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Malaysia is a majority Muslim country, but ethnic divisions and colonial history complicate the Malaysian identity. The former U.S., ambassador to Malaysia, Ron Palmer, reviews the development of Malaysian characteristics and their relevance to current concerns about Islamist extremism. JRB

by Ronald T. Palmer

Terrorism is a tactic of identity politics. Identity politics is a strategy to gain power by the humiliated, the dispossessed; those who consider themselves to be oppressed by uncaring, unworthy elites.

They are the “Left Behind.”

The point of this study is to attempt to explain how Al Qaeda found a warm reception among some supporters in Malaysia. All indications are that the number of such supporters is small. Malaysia had typically been known for the relaxed approach it seemed to take to Islam. However, this was misleading because there had been a strong current of traditionalism or orthodoxy in political Islam since at least 1951 when Malay communal political parties were formed.

The United Malays National Organization was the party of the modernizing urban-oriented elite. PAS was the party of largely rural Muslim traditionalists who espoused the creation of an Islamic state governed by sharialaw.

Religion is only one of the factors that influence Malaysian identity. Others include social class, attitudes toward change, and Malay fear of the Chinese.

“Malayness,” that is being a bumiputera (son of the soil, a native, an indigene, not a Chinese immigrant or the descendant of a Chinese), is the over-arching reality. The constitution specifies that a Malay habitually speaks Malay, is a Muslim and practices the Malay culture. Thus, two features of being Malay are cultural. Chinese are excluded from this definition.

Ethnicity is the key to any discussion of identity in Malaysia.

Malays are the product of two waves of migration from Yunnan in China. Stone Age migrants left traces of their culture in Peninsular Malaya and crossed the then land bridge to Borneo. Tribal elements continue to exist in the jungles and mountains of the peninsula, and their descendants were once known collectively as the “Wild Men of Borneo.” They are known as the Kadazhan, the Dusun, etc. in Borneo and are bumiputera.

The second wave of migration occurred in the Bronze Age, and their descendants dominate contemporary Malaysia.

The current area of Malaysia was under the authority of the Sumatran-based Buddhist Srivijaya Empire from the 9th to the 14th centuries. The powerful Hindu Java-based Modjopahit Empire ruled the region in the 14th century.

Islam reached the east coast of Malaya in the 14th century and spread to the riverine kingdoms down the east and west coasts. Islam took strong root in Malacca, and contacts with Muslim merchants and scholars from India and the Arabian Peninsula led to the vigorous growth of trade.

Indeed, the fame of Malacca spread to Europe, and a Portuguese armada conquered the city in 1511. The Portuguese held Malacca until 1641 when they were ousted by the Dutch. The British took Malacca in 1824.

Britain had meanwhile established a trading post in Penang in 1786, took Singapore in 1819 and after taking Malacca in 1824 established the Straits Settlements in 1826, which were administered from Calcutta by the East India Company.

British Merchants in the Straits Settlements prospered but were increasingly concerned by anarchic conditions on the peninsula caused by disputes over succession in the princely feudal states. The merchants insisted that Britain take a more direct role in the affairs of the peninsula, and administrative control of the area was transferred from the East India Company to the India Office. Further consolidation took place in 1867 when Malaya was transferred to the Colonial Office. A Malayan Civil Service modeled on the India Civil Service began about this time.

This was a hectic time in both Malaya and China. Manchu China was crushed by Britain in the 1839-1842 and 1856-1860 Anglo-Chinese “Opium” wars and was forced to make humiliating concessions. The Manchu loss of prestige contributed to the outbreak of the 1850-1862 Taiping Rebellion. This civil war was in the south, and an estimated two million people died. Anyone who could flee the violence did so. Many came to the US to work on the transcontinental railroad. Many others were recruited to work in the tin mines of the Malayan kingships of Perak, Ipoh and Selangor.

Tin mine recruiters worked closely with traditional Chinese secret societies. These groups cooperated with Malay chieftains seeking control of customs duties from the quickly expanding and highly profitable tin trade. The 1867-1873 Selangor war was one result. There was war in Perak also.Malay leaders began looking to Britain as a possible mediator in these conflicts as well as an adjudicator of succession disputes. Britain responded by convening a meeting of interested parties to Pangkor Island where the so-called Pangkor Engagement was agreed to in January, 1874. It settled the succession in Perak, and the sultan accepted a British Resident advisor. The Resident’s advice had to be sought and adhered to in all matters except those pertaining to the religion and customs of the Malays. By 1900 Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan had accepted British Residents and were known collectively as the Federated Malay States (FMS).

