Islam: Facing Two Ways with Dr Mahathir

By Kershaw, Roger | Contemporary Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview
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Islam: Facing Two Ways with Dr Mahathir


Kershaw, Roger, Contemporary Review


PART I

AS Dr Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia was preparing to hand over the premiership to his 'annointed successor', Abdullah Badawi, in the course of 2003--an event fixed with quaint precision for 31st October, as if to pre-empt prevarication!--academic Malaysia-watchers in several countries were being mustered to contribute to collective assessments of a remarkable man after twenty-two remarkable years at the helm. As these collections of essays find their way into print, one recurring theme that can be anticipated is Mahathir's mobilization of religion as a prop for his at-root-secular modernizing mission for the Malays. Slightly by contrast, I myself was signed up for an essay on two quite-overtly-secular confrontations with Britain--those of 1981-83 and 1994, which involved boycotts of British goods and investment respectively. I had nevertheless, in the February 2003 issue of Contemporary Review, indulged a few thoughts on Mahathir's more 'transcendental' armoury.

In that survey, under the title 'Riding the Islamic Tiger in Malaysia', I tried to provide a sufficient background or context of general political history--which means, essentially, inter-communal relations--to make basic sense of the religious dimension. Landmarks were noted such as Independence from Britain in 1957 (when the multiracial population of the Peninsula of Malaya stood at 6.279 m); the inter-ethnic riots of 1969, and consequent rise of the Malay-promoting New Economic Policy (N.E.P.); Mahathir's accession to the premiership in 1981 in the midst of Islamic revival, followed shortly by partnership with the charismatic and ambitious Islamist, Anwar Ibrahim; the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 (in which the preference of Anwar--by now Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister--for the IMF's 'medicine' of higher interest rates pitted him against Mahathir's choice of exchange controls); Anwar's dismissal and orchestrated disgrace in the courts, which gave a much greater electoral boost to the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (known in Malaysia, incidentally, by its Malay acronym PAS, reflecting the 'Jawi' or Arabic-script letters Pa-Alif-Sin) than to the new Justice Party formed by Anwar's wife; but finally, Mahathir's political recovery in time to prepare the way for hand-over to a less impatient successor, thanks to a post-'September 11th' public perception that equated local Islamism with Taleban-style extremism.

It might have been well to add, however, that Dr Mahathir still saw a need to attempt to outflank the Islamist opposition by claiming in October 2001 that Malaysia was already an 'Islamic state'. As non-Muslim political parties declared that they were happy with the existence of an 'Islamic state' if it meant Dr Mahathir's version of one, perhaps we should take this as a purely symbolic pronouncement. Yet there has often been substance in Dr Mahathir's seemingly symbolic activity. For instance, the launching of an International Islamic University back in 1982 had contributed to the growth of an educated, Islamically-minded constituency that sought ever more increments of Islamisation in turn. And these intelligentsia would justify their prescriptions as a moral complement if not antidote to Mahathir's 'Vision 2020', which in February 1991 set Malaysia the materialistic goal (though one that was meant to cosset the Malays less than the N.E.P.) of fully industrialised status within 29 years. Only for few of these intelligentsia could Islam be seen as an actual motivator for realization of Mahathir's secular vision, as he himself partly wished it to be.

The Malaya of 1957 had been in many ways a politically placid colonial economy, notwithstanding the insurrection, yet to be defeated, of the ethnic Chinese-led Malayan Communist Party. Forty years later, Malaysia (thus renamed after enlargement in 1963), was a dynamic player on the Asian scene, both economically and politically, but subject to the contradictory stimuli and restraints of religious engineering for the 'definitive' ethnic community within.

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