Malaysia: Leadership and Moral Codes


Dr Virginia Hooker

The dramatic events in Indonesia have unsettled the region. Details of the riots and student protests in Jakarta were acknowledged but not highlighted by Malaysian television. The change in leadership, however, could hardly pass unnoticed and was given wide coverage by the Malaysian press. This month there is open talk in Malaysia about a change in their own leadership, with attention focussed on the Deputy Prime Minister, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Many Malaysians regard Indonesia as their 'big brother' thus expressing respect and admiration for their neighbour which fought for and won Independence a decade before Malaya was peacefully granted self-determination from the British. Now their big brother has actively worked for a leadership change and has (for the moment) accepted a younger, Western educated President. The Prime Minister of Malaysia, 73 year old Dato Seri Mahathir Mohamad, has been in office for 17 years after waiting in the wings during the 1970s. He used that time to formulate and publicise his views on the Malays and their handicaps as a race which needed to catch up with a swiftly progressing and changing world. In 1996 his Deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, published his own 'thought' book entitled The Asian Renaissance which sold widely in Malaysia and which was well received overseas. Before being brought into politics, Anwar was the leader of ABIM (the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement) which he founded in 1971 to lead an Islamic revival in Malaysia. It might therefore be assumed that he is a 'fanatical' Muslim whose policies, were he to assume the leadership, would differ greatly from the 'moderate' stance of Dr Mahathir. This is not the case. In their press statements, both leaders urge Muslims in Malaysia to adopt the values of Islam as a moral code which will enable them to be better parents to their children and more principled citizens of their nation. They also call on Malaysian Muslims to participate fully in the country's plans for industrialisation and realise that progress can be achieved in this world. Anwar hammers the point that 'the middle path' is the one for Southeast Asian Muslims and is the only way to achieve the societal aims of Islam such as 'justice, equitable distribution of wealth, fundamental rights and liberties'. He stresses that proponents of the establishment of an Islamic state are on the margins of mainstream Muslim thinking and that most Muslims 'do not believe it would make one less of a Muslim to promote economic growth, to master the information revolution, and to demand justice for women'. The anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia in May 1998 were a grim reminder to Malaysians of their own anti-Chinese riots of May 1969. Perhaps since then the 'little brother' has paid more attention to race relations than 'big brother' Indonesia. Anwar confronts the issue directly and suggests that the implementation of Islam as a moral code offers the solution. To avoid catastrophe, Muslims and non-Muslims must put moral and ethical considerations ahead of the discontent and alienation that could lead to militancy. Participation and social justice, in Anwar's view, are fundamental in Southeast Asia in the age of the nation-state.

WATCHPOINT: Leadership change, and its analogies with Indonesia, will continue to unsettle Malaysia.


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