By 1916, the four northern states, Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Trengganu, formerly under Thai suzerainty, came under British control and Residents were appointed. These states and later Johor were known as the Unfederated Malay States, and their sultans had more freedom of action than the FMS.

British North Borneo (now Sabah) was a privately owned company and a Crown Colony. Sarawak was the fiefdom of the Brooke family.

Britain’s motives in its expansion of control in Malaya were economic. The exploitation of tin and later rubber resources guided British policy. Malays and Bornean tribesmen were ill suited for the type of needed labor so Chinese were imported. The tin producing areas of the Malayan west coast were transformed into areas where Malays rapidly became a minority. Chinese became the middlemen in the urbanizing economy. Malays were more than content to remain rural and uninvolved in the economic turmoil.

Britain had no immigration policy other than to import as many Chinese as possible with no regard for political ramifications. Thus, by 1930 over one million Chinese workers had been imported since the 1860s.

The data show a gender shift of immigrants over the years. In contrast to the mainly male 19th century migration, 20th century migration was increasingly female. Before 1900 twice as many males as females immigrated. From 1901 to 1910 the number of female immigrants was almost half the total. The trend continued in the 1911-1920 period, and women were more than half the immigrants in the 1921-1930 period. Women were about 70 percent of Chinese immigrants in the 1931-1935 era and almost 80 percent of immigrants in 1936-1940.

The significance of this was that the Chinese envisioned settling in Malaya and Borneo and forming the communities of a Second Homeland. These communities were based on the dialect groupings of southeast China, namely Hakka, Cantonese, Hokkien, Teohchew, Hainanese and Hohchew (Foochow).

The British fostered communalism and facilitated the growth of Chinese schools. Communities developed around such schools and practiced rituals and ceremonies that emphasized their Chineseness. The Chinese tended to settle in urban areas where there was both economic opportunity and access to education.

Chinese Muslims integrated easily in Malayan society. Their children identified as Malays. The present Prime Minster, Dato’ Abdullah Admad Badawi, is descended from a Chinese Muslim father and a Malay woman. His predecessor Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s father was an Indian Muslim; his mother was Malay.

There is little intermarriage with Malays except at high social levels. Some Chinese converted to Islam, and those who were wealthy sometimes married into royal families.

At present, the Hakka are most numerous in Sabah and Sarawak, parts of Johor, Selangor-Kuala Lumpur, Pahang and Perak. Cantonese are populous in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur, Pahang and Perak, eastern Johor and Sandakan, Sabah. Hokkien are the largest dialect group in Penang, Kedah, Trengganu, Klang, Kelantan and western Johor. Teochews are concentrated in Penang, many islands of Sabah and southern Johor.

Mandarin has become the lingua franca of southern Johor because of its proximity to Mandarin-speaking Singapore. Indeed, Mandarin is increasingly spoken by the younger generation nationwide alongside or instead of the various dialects. Mandarin is the language of diaspora Chinese ethnic nationalism.

A large proportion of the Chinese community speaks Chinese and only limited Bahasa Melayu.

Malays were 48.8 percent of the population in 1921 and Chinese 35.2 percent. By 1931, Malays were 44.4 percent of the population and Chinese were 39.2. By 1947, Malays were 43.5 percent of the population and Chinese were 44.7. These figures include the heavily Chinese colony of Singapore.

As noted, the British did not foresee the political ramifications of Chinese immigration. Thus, when the Manchu Empire fell in 1911 followed by the 1920s ascent of the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party, the British were ill prepared for the local resonances of the struggle for power on the mainland.

In World War II the Chinese put up resistance to the Japanese occupiers. The Malays were mainly interested in the end of British colonial control and saw the Japanese as hastening an end to that system. The British secretly supported, trained and provided arms and equipment to the Communist-led Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army. The MPAJA had a brilliant war record.

At the end of the War, the British gave legal recognition to the previously banned Communist Party. They also sought to reward the Chinese by developing a quick path to citizenship in the 1946 Malayan Union scheme. A feature of this plan, which was also a part of Cold War architecture, was a reduction of the prestige and power of the Malay sultans.

