Malaysia: Continuities And Uncertainties Of Leadership


Professor Michael Leigh

The Prime Minister¡¦s announced intention to resign, effective October next year, opens Malaysia to an extended phase of political transition. That process will be much more traumatic than any previous succession, as over the past twenty years Dr Mahathir has systematically personalised the instruments of rulership. Institutions that hitherto had exercised considerable autonomy are now much more subject to the whim of the leader; hence the fear of instability as he prepares to move on.

Over the next fifteen months Dr Mahathir will remain firmly in the driver¡¦s seat, to ensure that his priorities are entrenched in national policy, that his successor implements those policies, and that his party convincingly regains the political support of the Malay community, with which he has a tempestuous relationship.

The Prime Minister¡¦s performance at the most recent meeting of the UMNO assembly was vintage Mahathir, displaying all the emotions of a father whose children have failed to heed his wise advice. The man who came to power as the strongest advocate of Malay special rights was hectoring the community, telling them of his disappointment that over the past thirty years Malays have not succeeded after being given the opportunities many times, after they have been helped with all kinds of facilities and even money, the reason is that¡Kthey are not hardworking, that is, they are lazy and like to find the easy and the quick way, no matter what the end results (Borneo Post 21 June 2002).

The Prime Minister has strongly emphasised use of the English language, alongside Malay, and insisted that half of all tuition in state Universities be conducted in English. Suggestions that Government-funded English-medium schools should be re-introduced met with forceful resistance from Malay members of Cabinet, and that upset Dr Mahathir.

Whilst confronting those who advocate further privileges for Malays and reify use of the Malay language, Dr Mahathir has again invoked religion to reinforce his position within the Malay community. Last September he surprised many by his declaration that Malaysia has always been an Islamic nation. On 17 June he went further, stating that Malaysia is an ¡¥Islamic fundamentalist state¡¦ (Borneo Post 18 June 2002). This was a challenge to the opposition Party Islam (PAS) to explain what they mean when they call for a ¡¥true¡¦ Islamic State. Dr Mahathir has calculated that almost any PAS explanation would redound to his advantage. Statements by PAS can spread fear amongst non-Malays and amongst a large swathe of urban Malays, whose life-style does not conform to the strictures enforced in more rural northeastern Malaya, by the PAS State Governments of Kelantan and Terengganu.

Malay women have always been a prime UMNO constituency, and it is they who are most affected by strict applications of religious sanctions. Dr Mahathir again and again spoke of Islam as a just religion. He contrasted his approach with PAS plans to implement a literal interpretation of syariah law, citing its requirements for proof of rape, and for punishment of the victim for adultery unless four good Muslim men swear they have witnessed a rape. ¡¥We are Islamic. They are un-Islamic. Their God is a thug and that is why they deviate,¡¦ Dr Mahathir declared (Straits Times 19 June 2002), apparently seeking to marginalise PAS as religious deviationists who are allegedly associated with terrorists.

As a magnanimous Muslim leader Mahathir visited the late PAS leader, Fadzil Noor, in hospital, and appeared on the same platform with PAS on 8 May in support of the struggle of the people of Palestine. At that meeting the Prime Minister¡¦s statement (Far Eastern Economic Review 30 May, 2002) that ¡¥our main enemy is Israel, especially Ariel Sharon, he is not human, he is an animal¡¦ almost cost him his invitation to visit the White House on 14 May. After that remark, diplomatic messages between Washington and Kuala Lumpur flew thick and fast, in order to defuse resultant American domestic objections to the Bush-Mahathir meeting. It was touch and go as to whether Washington would cancel out. However, Malaysia¡¦s forthcoming chairmanship of the conference of organisation of Islamic countries, as well as the Non-Aligned Movement Summit, meant that United States policy-makers wanted to have Dr Mahathir on board their campaign against terrorism, and were willing to overlook remarks that were unpalatable to many of their constituents.

In the meantime it is important to look at what is happening in the Malaysian economy, to appreciate both the continuities and the constraints of managing a rapidly modernising and historically open trading economy, one that is heavily reliant upon the United States as a market and a source of investment.

„h Over the past year there has been a great deal of Government ¡¥pump priming¡¦ to stimulate domestic demand, and as a result growth rates are now positive.

„h Pressure has selectively been applied to non-performing top Malay entrepreneurs, many of whom were nurtured by Tun Daim Zainuddin while he was Minister of Finance. Whether non-performance is measured by economic or political criteria remains a matter for debate.

„h The diminished flow of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Malaysia is still a concern. Business leaders whom I interviewed in the United States in April revealed that many large corporations have adopted a ¡¥China plus one¡¦ strategy for their investment in Asia. As the ¡¥plus one¡¦ country, Thailand has been winning out over Malaysia, attracting much more FDI, and more tourists. According to those American businesspeople, caricatures of Islam and terrorism have limited the appeal of Malaysia, and have been exploited by competing nations.

„h Pegging of the Malaysian Ringgit @ RM3.8 to the US dollar has proved an effective tool of macro economic management. Whether this is due to inspired judgement or serendipity is up to economic historians to judge. Just when calls from Malaysian exporters reached a crescendo, complaining that a high currency had priced them out of many markets, the US dollar has nosedived, taking the Ringgit down with it, and instantly improving the export competitiveness of Malaysian firms.

WATCHPOINT: Dr Mahathir has strongly denied that he wants to hold a senior post after retirement, as Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew does in Singapore. Expect a national election to be held during the next twelve months, and for the Prime Minister to strive to sweep away those who oppose his policies, both within and without his governing party. The closing of the Mahathir era still has many surprises in store, and woe betide anyone who dares to treat the Prime Minister as a lame duck.


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