THE MALAY DILEMMA – IAN BURUMA (THE NEW YORKER)
MALAYSIA TODAY WEBSITE
By Ian Buruma (The New Yorker)
KUALA LUMPUR, May 15 — Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s voice was barely audible above the background din of chattering guests and a cocktail-bar pianist at the Hilton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
Anwar — who had rebounded from six years in prison on corruption and sodomy charges to become the best hope for a more democratic, less corrupt Malaysia — speaks softly. He is still under constant surveillance, he said.
Sensitive political business has to be handled in other capitals, Jakarta, Bangkok or Hong Kong. Security is a constant worry. Intelligence sources from three countries have warned him to be careful. “I’m taking a big risk just walking into this hotel to see you, but what can I do?” he murmured. “It’s all too exhausting. But, you know, sometimes you just have to take risks.”
This was the same Anwar Ibrahim, one struggled to remember, who was once at the heart of the Malaysian establishment: the Minister of Culture in 1983, the Minister of Education in 1986, the Minister of Finance in 1991 and a Deputy Prime Minister in 1993. He was poised to succeed Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. And then he got overconfident. Starting in the summer of 1997, when the Malaysian currency and stock market lost more than half of their value in the Asian financial meltdown, Anwar did something that Dr Mahathir found unforgivable.
Even as the prime minister was imposing capital controls and blaming “rogue speculators,” such as George Soros, for the crisis, Anwar launched an attack on “nepotism” and “cronyism” in his own party, Umno, which had been in power since independence. The “cronies” included members of Dr Mahathir’s family. While Dr Mahathir tried to bail out banks and corporations run by his allies, Anwar talked about transparency and accepting some of the International Monetary Fund’s recommendations for liberalising the economy.
Dr Mahathir does not like to be contradicted. In 1998, Anwar was removed from the Cabinet and from Umno. He was charged with corruption, and with sodomising his speechwriter and his wife’s chauffeur, and convicted. Under Malaysian law, “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” carries a sentence of up to 20 years. Anwar denied everything and took to the road, addressing crowds all over the country. When he was barred from speaking in halls, he spoke in mosques or parking lots, standing on top of trucks or cars. “The government is trying to keep the people away from me,” he declared. “I am not afraid. No matter what happens, whether in prison . . . I will still strive, I will still fight, I will not step down.” While awaiting trial, Anwar was badly beaten by the chief of police, and he says that attempts were made to poison him.
After his arrest, Anwar says, Dr Mahathir gave a slide show for his Cabinet colleagues, to justify the purge of his former heir apparent. There were photographs of current and former US officials — Robert Rubin, William Cohen and Paul Wolfowitz — along with the World Bank president James Wolfensohn. “These are the people behind Anwar,” Dr Mahathir explained. (Dr Mahathir denies showing any pictures but allows, “I informed the Cabinet about Anwar’s associates.”)
Nobody was likely to miss the implication; Dr Mahathir has clearly stated his conviction that “Jews rule this world by proxy.” At the Hilton, Anwar, who started his career as the president of the Malaysian Muslim Students Union, and is a devout Muslim, shrugged. “They say I’m a Jewish agent, because of my friendship with Paul,” he said. “They also accuse me of being a lackey of the Chinese.” His eyebrows twitched in a gesture of disbelief, and he emitted a dry, barking laugh.
When Anwar was released from prison, in 2004, after six years in solitary confinement, he announced that he would return to politics. Last year, Dr Mahathir was asked by a reporter whether he thought Anwar would ever be the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Dr Mahathir replied that “he would make a good Prime Minister of Israel.” So far, it looks as though Dr Mahathir has underestimated his man. Anwar was returned to Parliament last year in a landslide. His coalition of opposition parties — which includes DAP and PAS, as well as his own PKR — has taken more than a third of the seats in Parliament, and several state governments. In the next general election, possibly as soon as 2010, Anwar Ibrahim may well become the Prime Minister of Malaysia.
To make sense of Anwar’s rise, fall, and rise, it helps to know something about the role of race and religion in Malaysia. The country’s population is more than half Malay, defined by ethnicity and the Muslim faith, but large numbers of Chinese (now about a quarter of the population) and Indians (seven per cent) arrived in the 19th century, when the British imported coolies from China and plantation workers from India. Tensions arising from this mélange — and, in particular, the fear held by Malays that they will always be bested by these minorities — have gripped Malaysian politics since the country achieved independence from the British, in 1957. In recent years, the situation has been further complicated by a surge in Islamic fervour among many Malays.
Dr Mahathir, whose father had some Indian ancestry, had always been obsessed with race, and the modern era of Malaysian politics can be traced to his book “The Malay Dilemma,” published in 1970, a decade before he came to power. It is a distillation of the kind of social Darwinism imbibed by Southeast Asians of Dr Mahathir’s cohort through their colonial education. The Malay race, the book argues, couldn’t compete with the Chinese for genetic reasons. Whereas the Chinese had been hardened over the centuries by harsh climates and fierce competition, the Malays were a lazy breed, fattened by an abundance of food under the tropical sun. Unfettered competition with the Chinese “would subject the Malays to the primitive laws that enable only the fittest to survive,” Dr Mahathir warned his fellow-nationals. “If this is done it would perhaps be possible to breed a hardy and resourceful race capable of competing against all comers. Unfortunately, we do not have four thousand years to play around with.”
