit also snubbed their host, including the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr Jean Chretien. Some met him and expressed their concern about the case.

Mr Anwar, on trial on corruption and sodomy charges, is regarded by many world leaders as a champion of openness and democracy who has become the victim of a vicious power struggle. The US vice-president, addressing 1,000 business leaders, said: "The message this year from Indonesia is unmistakable. People are willing to take responsibility for their future if they have the power to determine their future.

"From Thailand to South Korea, Eastern Europe to Mexico, democracies have done better in coping with economic crises than nations where freedom is suppressed. Democracy confers a stamp of legitimacy that reforms must have in order to be effective. And so among nations suffering economic crises, we continue to hear calls for democracy, calls for reform in many languages - People's Power, Doi Moi, Reformasi. We hear them today - right here, right now - among the brave people of Malaysia."

Mr Gore continued as the diners listened in absolute silence, all eyes on Dr Mahathir: "Citizens who gain democracy also gain the opportunity and the obligation to root out corruption and cronyism."