NISID HAJARILet no one say that Mahathir Mohamad doesn't have a sense of humor. In 1996 the Malaysian Prime Minister visited Kuala Lumpur's Instant Cafe Theater Company to see for himself the local comedy troupe of the same name, known for its daring political satire. The group had already been been hauled in once by the Home Affairs Ministry for lampooning influential tycoons and politicians. But Mahathir loved the show, says the troupe's artistic director Jo Kukathas. He came up afterwards and said, 'Very funny. Tomorrow morning the Black Marias (police vans) will be by to pick you up.'Though in this case he was joking, history might lead one to believe he wasn't. From his early days as an outspoken Malay activist through 17 years of increasingly firm rule, Mahathir has demonstrated both a short temper and a talent for thwarting opponents. Last week's sacking of protege Anwar Ibrahim was not unfamiliar; Mahathir himself was kicked out of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in 1969 for criticizing then-Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. The experience, however, did little to expand his tolerance for dissent. In 1987 a challenge from two of his ministers, Musa Hitam and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, set off one of the most critical chain reactions in Malaysian history. Mahathir barely retained his chairmanship of UMNO and proceeded to purge the party of dissidents. Assailed at the same time by opposition parties for appointing non-Mandarin speakers to run Chinese primary schools and for awarding a billion-dollar highway contract to an UMNO-controlled company, he lashed out at his perceived enemies--banning political rallies, closing three newspapers and arresting more than 100 academics, politicians and lawyers. In 1988, when the country's Supreme Court ruled the controversial UMNO election invalid, he fired the judges and placed the courts under the purview of Parliament.In the intervening decade, Mahathir's reputation for bold moves and fiery pronouncements has grown. He has alarmed environmentalists by insisting on the right of developing nations to exploit their forests. He has delighted in tweaking Western governments: in 1991 the PM effectively froze relations with Canberra because he was offended by an Australian soap opera set in a fictional Southeast Asian country that resembled Malaysia. In 1993 he declined to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Seattle because the U.S. had tried blocking his establishment of an East Asian economic caucus. As the region's financial crisis has stalled Malaysia's once-booming economy, Dr. M, as the former physician is called, has blamed Zionists, George Soros, stock analysts and journalists for Malaysia's problems.For months Anwar worked quietly to soothe foreign investors even as his boss raised their hackles. (He also reversed several decisions by Mahathir's conservative cabinet, including a proposed ban on rap music.) Anwar's efforts, however, drew too much of the spotlight away from the Prime Minister. Mahathir clearly didn't find that a laughing matter.