And so the Malays had to be protected by systematic affirmative action: awarded top positions and mandatory ownership of business enterprises, along with preferential treatment in public schools, universities, the armed forces, the police and the government bureaucracy. Otherwise the “immigrants,” as the ruling party still calls the Chinese and the Indians, would take over. “The Malay Dilemma” was immediately banned for being divisive. The country was still reeling from the race riots of 1969, when, after a predominantly Chinese party enjoyed an election victory, hundreds of Chinese were attacked by Malays. Killings led to counter-killings. Such intergroup tensions were hardly new: ever since Britain left its former colony, political parties have used ethnic resentments to gain votes, while PAS sought to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state. Presiding over this fraught mosaic of ethnic and religious politics throughout the nineteen-sixties was the aristocratic Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman — until, in the fall of 1970, he was brought down by the brand of Malay nationalism advocated in Dr Mahathir’s book.
Despite the ban, activists succeeded in distributing copies to nationalistic Malay students. One of them was the young Anwar Ibrahim, then president of the Malaysian Muslim Students Union. Over the decade that followed, Anwar and Dr Mahathir steadily gained influence. By 1981, Dr Mahathir was prime minister. A year later, Anwar, who could easily have joined PAS, was brought into the government to help put Dr Mahathir’s ethnic theories into practice through the so-called New Economic Policy. He continued to do so until the late 1990s, when the consequences had become too blatant to ignore: a bloated (in all senses of the word) Malay élite was raking in more and more of the country’s wealth; educated young Chinese and Indians were leaving the country in droves; and poor Malays were being kept in a state of fear by the propaganda in public schools and in the state controlled press. Without their special status, the Malays were told, they would be at the mercy of those rapacious, dominating Chinese “immigrants.” Meanwhile, Dr Mahathir’s rule had grown increasingly autocratic. In 2003, he was succeeded by the more amiable Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who promised reform but delivered little. Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, a confidant of Dr Mahathir’s, told me that, if anything, corruption has grown worse. “They’re making hay while the sun still shines.”
To challenge Umno’s ethnic policies is still to court serious trouble. I met Professor Lim Teck Ghee, a former World Bank social scientist, at a restaurant in Brickfields, a largely Indian section near the central station of Kuala Lumpur. A soft-spoken man, peering sadly through his glasses, Lim was the director of a leading economic think tank until he published, in 2006, a careful analysis showing that Malays, far from being dominated by the Chinese, actually owned more than 45 per cent of corporate equity in publicly-listed companies. He was quickly vilified for being “anti-national,” and he resigned his post.
Lim was one of several people I spoke to in Malaysia who used the word “apartheid” in describing his country. “The ethnic situation has become much worse,” he said, especially since Malay nationalism took a strong Islamic turn in the late 1980s, when Umno was challenged by PAS. The Islamists got a boost from the Iranian Revolution, and actually took power in Kelantan in 1990. To preëmpt the Islamists, Umno, ostensibly a secular party, wedded its ethnic nationalism (which was decidedly not a feature of PAS) to religion: Muslims were no longer supposed to drink alcohol; women were encouraged to wear head scarves (tudung); easygoing Malay Islam took on the harsher tone of Wahhabi purism.
The increasing conservatism of Malaysian Islam probably stems from insecurity and envy, more than from religious values. Lacking the powerful cultural and historical traditions of the Chinese and the Indians, Malays have been vulnerable to the inroads of Saudi-style Islam. It gives them an identity, a sense of belonging to something stronger than their village traditions. Meanwhile, in Lim’s view, educated Malays have been too timid to resist, whatever they might do or say in private. “I’ve seen it happening with my progressive university friends,” Lim said. “Wives take to wearing the tudung, the daughters cover up. Their passivity, their silence, is very bad for the community, because it allows the ultras to set the agenda. Islam has become more and more conservative. Muslims can no longer go to non-Malay restaurants or visit the houses of non-Malay friends. Tensions have grown. We’re reverting to the colonial situation, where the different races only meet in the marketplace.”
Lim’s children have already left the country; a daughter is in Seattle, a son in Sydney. He sighed. “Even young Malays are leaving,” he went on. “They can’t stomach the hypocrisy, the dishonesty.” Then he said something that I would hear, over and over, from many others: “The sad thing is that Malaysia could have been so good — we could have been a model of multi-ethnic harmony.” A sense of disappointment was palpable in most conversations I had with Chinese and Indian Malaysians, not least among those who once supported the privileging of Malays, in order to redress colonial imbalances and raise the prospects of the rural Bumiputera, the “sons of the soil.” It was also clear that such disillusionment can easily turn to hostility.
I saw Dr Mahathir, whose views are still widely read on his daily blog, Che Det, at a demonstration protesting the Israeli attack on Gaza. As I arrived at the Bangsar Sports Complex, he was finishing his diatribe against “the Jews” and “Jewish atrocities,” wildly cheered by groups of schoolchildren in Palestinian-style scarves and black tudung. They disappeared as soon as the former prime minister, smiling a little menacingly at the young, left the scene. Later, I read in a newspaper that the government had planned to mobilise “about five million pupils and 360,765 teachers from more than 10,000 schools,” to protest against what posters in the Bangsar Sports Complex termed “Holocaust II.”
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