Mahathir's Difficult Inheritance

Malaysia enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s few modern Islamic countries. However, Mahatir Mohamad's policy of favouritism towards the Muslim community has lead to an ethnification of the country’s society. Charlotte Wiedemann reports


photo: AP
Mahatir Mohamad, Malaysia's former prime minister

​​When the Hindu minority in Malaysia held its Deepavali Festival, the Muslim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad cut the celebratory cake, arm in arm with an Indian and a Chinese politician. This highly demonstrative act was broadcast on Malaysian TV. In future, too, this kind of ritual will be part and parcel of the business of government in multi-ethnic Malaysia. But with Mahathir’s retirement last October, after 22 years in office, many people feel that such symbolic acts have lost their main protagonist – and with him, their credibility.

Life can be ironic. When Mahathir stepped down, the Western world heard only the anti-Semitic notes in his last major speech before a conference of Islamic government leaders. Yet in Malaysia, many of his compatriots – and especially the non-Muslims amongst them – had seen him as a guarantor of stability; and that means a sponsor of peace between the country’s religious and ethnic groups.

Fear of civil disorder in multi-national Malaysia

Because of the nation’s fragile structure, the fear of civil disorder is easily awakened in Malaysia. The Malays, Muslim without exception, make up 60% of the population – only a thin majority. The Chinese account for one third of the population, and since the British colonial era, they have been the most economically agile group. The Indians (around 8%) are themselves subdivided into Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

Mahathir’s last re-election, in 1999, had already been largely due to the Chinese vote. Many of his own Malayan people had turned away from him after he jailed his vice-premier Anwar Ibrahim. Since then, an Islamic opposition party has managed to gain increasing influence.

Privileged status of the Muslim Malays

Though he was Malaysia’s greatest moderniser, Mahathir also left behind him a problematic heritage. His despotic treatment of his former heir apparent Anwar has given the Islamists the chance to present themselves as cleaner, more “fraternal” and simply more Islamic than his party. But this is only part of the inheritance he has left behind him. The other factor concerns a highly-sensitive area: the privileged status of the Muslim Malays.

For more than 30 years, they have enjoyed systematic discrimination in their favour – a policy of favouritism that in other parts of the world exists only for disadvantaged majorities. Here, it’s the other way around: the Malay majority is protected by quotas at the universities, and by grants, guaranteed jobs and shares in companies. This is defended as a way of ensuring that they can compete with the minorities, especially the Chinese.

Mahathir was not the inventor of these policies, but he was their spiritual father. As a hot-headed young Malay nationalist, he had written a book on “the Malay dilemma”: it was a vehement attack on the amiable apathy of his own ethnic group. The easygoing fishermen and rice farmers had little education. And even under British rule, they had been pushed to one side by the hardworking Indian and Chinese immigrants. When Malaysia gained its independence in 1957, the Malays owned less than 3% of the country’s land and property – and this in a country they now wanted to rule, and which they had lived in long before the others.

Mahatir: Privileges are "a crutch"

After three decades, the pro-Malayan policy has to be seen as having failed. Its economic goal – a 30% share of property in Malayan hand – has not been reached. More seriously, the one-sided privileges have made it difficult for the ethnic groups to meld, and they have also done nothing for the image of Islam: Muslims in Malaysia are seen as being advantaged per se, and this creates an unhealthy climate.

Once again, Mahathir has been harder on his own people than anyone else: the Malays, he said, had settled down lazily and smugly into the advantages granted them by the Malaysian system. They had, he said, regarded the “crutch” of their privileges as proof of their higher status in the country, instead of using this crutch to learn to walk before throwing it away.

Were the national economy dependent on the Malay contribution, he said, “Malaysia today would not be much better off than some of the developing countries in Africa”. For this statement, anyone else would have risked being charged with incitement to racial hatred. Malaysia’s laws permit no public discussion of such sensitive matters; Mahathir alone is allowed to break taboos as he pleases.

His harsh words can barely conceal the fact that Mahathir is a disappointed and embittered man. The lesson gained from the Malaysian experiment is that there is no short-cut to progress: mentalities and cultures, developed over the course of centuries, cannot be changed in a few decades. The discrimination suffered by the Chinese has only made them tougher and more assertive. The Malays, says Mahathir, know nothing of the work ethic and take no pride in achievement. Ethnologists and anthropologists could find a lot to study in Malaysia.

First steps towards reform

Mahathir recognised the failure of his pro-Malay policies long before he stepped down, but he did not have the strength to draw the consequences. With two exceptions: the quotas at the universities will be eased somewhat, and primary schools will start teaching in English once again. (The language of the British colonists had been replaced by Malayan, in order to strengthen the country’s national identity.)

Yet it is precisely the young generation that shows how weak this national identity still is: the feeling of estrangement between the ethnic and religious communities has grown. Muslims and Hindus have started refusing to share dormitories. De facto, most schools are now mono-ethnic. Indians cling to impoverished Tamil-language schools that offer their children no prospects. Only a tiny minority of people truly see themselves as “Malaysians”; all the others are, first and foremost, Malays, Indians or Chinese.

Islamic scholar to heal national rift

Mahathir has left his successor Abdullah Badawi, an Islamic scholar, with an utterly thankless task on his hands: in order to prevent the various ethnic groups drifting even further apart, he has to withdraw the Malays’ privileges – while preventing them from turning to the Islamists in their disillusionment.

Without a doubt, this country has achieved a lot; but the success and failure of Mahathir Mohamed are like two sides of one coin. Malaysia is often presented as a rare example of a successful marriage between Islam and progress. It’s an assessment that the country’s Chinese minority have always been clever enough not to dispute.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© 2003

Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan