Malaysia’s Greatest Crisis: Loss of National Pride and Unity
by Murray Hunter
Malaysia’s Greatest Crisis: Loss of National Pride and Unity
Love him or hate him, Mahathir Mohamed during his first stint as prime minister was able to instill a great sense of national pride and unity.
Mahathir went on a massive infrastructure drive. Most Malaysians were proud of the Penang Bridge that finally linked the island with the mainland. The North-South Highway project changed the nature of commuting up and down the peninsula. Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) was built and the development of Putra Jaya gave the country a new seat of administration.
Mahathir’s fait accompli was the building of the KLCC towers in central Kuala Lumpur, which were the tallest in the world at the time. These buildings are now the country’s major icon. Langkawi became a must holiday place for Malaysians. He brought elite Formula One motor racing and built a special purpose circuit for the event. He promoted the Tour de Langkawi as a local version of the Tour de France. He spared no expense on building massive new sporting complexes at Bukit Jalil to host the Commonwealth Games in 1998.
When the member nations of ASEAN abandoned the idea to build a regional car, Mahathir went alone, picking up old technology from Mitsubishi, creating the Proton Saga for better or worse although the national car project has been roundly criticized for losing hundreds of millions of dollars and costing more in terms of consumer lost opportunity.
Nonetheless, Malaysia became an Asian Tiger and Mahathir himself became an outspoken leader internationally. The country was proud of what it had achieved. He knew the value of national symbols. The slogan Malaysia Boleh (Malaysia Can) was often heard along with the waving of the Jalur Gemilang (stripes of glory – Malaysian Flag) at public displays of national pride and unity.
The Barisan Nasional was a working government coalition that symbolized national unity through the make-up of the cabinet and its true multi-ethnic flavor. Ministers like Samy Vellu from the Malaysian India Congress and Ling Liong Sik from the Malaysian Chinese Association had high public profiles.
Although Mahathir was labeled as an ultra-conservative Malay, he worked with anyone who could help him fulfil his vision. Businessmen like Vincent Tan, Robert Kuok, Lim Goh Tong, Ananda Krishnan, and Tony Fernandez all had very close relationships with Mahathir. Malaysia Inc. was more important to Mahathir than Malay supremacy.
That’s now 30 years ago. The prime casualty has been national pride and unity. The generally positive perception of the Mahathir era drastically changed when he abruptly sacked his deputy Anwar Ibrahim from office in 1998. The accusations and conviction of Anwar for sodomy polarized the population. The goodwill that Mahathir had built up over more than 25 years in public life was put into question.
Although it was his intention to eliminate his nemesis Anwar from politics, he made sodomy a household word in a conservative society, taking luster away from his legacy. He was painted by the Anwar propaganda machine and the alternative media as a tyrant with millions of dollars hidden away in foreign banks. In addition, two years of headlines and court reports about Anwar’s sodomy trial took away a sense of innocence, showing Malaysia’s ‘dark side’ with TV pictures showing a stained mattress being carted into and out of court every day on which Anwar was convicted of performing sodomy.
Under weak successors, belief in government further faltered. Respect for national leaders took another hit with Mahathir’s successor Ahmad Badawi painted as someone who slept on the job and enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle while many suffered economically. Badawi was painted by the PKR propaganda machine as corrupt. The dealings of his son-in-law and political adviser Khairy Jamaluddin were portrayed as corrupt nepotism.
Mahathir engineered an ungraceful exit for Badawi, replacing him with Najib Razak in 2009. The Najib premiership was tainted from the outset with rumors of murder and corruption. Najib’s wife Rosmah also became an object of ridicule, bringing respect for the institution of government to an all-time low.
However, it’s not just the corruption of politicians that destroyed respect for Malaysian institutions. The rakyat (people) have always wanted to believe in royalty. Even with stories about royal misdoings, there is no real talk of abolishing the monarchy. Whenever a member of one of the royal families acts in the interests of the rakyat, there has always been public praise and support. However, when members of a royal family act against the interests of the rakyat, the social media react.
