What Mahathir Has Wrought

What Mahathir Has Wrought

Mini Teaser: The transformation of Kuala Lumpur and the modernization of Malaysia are the realization of one man's vision--that of the country's longest serving prime minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.

by Author(s): David Martin Jones

A pre-paid electronic "Touch and Go" card offers the best way to
negotiate the toll booths along the north-south superhighway that
traverses the Malay Peninsula from Johore to the Thai border. By an
unintended irony, the title of the card captures the current
condition of the Malaysian polity. On the one hand, Malaysia has
emerged from the Asian financial meltdown relatively unscathed
economically. On the other, a series of political scandals and a
bitterly contested election campaign in November 1999 have rocked the
United Malay National Organization (UMNO), the ruling party that has
overseen the development of this multi-ethnic state--composed of 62
percent Malays, 30 percent Chinese and 9 percent Indians, the beliefs
of whom traverse the spectrum of spiritual possibility from animism
to Islam.

Almost daily revelations of alleged corruption and sexual misdeeds
involving former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, his adopted
brother and his chauffeur have disturbed the quiescence of the
recently urbanized Malay middle class, whose undivided loyalty has
until now underwritten UMNO rule. This arriviste class, itself the
product of state policy, had previously left the demands of
modernization to UMNO's guidance. Revelations about buggery in the
upmarket Kuala Lumpur (KL) suburb of Bangsar, and allegations of
attempts to poison, both literally and metaphorically, the still
popular Anwar have, however, tended to disturb middle-class faith in
party guidance. At the same time as the state-controlled media revel
in the gory details of Anwar's alleged private life, the government
bans Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me in deference to Islamic

The contradictory demands of tradition and modernity, dramatized by
the Anwar case, are daily apparent on the streets of the nation's
capital, Kuala Lumpur, where professional Malay women seek to marry
their mobile phones to their elegantly cut baju kurang, Raybans and
matching head scarves. Glass and chrome temples to Mammon sit
uneasily beside the sinuous lines of the city's oldest mosque, the
Masjid Jamek, and the Courts of Justice, built at the turn of the
century. Symbolizing the perceived need to build a dynamic, Asian
modernity, the eighty-two stories of the Gothamesque Petronas Towers
dominate the until recently sleepy colonial capital. From the towers
a state-of-the-art, rapid transport system crosses the city.
Ultimately it will join the recently opened KL International Airport,
an air conditioned symphony of chrome, glass and marble, with
boutiques dedicated to Ferregamo and Bally.

The transformation of Kuala Lumpur and the modernization of Malaysia
are the realization of one man's vision--that of the country's
longest serving prime minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Unfortunately,
the economic meltdown of the late 1990s required the more grandiose
elements of his vision to be put on hold, as the incomplete concrete
pillars of the KL rapid transport system bear silent witness.
Elsewhere along the north-south highway the costs of short-term loans
funding long-term investment is evident. To the north, the empty
hotels that line the beaches of Batu Ferenghi on Penang Island
illustrate the capricious nature of international tourism. Elegant
hotels like the Bayview and the Rasa Sayang, which in the heyday of
the Asian miracle catered to discerning Germans and Swedes, are now
reduced to hosting pasty-faced, package holiday Brits with a penchant
for warm beer and "curry half and half" (half rice, half french
fries). Meanwhile further down the coast, Malacca, the pre-colonial
center of the Malay world, gradually decays into the sludge of the
straits named in its honor. When buildings are not being constructed
in Malaysia, they are falling down. The Mah Kota complex on the
outskirts of Malacca is a case in point. The hotel is a postmodern
pink palace surrounded by recently built streets of empty boutiques
catering to tourists who never came. An unfinished aquarium
surrounded by rotting corrugated iron advertising seaworld in faded
lettering indicates where the miracle died and rotted beneath the
tropical rain.

Mahathir sought to address the malaise that gripped his tiger economy
by imposing currency controls in 1998. With characteristic
insouciance he has also forged ahead with plans to build an
"intelligent city" of the future. It will run from the Petronas
Towers in downtown Kuala Lumpur to a building site in the jungle,
forty kilometers to the south. The building site houses a partially
completed paperless administrative center, Putrajaya, and a
yet-to-be-built multimedia supercorridor called Cyberjaya. Mahathir
intends this $10 billion exercise in Ozymandian hubris to cap his
vision of Malaysia transformed.