In a feudal sense every Malay was the subject of his district chief and of one of the sultans. Thus, there was a virulent but non-violent political reaction to the British plan. This reaction launched Malay politics. The United Malays National Organization was quickly formed to protest the British Malayan Union plan.

By 1948 the British backed down both on the Chinese citizenship issue and weakening the positions of the sultans. A Federation of Malaya was formed.

The Chinese reacted and launched a terrorist campaign led by the Communist-dominated Malayan Races Liberation Army against the British and the Malays. This was the 1948-1960 “Emergency” in which the British mobilized the Malay elite and conservative Chinese and Indian factions against the Communist Terrorists.

Although the Malays who had led the resistance to the Malayan Union had planned a multi-ethnic future, more conservative Malays insisted that UMNO be communally Malay. This led to the rise of Tunku Abdul Rahman, a Perak aristocrat, as UMNO leader. British educated, he once wanly complained that his painfully slow British legal education had been impeded by fast cars, fast women and slow horses. However, he was an inspiring political leader, acceptable to all communities. He led the conservative Alliance of UMNO, the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) in the pre-independence period. From 1951 to 1957, he was groomed by the British to lead Malaya to independence.

This process was highlighted by the writing and promulgation of the 1957 Malayan Constitution where a “bargain” was fashioned in which Malayan-born Chinese were guaranteed citizenship in exchange for agreeing to special rights and privileges for Malays.

Malaya boomed economically in the 1950s and 1960s and the Chinese benefited greatly. But poorer Malays participated only marginally in the boom. This led to antagonism toward the cozy relationship between the UMNO leadership and the Chinese.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad of Perak became a very outspoken opponent of the Tunku’s leadership. Mahathir was also a Perak native, and there were Oedipal overtones to their political jockeying. Mahathir became a vitriolic backbench adversary of the Tunku after being elected to Parliament in 1964.

By 1969, intra-Malay and anti-Chinese tensions burst into the open in the 1969 race riots involving up to 1000 deaths. Tunku’s policy of cooperating with the Chinese was denounced and he was sidelined politically. A Malay-dominated National Operations Council was formed in the aftermath of the riots. Tunku’s deputy, Tun Abdul Razak, exercised power aided by the security establishment. He initiated pro-Malay policies that culminated in the promulgation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971.

Dr. Mahathir was expelled from UMNO in 1969 and used his time in exile to write his scathing critique of Malays and Malay customs, “The Malay Dilemma.” Tun Razak took a gamble on Mahathir and rehabilitated him politically. Mahathir repaid the debt handsomely by rising rapidly in the UMNO hierarchy, becoming Minister of Education in 1976. Razak died and Mahathir became Deputy Prime Minister. He became Prime Minister in 1981.

The 1970s had been a decade of the rapid rise of PAS, and Mahathir quickly began a campaign to undercut the appeal of PAS.

Dr. Mahathir wrote “The Malay Dilemma” during his expulsion from UMNO, and it is useful to re-read the book to attempt to ascertain his short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. This may be the intellectual framework from which he fashions his strategy and tactics.

The fundamental concept of “The Malay Dilemma” is that rural isolation in an easy, bountiful rice-growing environment had led to deleterious genetic inbreeding among the Malays. Unchallenged by their environment, the Malays developed a feeble culture that could not withstand the confrontation of the more vigorous British and Chinese cultures. The debilitated Malays could only retreat before this onslaught. “Whatever the Malays could do, the Chinese could do better and more cheaply.” (Mahathir, p. 25)

Thus, the British quickly recognized the Chinese entrepreneurial capability and realized that a rich and thriving Chinese population in the growing urban centers was good for British trade.

Mahathir’s conclusion was that Malay culture had to be changed, revolutionized; Malays had to be urbanized, subjected to greater cultural, political and economic challenges. Malays needed greater access to education and medical care. Malays needed to become competitive.

Dr. Mahathir argued that since Malays were “the definitive people of the country…” (Mahathir, p. 145) the Malay problem was to assert their control of their own land lest they become landless and dependent like the “Red Indians” of America. To do this, special preferential treatment to achieve Malay uplift would be required. There had been historical discrimination against Malays that must be expunged.

To achieve all this, Malays must not only be urbanized, they must undergo “forced acquisition” of skills (Mahathir, p. 112). The government should take on itself more development projects and make it possible “for Malays from the rural areas to be employed in increasing numbers.” (Mahathir, p. 106).

