Malaysia: Drifting Into The New Millennium


Professor Dr Michael Leigh

The old symbol of the ruling Malaysian Alliance Party was a sailing boat. Perhaps that symbol has become more apt than its replacement, the scales of justice!

The ship of state is adrift. The Prime Minister no longer relies on the support of his prime Malay constituency. He appears to be flailing, grabbing for a direction, searching for a formula that will restore his support. In the meantime the government has kept postponing announcement of important policy issues, for fear of alienating influential supporters and/or electors. That policy drift has serious implications.

Dr. Mahathir’s Government has presided over a transformation of the Malaysian society. Though Malaysia has had one of the most open economies of Southeast Asia, the affirmative action policy has seen control of that modern economy vested in Malay entrepreneurs. Dr. Mahathir has committed the nation to a reification of the importance of information technology and to rapid industrialization. He has also stressed the importance of going beyond the old identities, creating a ‘Malaysian race’ (bangsa Malaysia), utilizing English language and of modernization in every sphere.

The Malay community has become highly diversified as a result, and there is no turning back. However the political ideology of the ruling National Front is snap-frozen in the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, when the triumphant call was for racial unity. That was electorally successful, especially amongst the rural Malays. But in 2001 what is there to unify a kampong Malay and a corporate tycoon? Society has become too diverse.

The old government mantra of racial unity has been brought out again, and reiterated endlessly over the media – in a desperate effort to re-assert the political formula of the 1960s. But Malaysia has moved on, leaving race-based politics as something that has to be re-constructed. There is a serious disjuncture between a C21 society, and the old political mantras, which are no longer believed by a significant part of the population. This is the Mahathir dilemma, for during his leadership Malay identity has been subject to fundamental change, yet the clarion call for racial unity is for the Malay villagers to stand together, against the outsiders.

What is also often not recognized when the term ‘race’ is thrown about is that in Malaysia race, religion, language and culture are all separate variables that overlap, but do not coincide. PAS for many years has stressed the variable of religion over race, and in past years was outmanoeuvred by United Malays National Organization. However, issue-based politics has made a comeback by UMNO much more difficult, and pushing the race button has not achieved the hoped-for popular response. The danger for Malaysia is that race and religion are highly emotive ingredients in ways that had been downplayed during Dr Mahathir’s magic decade, in the ten years prior to the economic recession and the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim.

WATCHPOINT: Successful reassertion of primordial loyalties will compromise most of what Dr. Mahathir has achieved.


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