In order to fund this silicon kampung, however, Mahathir must attract
multinational investment in the shape of Sun Microsystems, Microsoft,
Intel, Nokia and British Telecom, whose CEOs turned up for the
multimedia equivalent of a rumble in the jungle in July 1999. As they
approached the Cyberjaya site they were greeted by a curious
monochromatic image on a billboard depicting rioters demolishing a
car. Above the image a message warned: "Foreign Influence is a threat
to National Security."

This capacity to reject foreign influence yet promote foreign direct
investment suggests that modernization, Malaysian style, represents
an Asian version of doublethink (memorably defined by George Orwell
as "the capacity of holding two contradictory views in one's mind
simultaneously and accepting both of them"). The impressive postwar
growth of Malaysia depended upon its membership in the Western
alliance during the Cold War, its openness to the post-Bretton Woods
liberal trade order in the Asia-Pacific, and its export-oriented
economic strategy. Yet throughout the 1980s Mahathir and his ruling
UMNO railed against Western liberalism, launched a Buy British Last
campaign, and instituted a Look East economic policy. At regional
forums like Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Malaysia
continues to promote a Japan-led East Asian Economic Caucus.

Mahathir's illiberal "heresy" (as he himself termed it) in suspending
the repatriation of foreign funds invested on the KL stock exchange
and arresting his reform-minded deputy Anwar Ibrahim prompted
commentators as diverse as Amnesty International, Indonesian
President B.J. Habibie, George Soros and Al Gore to direct a chorus
of disapproval at Malaysia's political and economic failings. Given
Malaysia's dependence on foreign direct investment and manufacturing
exports, it is curious that Mahathir regards foreign influence and
the global market with such unbridled suspicion. Does that suspicion
simply reflect the uncertain mood swings of an Asian gerontocrat
unwilling to go quietly into the political night? Or does it--and the
authoritarianism and rhetorical dissonance that go with it--mask
irresoluble tensions at the heart of the late developing state that
Mahathir christened "Malaysia Incorporated"? What, moreover, will be
the future for the once acclaimed but now widely disparaged Malaysian
version of the Asian model, after UMNO's somewhat uncertain electoral
victory in November 1999?

Constructing Malaysians

The incoherent character of contemporary Malaysian politics reflects
the contingent factors that shaped Malaysia's development.
Modernizing states, as Ernest Gellner remarked, require nations. As
in many other post-colonial states, building the Malaysian nation has
been an anxious affair. There were few cultural resources upon which
to draw. Apart from Islam, which wafted over on the boats of spice
traders from Moghul India, and the Malacca sultanate that fell to the
Portuguese in 1511, there was little in the way of tradition to
support a national identity. Somewhat disturbingly for Malaysian
amour propre, just as it was the British architect A.B. Hubbock who
designed the mosque and railway station that give the nation's
capital a distinctively oriental flavor, so it was the British
Colonial Office that first cobbled the new state together from the
fragments of its Southeast Asian possessions: the Federated Malay
States that accepted British advisers, the independent northern
sultanates, Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo, and,
initially, Singapore.

In the aftermath of World War II, the British made various efforts to
create a viable political arrangement to unite these disparate parts,
a task made more urgent by the serious communist insurgency on the
peninsula. After a couple of false starts, these culminated in the
creation of a Malaysian Federation in 1963. While it solved the
problem of disunity, the Federation served to make the question of
Malay identity and its relationship to an evolving national
consciousness a matter of political urgency. In the uncertain and
unstable world of postwar Southeast Asian politics, the very
formation of the new state exacerbated regional tension. The Malayan
Emergency caused by the communist insurgency (1948-58), followed by
confrontation with Indonesia (1963-66), whose irascible first
president, Sukarno, violently objected to the new entity, fed a
burgeoning siege mentality in the leaders of the new state. Not only
were the boundaries of Malaysia a source of anxiety, but the notion
of what constituted a Malay--let alone a Malaysian--was equally
unclear. Thus, traditionally, to be Malay was to be kerajaan, or
unconditionally loyal to the sultan. At the same time, after 1946
UMNO's brand of populist nationalism emphasized the shared and equal
identity of the bangsa Melayu (the Malay nation). But, differently
again, to be Malay was to be Muslim. For the more religiously
disposed Malays--who eventually were to form the backbone of the
Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS)--the fact that the privileged status of
Islam was written into the 1957 constitution bequeathed by the
departing British intimated the future possibility of an Islamic
state. For pragmatic political leaders, however, the pressing need
for a sustainable Malay unity tended to override these conflicting
understandings of feudally, ethnically and religiously defined

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