In business, Ali-Baba arrangements in which Malays lent their names and preferential access to licenses, etc. may offend the sensitive but “will continue to be a feature of Malay participation in business for a long time.” (Mahathir, p. 47). It will be necessary for the racial ego to create rich Malay tycoons. Such Malays will become sources of capital and leadership. In business also, Mahathir implies the monopolies the British had created and enjoyed in their “exclusive whiskey-swilling clubs,” having been inherited to some extent by the Chinese, should be opened up to Malays by government intervention in all sectors including the import and export trade, shipping, banking, construction etc. “…Old values and ways of life must give way to the new.”

To complete the “revolution” and the “rehabilitation” of the Malays there is a need for them to break away from custom or adat and to acquire new ways of thinking and a new system of values. Urbanization will do this to a certain extent, but there must also be a conscious effort to destroy the old ways and replace them with new ideas and values. The Malays must be confronted with the realities of life and forced to adjust their thinking to conform to these “realities.” (Mahathir, p. 113)

“The whole process must be planned and executed with speed and thoroughness to produce a complete and radical change in the Malays. If this revolution is brought about they would be rehabilitated and their dilemmas would be over. The nation would be able to progress without the burden of a Malay problem.” (Mahathir, p. 114)

Dr. Mahathir makes it very clear that the old values that must be changed are: deferential courtesy, avoidance of confrontation, a lack of frankness, the social stigma of rudeness, self-effacement and the polite giving way to others. These values produce conflict. The constant restraint the Malay imposes on himself is unnatural and produces sublimated rage that eventually results in amok behavior.

Since the Malay will inevitably live in a society of racial identity and communalism, he must seek to express his feelings and to be frank. The Chinese and Indians do not value the Malay propensity for deferential courtesy and take advantage of it. The same is true of other non-Malays and foreigners. Therefore, Malay discontent must be voiced. Frank expression of Malay views is not discourteous. It is vital and strengthening. To avoid frankness and direct expression is weakening and debilitating. “The world is getting more and more rude. Frankness is the order of the day.” (Mahathir, p. 171)

The Malays are in a long term competition with the Chinese locally for a share of national wealth commensurate with their status as the “definitive people” of the land. The Malays must be masters in their own land. Communalism will be “a permanent feature of Malaysia” and the tensions this creates will always be a source of intercommunal problems. (Mahathir, p. 152) However, the Malay problem must be overcome.

Dr. Mahathir uses the ideas of American white and black liberals to make an indirect statement about Malays who should be like Negroes and American Indians: “accepted into every strata of society socially, economically and politically to a degree which more or less reflects the proportion of the population made of by the various groups.” (Mahathir, 69) Otherwise, Malays like Red Indians will end up strangers in their own land.

Dr. Mahathir writes that this analysis is an adaptation of modern psychology and is meant to be therapeutic. “It is an attempt to pinpoint the basic faults which must be corrected or adjusted in order that other measures to help the progress of the Malays may stand a better chance of succeeding.” (Mahathir, p. 172)

In his foreword to “The Malay Dilemma” Dr. Mahathir wrote: “The publication of this book is not calculated to endear the writer to any particular section of Malaysians. Indeed, it is most likely to cause despondency among some, and severe resentment among most others. No apologies are offered. What I have written is done with sincerity.”

This 1970 statement of Dr. Mahathir’s philosophy continues, I believe, to guide his strategy and tactics. The book was banned in Malaysia from 1970 to 1982. After Mahathir became Prime Minister in 1981, he lifted the ban on his book and aggressively promoted his ideas.

An important aspect of his ideas was the creation of a modern secular Islamic state in contrast to the theocratically-interpreted sharia Islamic state PAS desired. Mahathir promoted Islamic values in all aspects of public life. An International Islamic University was established. Islamic banking and finance were introduced. Generous funding was provided for the expansion of Islamic schools and the construction of mosques.

Bumiputera is a legal term and has important legal, economic and political ramifications. Bumiputera have special protected rights under the Constitution. The result has been a discriminatory system based on the constitutional “bargain” made between Malay and Chinese leaders when the Constitution was adopted, namely, that the Chinese accepted the concept of bumiputera special rights in exchange for a provision guaranteeing citizenship to those Chinese born in Malaya. Some Chinese argue that special rights are to diminish over time when the bumiputera community achieves economic parity with the Chinese community. The bumiputera community argues, however, that their special rights should continue indefinitely

This matter cannot be discussed or questioned because it is deemed “sensitive.” Violation contravenes the Sedition Act and/or the Internal Security Act.

