What Mahathir Has Wrought.

Author:Jones, David Martin
 
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A PRE-PATD 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 tide 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 sensibilities.

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 [1] 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...

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