Stories have been circulating for years about the misdeeds of Johor Royal Family. The current spat between Tunku Ismail, the Johor Crown Prince, commonly known as TMJ and Mahathir is extremely damaging for the royal institutions. Only the sedition act, a de facto lese-majeste law, is protecting the institution from much wider criticism.
Royal decorations and titles, VVIP service in government offices and special treatment for some citizens over others, shows a muddled Malaysia still clinging to the vestiges of feudalism. These artefacts are doing nothing to unite the country, a hangover from the old days of colonial class distinction.
However, the most powerful source of destruction for national pride and unity is the ketuanan Melayu (Malay Superiority) narrative which has become much more extreme. One of the basic assumptions is that bumiputeras — indigenous peoples – are the rightful owners of the land. From the point of view of the ketuanan proponents, land is not seen as a national symbol and non-Malays are excluded. This is a great barrier to developing any sense of national pride and unity.
The gulf between Malay and non-Malay has widened dramatically over the last two generations as Islam has grown into a major aspect of Malay identity. Citizens once celebrated their diverse ethnicities in harmony. Decrees made in the name of Islam now discourage this. No longer are Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Christmas shared Malaysian experiences.
The way of life has become Islamized to the point where there is little place for other religions and traditions. Food, dress codes, entertainment, education, the civil service, government, police and the military are all Islamized.
Shared apprehensions about what Malaysia will be have caused the Chinese to close ranks. The influence of Ketuanan Melayu in government policy excludes non-Malay participation in many fields like education, civil service and the military, etc. The younger generation of Chinese today tend to see themselves as Chinese first and Malaysians second. Chinese schools promote language and a strong sense of Chinese culture over a Malaysian identity as a mass defence mechanism.
The New Economic Policy, put in place in 1969 after disastrous race riots as an affirmative action program for the majority Malays, has also done a disservice to those it was designed to help. The thesis of Mahathir’s book The Malay Dilemma was that Malays were basically lazy and needed help from the government is the faulty grounding assumption. The NEP is actually an attack on Malay self-esteem.
Rather than offering something spiritual, Islam has become a doctrine of conformity, where particular rights and rituals must legally be adhered to. Failure to do so in the case of not fasting during Ramadan can lead to punitive legal action. Any views outside narrow social norms lead to heavy criticism. Just recently the Islamic authorities (JAKIM) in Selangor started investigating a discussion forum on women’s choice about wearing the hijab. Not just freedom of discussion is stifled, but also the right to be creative.
Islam has buried the principles of Rukun Negara (national principles), the supposed guiding philosophy of the nation. Rukun Negara was once a symbol of national pride and unity but has almost totally been replaced by a Doa (or prayer) before public events. A sense of nation has been sacrificed for the Islamization of public gatherings.
Today we see much less flag-waving during the Merdeka season. There are more divisional narratives on all ethnic sides. There is disappointment with the political system. Islam is seen by many as something overpowering rather than emancipating. People feel they need to conform to be accepted in society.
National pride and unity are at their lowest ebb since independence, where after 30 years of education the younger generations of Malays see Islam as more important than nationalism. Chinese and Indians are apprehensive about what Malaysia is turning into. Even the Orang Asli – the original inhabitants of the peninsula before the arrival of ethnic Malays from Indonesia — and non-Muslim indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak identify as second-class.
Malaysia has travelled far away from the aspirations of Tunku Abdul Rahman when the Jalur Gemilang was raised for the first time over a free Malaya in 1957. Malaysia’s economic prosperity is relatively declining in the region and the nation is increasingly strangled by the need to conform. Malaysia appears to be a ship without a rudder, its reform agenda locked away under the Official Secrets Act.
The possibility of racial violence festering once again cannot be overlooked. Divisive narratives are being pushed until one day an unknown tipping point could be reached. The strong sense of social conformity, the exclusion of a national sense of ownership to all, the current totalitarian nature of authority and ketuanan Melayu narratives are a very dangerous mix.
Murray Hunter is a regular Asia Sentinel contributor. He is a development specialist and a longtime resident of the region.
PRINCETON – When countries get nervous about their security, they often insist that they need to reduce their dependence on foreign products, shorten supply chains, and produce more goods domestically. But does protectionism really improve security? Now that the world is hovering on the brink of a full-scale trade war, we should examine some of the arguments made in favor of protectionism, and then revisit the largest trade war of the twentieth century.