Chineseness is a basic factor that influences the role of religion. Communalism (“race”) affects every facet of life in Malaysia. The religiously eclectic Chinese are the largest minority in Southeast Asia; however, they are only 28 percent of the Malaysian population in comparison with the overwhelmingly Muslim bumiputeraswho are 60 percent of the population.

Another basic competing factor is the legacy of Hinduism and Buddhism, which were rooted in the Malay Peninsula centuries before Islam became established in the 14th century. There are nine traditional sultanates where the British ruled indirectly through

Residents who “advised” the sultans, and there are four Federal Territories that were directly ruled by the British. The sultanates still include Hindu and Buddhist elements in their rituals of kingship and marriage. Deeper than this level there remain animist folk beliefs.

Another competing factor is secularism.

It is true that the nine traditional sultans lead Islam in their states, including Malay customary law (adat) as strained through the web of history. They are also the arbiters of land alienation. However, the sultans have been deeply affected by their close relationships with the British Residents who were appointed by the London Colonial Office to advise them in the 1874-1940 period.

The very elite British Malayan Civil Service (MCS) has not yet been adequately studied, but there is no question that it both influenced the traditional sultans and was influenced by them. The MCS was called the “Heaven Born” and its members were strong advocates of Malay rights and privileges. In their view, Malays were “Nature’s Gentlemen.” They encouraged the Malay elite to aspire also to Britishishness.

Secularism was an aspect of Britishness. A Gentleman had good relations with the local vicar and with the latter’s superior in the established Church of England. A Malay Gentleman could do no less even though there was no hierarchy in Islam, and the Sultan was in fact the equivalent of the various Archbishops in the Church of England. Sharia Law made the Sultans far more powerful than British Archbishops. The duty of the Residents was to help the Sultans to exercise this power wisely and humanely.

Generally, the contemporary nine sultans stay within the bounds of moderation in exercising their religious authority. The sultans are all supporters of the moderate United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the principal Malay party.

UMNO’s role has been to promote Malay nationalism, bumiputera supremacy and Islam. Its political strength is based on its capacity to manipulate the electoral system. More than two-thirds of the seats in the Malaysian parliament are located in rural areas where Malays predominate. This has ensured that UMNO often wins half of the seats contested in an election. However, since 1951 the fundamentalist Parti Islam (PAS) party has vigorously contested UMNO and made inroads in its appeals to rural voters in heavily Malay constituencies in Teranggu and Kelantan. PAS has won electoral control of these states in the past and remains a competitor at present. PAS espouses an Islamic state with no political or cultural rights for non-bumiputeras if and when it comes to power.

UMNO thus must cater to its Malay base but avoid alienating the Chinese. The UMNO leadership has managed an adroit policy of promoting Malay interests by converting possible ethnic antagonisms into economic competition. Rather than stifling Chinese enterprise, UMNO has encouraged Malay competitiveness.

The New Economic Policy was established in the Second Malaysian Plan, which was presented to the Parliament in 1971. Its aims were:

  1. To reduce and eradicate poverty by raising income levels of all Malaysians
  2. To restructure Malaysian society so as to reduce and eventually to eliminate identification of race with economic function and:
    a. To establish a new system of quotas and special rights (for Malays)
    b. To develop a privileged access to education
    c. To promote privileged access to better paying jobs for Malays
    d. To promote privileged access to the professions for Malays
    e. To assist Malays in investing in profitable commercial and industrial enterprises
  3. To set specific goals:
    a. To achieve 30% Malay ownership and participation in all industrial and commercial activities by 1990 (it was 1.5% in 1969)
    b. To extend the Malay civil service 4/1 ratio beyond super grades to professional services and lower levels
  4. To increase investment in higher education (basically to assist Malays) from M$ 25.8 million in 1969 to M$ 350.8 million in 1980.
  5. To increase the number of universities from one in 1969 to six in 1980.
    a. Of these two catered almost exclusively to Malays.
    b. Admission quotas favored Malays.
    c. By 1980 student bodies were 65 – 80% Malay.
    d. Expenditures per student went from M$ 3200 to M$ 12,900.
  6. To channel scholarships for overseas study to Malays. (In the 1980s, there were usually 50,000 students abroad in the UK, North America and Australia, with 20,000 in the US).

