Malaysia: Howard Bashing Fiesta

2003

Professor Michael Leigh

For a well-seasoned and clever politician, timing is everything. The day after the worst ever defeat of the Liberal Party in the core state of Victoria, and consolidation of opposition Labor Party Governments in every state and territory, Prime Minister Howard snatched the headlines with his unequivocal statement of Australia’s right to take pre-emptive action against terrorists in a neighbouring country. The Prime Minister apparently calculated that Southeast Asian reaction would keep the issue alive and overshadow public post-mortems of the election outcome.

Ever aware of his own domestic audience, Dr Mahathir quickly obliged. Under the heading ‘Act of War’ the Star [3 December 2002] quoted his response: ‘we consider this as an attempt to launch a war against the Government and country of Malaysia. Malaysia would never allow it to happen.’ The regional consequences of such exchanges of vitriol and worsened bilateral relations did not seem to concern either national leader. For most of the following fortnight the Malaysian press was full of outrage at the Howard statement and his unwillingness to apologize for, or qualify, his original statement. Despite the depth of understanding between the peoples of the two countries, based upon many more than 100,000 Malaysians having spent years studying in Australia, senior journalists close to UMNO had a field day depicting Australia as a fundamentally racist society. They interpreted the Howard statement through the simplistic prism that explains politics principally in terms of race – still a core feature of official Malaysian political discourse.

Senior New Straits Times journalist, Shamsul Akman, wrote an article on the issue under the heading ‘Howard sidelines ties with ASEAN as he pursues supremacist dream’.

In 1997 Howard pushed to abolish the Aborigines’ claims on native land to guarantee mostly white farmers’ rights to land and on that score Howard is aptly described as the white-man sheriff in some black country. Now that Howard has decided to stand firm on his pre-emptive strike proposal, it is obvious he does not respect the opinion of ASEAN leaders who are coloured. It is sad that all the exchanges between Malaysians and Australians are being sidelined as Howard pursues his white supremacist dreams. [New Sunday Times 8 Dec. 2002].

Bilateral relations, whether in the field of business, education or people-to-people contact, are harmed when someone of the stature of a Prime Minister gives easy ammunition to those who wish to negatively caricature Australia. Some of the dirt will stick. Importantly, the Howard statement has not affected bilateral military co-operation - those matters are too serious to be changed by mere speeches, as was made emphatically clear by Defence Minister Najib Razak [SMH 18 December 2002].

Howard’s projection of a ‘hairy-chested macho’ image has allowed Australia to be flayed as a society whose attitudes are crude, arrogant, racist and colonial. Dr Mahathir is a brilliant ideology-maker, whose colleagues have near total control of press, radio and TV. Both he and Mr Howard have used displays of nationalist assertion to enhance their own domestic support. Unfortunately, this can then prejudice any chance of Australia’s return to exercising a positive role within the region as an open, democratic, multi-cultural society that has much to share with its neighbourhood.

WATCHPOINT: Expect ongoing scrutiny of Australian rhetoric and actions in the region especially in the climate of the present ‘war on terror’.

 

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