Malaysia After Mahathir


I spent much of last month in Malaysia, a country which continues to be little understood and widely misrepresented in Australia and elsewhere. For decades Tun Dr Mahathir has been the Asian leader the Western press has loved to denigrate. (One day I hope to write about the other side of the ledger, but that’s another story). Because Australia’s future is inextricably tied to our Asian neighbours, we cannot afford to remain uninformed about Malaysia’s increasingly important role “ in international affairs, in the stabilisation of the region, and as the voice of moderation in the Islamic world.

To appreciate why Malaysia is important for us today it is useful to reflect on Malaysia’s post-colonial history. Malaysia was one of the few countries to seize control of its own path to independence, refusing to simply adopt the blueprint devised in Whitehall. It did so in ways which shaped an agenda for the future: race relations, the nature of citizenship, and the role of the traditional royal families within a federal democracy.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi

That Malaysia’s path to independence did not initially strain relations with the UK and the West was mainly because Malaysia was seen as a break point in the communist domino effect in post-war East Asia. It is salutary to recall that the predominantly Chinese communist guerrilla movement in Malaysia, the internal civil strife termed ‘the Emergency’, did not finally peter out until the late 1980s. As Dr Mahathir has frequently remarked, this gives Malaysians great insight into matters of terrorism, and an understanding that it is best resisted by isolating the causes of support from disaffected groups.

This prolonged period of post-war resistance to communist incursions cast Malaysia in a pro-Western light. However, Malaysia’s ruggedly independent foreign policy did not.

Malaysia’s foreign policy has had two persistent themes: regional cooperation, and ‘South-South’ dialogue. In both these themes, there are clear parallels with Malaysia’s internal New Economic Policy, which aimed to reduce the economic disparities within Malaysia’s multicultural population following the ugly race riots of 1969. This policy of positive discrimination to raise the educational and economic standing of Malays relative to the Chinese and Indian communities required concerted action to fuel rapid economic growth and raise the tide of opportunity for all ethnic groups.

The fact that Indonesia’s race riots in the late 1990s triggered no resonance in Malaysia testifies to Malaysia’s successful passage to multicultural stability off the back of economic growth.

Malaysia has always been an ethnic and cultural melting pot, largely because of its geographic position at the vortex of major trading routes. This multiculturalism now assumes new importance in an era characterised by the resurgence of Islamic countries as a force in international relations.

Dr Mahathir worked hard to consolidate the public voice of Islamic countries, while negotiating behind the scenes on behalf of persecuted Muslim minorities. As international race riots proliferate in the aftermath of September 11 2001, Mahathir’s successor, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, is poised to assume a crucial leadership role as an advocate for what has been termed an Islamic new way: Islam Hadhari. This is sometimes translated as ‘civilisational Islam’, a rendering not entirely liked by some Islamic scholars who interpret it more as a call to go ‘back to basics’ in exploring the meaning of Islam within the contemporary world.

Like Mahathir, Abdullah emphasises that Islam and economic and technological development are not incompatible. One of the most gripping addresses I have heard was Dr Mahathir, on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate, expounding Islam’s historic contributions to science and technology as a template for Islamic countries in a 21st century, global, knowledge economy. Abdullah, however, is even better credentialed to advance this argument on the international stage for he is respected as an Islamic scholar, an intellectual Muslim.

When he took over as Prime Minister in October 2003 Abdullah was a little-known figure, although as Malaysia’s long serving Foreign Minister he knows the world very well. Interestingly, one of the first biographies about him to hit the shelves in Malaysia is titled Abdullah: Revivalist of an Intellectual Tradition. This book speculates that he is descended from an early Muslim missionary from North Africa. His grandfather certainly studied in Mecca and was a spiritual adviser in Malaysia’s independence movement, reportedly determining the formal date for Independence Day. The grandson, the present Prime Minister, followed family tradition, graduating in Islamic Studies at the University of Malaya before entering the civil service.

On the cusp of becoming Malaysia’s fifth Prime Minister, Abdullah penned a moving poem entitled ‘In Search of Everlasting Peace’, which is reproduced below. It is a measure of the man. It reveals someone who has the moral and intellectual authority to go between the extremes of Islam, as well as the growing misunderstandings between Islam and the world’s other two great monotheist faiths: Judaism and Christianity. (I suspect the increasingly agnostic West feels far more comfortable with the polyglot and inclusive nature of Confucian, Buddhist or Hindu theology. Perhaps the real global divide today is between the ideologies of relativism and objectivism?)

Abdullah’s credentials as a go-between are grounded in exemplary personal integrity and, like so much of Malaysian politics, a preoccupation with the impacts of government and administration on everyday life. Over dinner in Penang, US life-Ambassador Diana Lady Dougan “ no, she’s not closet British aristocracy but uses her traditional Scottish name in full to the delicious confusion of many “ reminded me of a telling incident involving Abdullah and the former Deputy Prime Anwar Ibrahim, who was controversially jailed in 1997. Apparently, in 1980, Anwar eloped to Thailand with his current wife which led to them being disavowed by his wife’s fundamentalist father. Recruited as a mediator, it was Abdullah’s quotations from the Koran which brought about reconciliation.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal last year, Ambassador Dougan rounded off this story by recounting how in 2004, a year after Anwar’s release from jail, Abdullah symbolically invited Anwar to join his head table at a feast celebrating the end of the Ramadan fast. It is a telling story about a man who will play a significant role in today’s increasingly fractious world.

Abdullah is well placed to build on Mahathir’s legacy, and take Malaysia’s international mission into new areas as a go-between and a force for Islamic moderation. In the aftermath of the latest Bali bombings, this is a crucially important mission especially for Australia because the biggest thing that comes between us and Malaysia is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, Indonesia. Islam Hadhari.

Ku Cari Damai Abadi: In Search of Everlasting Peace

I seek not riches untold
To live a life of luxury
I seek not millions
To live a life of plenty
I seek not friends so many
To live a life of profligacy
I seek he who is al-Ghazzãli*
I seek he who is al-Shãfi’i*
To unravel the secrets in the Holy Book
Seeking guidance
To unravel the secrets in the ways of the Prophet
Seeking direction
I live only for Him, my Lord
He is my Companion
He is my Witness
He suffices
I live a life full of meaning
Immersed in everlasting peace.

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
9th May 2003

(*al-Ghazzãli [1058-1111AD] al-Shãfi’i [767-820 AD] were both important Islamic theologians and jurists).

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