Another NEP feature was the 1975 Industrial Coordination Act (ICA), which extended NEP racial employment to the private sector. The objective was that industry and commerce would employ 30% Malays and promote them in due course to supervisory and management positions. This was naturally difficult for Chinese operations, particularly smaller family run enterprises. One reaction was the growth of Chinese self-help organizations through the MCA (multi-purpose holdings).

The impact of the NEP in the private sector generally was that:

  1. Commercial and industrial enterprises were required to establish affirmative action plans for employing, training and promoting Malays at all levels of operation.
  2. These terms were made conditional for foreign firms providing licensing and tax concessions available to infant industries.
  3. Local businesses were covered by special regulations and terms.
  4. Quotas were adjusted to suit local conditions and industry requirements; larger industries’ quotas were set at 40%.

NEP public corporations (Bumiputra trust agencies) were set up to buy corporate shares and to obtain control of industries and enterprises on behalf of Malays and foreign corporations operating in Malaysia in joint-stock agreements with local private or government corporations. The agreements usually specified a quota of stock issues to be reserved for Malays or to Bumiputra Trust agencies.

The NEP affected all aspects of economic planning and public policy. It was precipitated by Malay fears that in addition to their economic power the Chinese appeared to gaining political power as well.

The Malay leadership suspended parliament and ruled by decree until 1974. The bumiputera share of national income was mandated to rise from two percent in 1971 to 30 percent by 2001. In fact, the bumiputera share of national income only reached 20 percent by 2001. It was continued as the National Development Policy (NDP), later adapted to Vision 2020, with the goal of achieving bumiputera-Chinese economic parity by 2020 when Malaysia would have achieved developed status on a par with Belgium.

The reality, however, is that the middle and poorer Malay classes have not enjoyed the great prosperity attained by the upper levels of the Malay elite. Mahathir was dedicated to the creation of Malay millionaires but many were considered to be his cronies. Class resentment has grown.

While overall poverty has declined from 52 percent in 1970 to 5 percent in 2004, and rural poverty has declined from 59 percent to 11 percent, wealth distribution remains unequal. Over 70 percent of the households in the bottom 40 percent were bumiputera. Over 62 percent of the households in the top twenty percent were non-bumiputera.

The income differences have played a role a large role in intra-Malay tensions as manifested in the struggle between UMNO and PAS. A way of describing this is as a struggle between the tangible and the intangible. PAS is an advocate of intangibles: an Islamic state governed by sharia law; Islamic values vs. modern or western values; connectedness with the world-wide Muslim ummah, including hostility to the United States. UMNO, however, has offered tangible benefits: a modernized though secular state; modern though Islamized values; connectedness with the world including the United States.

UMNO used its ability to deliver the goods to great effect in fighting PAS for Malay hearts and minds. However, its reputation was tainted by accusations of using money politics to pollute Malay democracy, elite corruption and heavy-handed suppression of human rights. PAS benefited from these attitudes.

This was notable in the 1997-1998 Financial Crisis when Malaysia faced possible economic disaster. Deputy Prime Minister (concurrently Minister of Finance) Anwar Ibrahim argued for acceptance of stringent IMF recommendations. Mahathir vigorously rejected the recommendations, believing they would cripple the Malay elite, many of whom were his cronies. He fired Anwar and jailed him on charges many believed were spurious.

This was the setting of the 1999 elections. Support for PAS surged, and the Mahathir-led National Front needed non-bumiputera support to maintain its parliamentary dominance. Mahathir began a vociferous campaign accusing PAS of being riddled with extremists who were cooperating with Al Qaeda. This was true, but many thought he was merely crying wolf.

9/11/01 shocked Malaysia and gave credence to Mahathir’s accusations. He cooperated closely with the United States in the 9/11 aftermath.

Meanwhile, his economic gamble of defiance of the IMF paid off handsomely as the Malaysian economy boomed. Anwar’s case receded into the background, especially since the US kept a careful silence on it. By 2003, Mahathir felt sufficiently comfortable politically to retire and transfer power to his crafty deputy, Dato’ Abdullah Admad Badawi.

Badawi was a quiet contrast to the outspoken and pugnacious Mahathir and enjoyed respect for his Islamic credentials, his longstanding interest in rural development and his announced intention to curb corruption. Badawi was not less hardnosed than Mahathir but showed it less.

