Tiger burning bright

July 21, 1995

Now that the dust has settled on the Malaysian general election it is possible to take stock of how the country is faring in its race to join that highly successful group known as the tigers of the east Asia region. Mahathir Muhammad, the Malaysian prime minister, has been adept at using a neat line in anti-Western rhetoric to win general support for his policies within Malaysia while demonstrating both at home and abroad that the particular development plans leading up to the year 2020 that he envisaged for Malaysia are designed to take Malaysia to the forefront of Asian nations.

As was anticipated, Dr Mahathir has won a ringing endorsement from the electorate. Furthermore, affairs on the political periphery have developed very rapidly in a manner which could not have been predicted. First of all, the government cracked down hard on the Al Arqam Muslim sect. Al Arqam had grown from modest beginnings in the late 1960s into a well-established and consolidated Muslim organisation which preached a curious ethic combining withdrawal from the world into a communal lifestyle with an engagement with the world in the form of building up business enterprises and capital accumulation. In the early years of its development Arqam had been generally regarded as an organisation of sincere but rather naive individuals, cranks rather than fanatics. By the mid-1980s, however, opinions had begun to change. Arqam had by this time expanded considerably and it had begun to attract a growing number of university graduates who were disillusioned with what they regarded as the corruption of public life in Malaysia. In addition Arqam was becoming more visibly missionary and had spread to Brunei and Indonesia where, despite the bad press it received, it appeared to be winning followers, again mainly university graduates. The appeal of a simple lifestyle, the strong emphasis on group loyalty, the uniform green robes with white turban, and the stress on a genuine Muslim ethic that Arqam claimed it alone practised had made the organisation increasingly attractive to the idealistic youth of the Malay-speaking Muslim communities of the region. At the same time rumours began to circulate of religious unorthodoxy, brain-washing, splits caused in families, and the growing cult status of the leader Ashaari Muhammad. Most telling of all, there was talk of Arqam's political ambitions and the desire to take political control of the country through an outright challenge to Dr Mahathir and the ruling UMNO party.

In August last year as these rumours increased in volume Dr Mahathir decided to act. An order was put out for Ashaari's arrest, and the press carried stories of Ashaari sightings as he fled. When the end came, it was all something of an anticlimax. Instead of resistance or even stubborn rejection of the government's charges, Arqam capitulated. Ashaari, arrested in Thailand, was brought back to Malaysia where he was apparently quite happy to appear on television, admit the error of his and Arqam's ways, blithely acknowledging that the organisation had been guilty of heretical views. At one stroke, then, Arqam had been very effectively disposed of, demonstrating to Malaysians at home that while Dr Mahathir and UMNO were not anxious to interfere in religious matters, when it was a question of preventing the dissemination of heresy and blind fanaticism it would not hesitate to act. To those friends of Malaysia abroad, the message was equally clear: other secular governments thought the world which had Muslim majority populations might have trouble controlling their religious extremists but Malaysia was not one of them, a reassuring statement to those potentially thinking of investing in Malaysia.

Among liberal intellectuals within Malaysia, however, there was a curious ambivalence about the whole episode. On one hand, there was a sense of relief that what had appeared to be, at least to some, a potentially dangerous religious fanaticism had been effectively nipped in the bud; on the other, there was a sense of outrage that Dr Mahathir had once more used strong-arm tactics to emasculate political opposition and had not allowed free debate on the issue. The upshot was that by the time some sort of protest was considered by the opposition, Ashaari had caved in.

As for the reasons underlying the quick capitulation, some suggestion was made that a deal was struck and that Arqam could retain its financial assets, if an immediate public admission of error was made.

Another source of potential opposition was also resoundingly defeated in the last election. The DAP, a largely ethnic Chinese party which campaigns vigorously for full equality of treatment for the Chinese, and is, by implication at least, hostile to the special treatment or affirmative action afforded to the Malays, lost almost all of its seats.

For a number of years the DAP had campaigned for the right to establish a private university, provisionally called Merdeka (Freedom) University, which could meet the aspirations of bright, Chinese students who because of positive discrimination in favour of the Malays found themselves unable to win places at state universities. The proposal for Merdeka was rejected by the government but not before the DAP's vigorous campaign had won it considerable support from disaffected Chinese. In the carefully prepared run-up to the recent election Dr Mahathir effectively undermined this support by introducing substantial measures which met Chinese wishes. In 1993, for example, he declared that the English language should be reintroduced into the educational system, a move which dismayed Malay loyalists, and pleased the Chinese who had been reluctant users of the Malay language and who had always advocated the retention of English.

Perhaps more important, however, was the extension of opportunities for higher education which the government has begun to encourage. Although still not happy to see the establishment of a fully-fledged private university system, the government has now given approval for schemes which link colleges of further education in Malaysia with universities overseas. The link schemes allow students to study for one or two years in the link university in Britain or elsewhere doing degree-programme courses, and then return to Malaysia where they complete their studies and are rewarded with validated degrees. Everyone is happy: the Chinese because they now pay considerably less for university education for their children than they did when they sent them away for a full three or four years, the Malays because their position is safeguarded, and British universities because the link arrangements are a source of steady overseas student income.

The election results vindicated Dr Mahathir's strategy. It was not so much the party's victory but his personally, and Malaysia watchers have argued that one of the consequences of this is that Dr Mahathir's heir-apparent, the deputy prime minister and minister of finance, Anwar Ibrahim, has had his nose put out of joint. At a time when he might have hoped that his prestige and support within the party were beginning to rival Dr Mahathir's, he and his supporters have been firmly put in their place.

The rumour mills in Kuala Lumpur grind exceedingly fast and one of their recent productions suggests that the present minister of education, Najib Tun Razak, is the man to watch. Whatever the truth of this particular rumour, at the moment Dr Mahathir is still very firmly in control and very much determined to be a tiger, snarls and all.

Bill Watson is a senior lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Kent.

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