There tends to be a great deal of duplicity in debates about trade. Import tariffs and other similar measures are often presented as convenient foreign-policy tools for serving the general good. But if one looks past the rhetoric, it is obvious that such measures really just reward particular constituents, and amount to an unfair form of taxation.
US President Donald Trump would argue that a trade war is a means to an end. To his mind, tariffs are a reasonable response to unfair currency practices and national-security threats. But, of course, there is also a domestic political calculus: namely, tariffs will help specific producers and constituents by making their competitors’ goods more expensive. The problem is that tariffs inevitably force domestic consumers to foot the bill for that subsidy, by paying higher prices.
There is nothing new in Trump’s assertion that, “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.” And that means we can test his claim against the historical record. When Neville Chamberlain was serving as Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1932, he reversed his country’s century-old position as a champion of free trade. Worried about Britain’s longstanding trade deficit, he announced a new “system of Protection,” which he hoped to use “for negotiations with foreign countries which have not hitherto paid very much attention to our suggestions.”
Chamberlain concluded that it was only “prudent to arm ourselves with an instrument which shall at least be as effective as those which may be used to discriminate against us in foreign markets.” In the event, he was paving the road to World War II. His trade policy weakened Britain and strengthened Germany. And in a mere six years, his appeasement policy toward the Nazi Germany regime would reach its pinnacle with the 1938 Munich Agreement, which Hitler discarded six months later by destroying the rump Czechoslovakia and bringing it under the control of the Third Reich.
The interwar years were dominated by the fear of a German nationalist resurgence. For Western powers, containing Germany would require either an alliance system or a more ambitious collective-security pact. France preferred the former option, and advocated an arrangement in which its alliance with Poland, plus the “Little Entente” of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia, would contain both Hungarian and German expansionism. Great Britain favored the second option, and saw the League of Nations as the most effective instrument for defending territorial integrity.
Both approaches crashed in the Great Depression, owing primarily to France and Britain’s own protectionist policies. Both countries shifted abruptly to a policy of high tariffs and import quotas that gave preference to products from their overseas empires. The result was that Czechoslovakia’s industrial producers and Romanian and Yugoslav agricultural exporters could no longer sell to Western Europe. Instead, they became increasingly dependent – economically as well as politically – on Nazi Germany. Likewise, Poland, after fighting a customs war with Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, entered into a non-aggression pact with the Nazi regime in 1934.
Through all of this, the League of Nations and other multilateral bodies tried to organize conferences and summits to halt the slide toward protectionism. But those talking shops all failed.
During the Great Depression, accusations of currency manipulation formed the primary impetus for protectionist measures. One hears the same sort of rhetoric today from Trump, both when he criticizes the US Federal Reserve for tightening monetary policy and when he claims – falsely – that China is artificially depreciating the renminbi.
The lesson of the Great Depression is clear: trade wars intended to strengthen national security actually undermine it. This is especially true in the case of defensive alliances, because trade barriers force allies to forge closer ties with the very revisionist power that was supposed to be contained.
Precisely this scenario is playing out today. Trump’s protectionist rhetoric is a response to the dramatic rise of China. But by launching a tariff war that also affects the European Union and Canada, Trump is making China look like a more attractive partner than the US. To be sure, Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have now reached a preliminary agreement to de-escalate the US-EU tariff fight. But Trump has already roiled the transatlantic alliance. Like Germany’s neighbors in the 1930s, Europe and Canada may feel as though they have no other choice than to seek out a more open – or at least more stable – partner.
Trump’s trip to Europe last month went a long way toward destroying the alliances that have maintained global stability since the end of WWII. And his self-abasing press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin had more than a whiff of Chamberlain-style appeasement. If Trump actually wanted to make China more attractive to the world, then he could do no worse than to continue his war on free trade and the multilateral institutions that arose from the ruins of 1945.
Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation. A specialist on German economic history and on globalization, he is a co-author of the new book The Euro and The Battle of Ideas, and the author of The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle, Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm, and Making the European Monetary Union.