The result was that the National Front (BN) coalition led by UMNO soared to a stunning victory in the 2004 elections. The BN won 198 of the 219 seats, up 50 from the 1999 election. UMNO’s total seats rose from 71 to 109. PAS slumped from 27 seats in the 1999 election to seven in 2004. PAS lost control of the heavily Malay state of Teranggu, winning only two of the 32 seats. PAS retained control of Kelantan by a severely restricted mandate of 24 to 20 seats.

Basically, PAS had no credible or progressive alternatives to offer Malays in contrast to UMNO. The electorate wanted tangibles not intangibles. PAS advocated ISLAM UNTUK SEMUA (Islam for all); UMNO advocatedISLAM HADHIRI (Progressive Islam.) The electorate chose progressive Islam.

Cornell professor Benedict Anderson, author of the seminal “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism” (London, Verso, 1983), has described the nation as a concept that first must be imagined. An analysis of Malaysian history can indicate the imagined community was evident in the minds of its leaders since independence in 1957. This was a community that would be based on multicultural intercommunal cooperation, especially between Malays and Chinese.

This was shown in 1952 Kuala Lumpur elections when UMNO and the MCA formed a highly successful electoral coalition. The MIC joined the coalition in 1953, which was named the Alliance, and won 51 of 52 seats in the 1955 federal parliamentary elections. Such cooperation was broadened in 1973 by the creation of the umbrella Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN), even including PAS.

PAS left the BN in 1977 largely because its exclusivist Islamist aims were at variance with UMNO’s inclusivist aims.

UMNO’s concept of the nation was one where Malays would continue to play a leading role but in association with other communities. The aim was the development of a consociational democracy in which the centrifugal tendencies inherent in a plural society would be counteracted by the cooperative attitudes and behaviors of the different communities.

The roles of UMNO leaders have been crucial in the development of the Malaysian political system. After being elected, the four post-independence prime ministers have had to transform their outlooks from narrow Malay perspectives to broader multicultural concerns. The backgrounds of these leaders merit study. Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, whose mother was Thai, set the tone of multiculturalism in his 1957-1972 rule. He angered many Malays, however, by his accommodating attitude toward the Chinese, and the 1969 race riots resulted.

His successor, Tun Abdul Razak, had an Indonesian background. He mollified Malays by introducing the NEP affirmative action program. He also put Dr. Mahathir Mohamad on the path to national leadership. Razak died in 1986.

Razak’s successor, Tun Hussein, had a Turkish background and guided Malaysia into a closer relationship with the West including the US. Hussein stepped down in 1981 because of poor health and was succeeded by Dr. Mahathir, whose father was an Indian from Kerala.

Mahathir ruled 22 years until 2003. He vigorously sought to put into practice ideas he had outlined in “The Malay Dilemma.” The goal was not just to uplift Malays but also to change them and make them more able to compete in a multicultural world.

The present Prime Minister, Dato’ Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has a Chinese background and is also a multiculturalist.

Mahathir’s lasting contribution was the development of “Vision 2020” in 1991…what might be called the Imagined Community. The concept had nine major points:

  • Fostering a sense of national identity
  • Increasing national self-confidence
  • Promoting democracy
  • Promoting community
  • Promoting cultural tolerance
  • Promoting religious tolerance
  • Supporting science and technology
  • Increasing privatization (decreasing dependency on government)
  • Increasing investment in manufacturing and technology infrastructure

The key ideas in Vision 2020 are that Malaysia should be a fully developed country by 2020 but development should not be merely limited to economic progress. Prime Minister Mahathir said Malaysia “must be a nation that is fully developed along all the dimensions: economically, politically, socially, spiritually, psychologically and culturally. We must be fully developed in terms of national identity and social cohesion, in terms of social justice, political stability, system of government, quality of life, social and spiritual values, national pride and confidence.”

The hopeful goal is that by 2020 the various forces that have promoted the modernization of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious Malaysian state will presumably have created an environment wherebumiputeras and Chinese will both feel secure. The likely reality is, however, that Malayness and Chineseness will still divide the society. These cultural factors will not disappear, but Malay leaders will continue to seek to modify them.

There is at least a vision of the imagined community.End.


Ronald Palmer
Ronald Palmer

The author, a retired career diplomat, served as U. S. ambassador successively to Togo, Malaysia, and Mauritius during his thirty-two year Foreign Service career. A member of the American Diplomacy Publishers board of directors, he is now professor emeritus at The George Washington University in Washington, D. C.


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