Published on Jun 25, 2003

EDITORIAL: Time for Malaysia to
move beyond race

Over his 22 years in power and almost four decades in politics, race has never been far from outgoing Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's heart, either as an issue on his development agenda or as a political tool.
In 1969, he was temporarily expelled from the dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno) for violating the party's policy about airing racial issues. The following year he wrote "The Malay Dilemma", a book denouncing Malays for their shortcomings and demanding that the government give them special treatment at schools and in the business world.
Last year, Mahathir finally questioned the wisdom of granting so many privileges to the Malays, who make up 60 per cent of the population but continue to lag behind their Chinese counterparts both economically and professionally.
At the same time though, Mahathir's view of his country as being under threat from "foreigners" does not seem to have changed much.
At last week's ruling party congress - the final major Umno meeting he will attend before retiring later this year - the 77-year old leader launched into one of his trademark tirades against white Europeans, characterising Anglo-Saxons as warlike and greedy and saying their liberal societies bred low sexual morality.
He warned his people to be on guard for Western invaders, saying Britain and the United States were intent on using the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 as an excuse to wage war on Muslim countries. His party also handed out anti-Semitic pamphlets to participants at the congress.
Nobody really knows if Mahathir believes the things he says about Westerners or whether they are just a political crutch. In his earlier years, he used similar race-baiting of the Chinese to organise the Malays politically and push for exemptions for them.
Ethnic diversity of the sort Malaysia possesses should be a strength in today's globalised world. But Malaysia has yet to fully tap the potential, talent and wealth of its diverse collection of races, languages, cultures and religions, and the ruling government's discriminatory policies are really to blame. It was not until 1999, when facing an electoral threat from the opposition PAS, that he formally acknowledged the Chinese contributions to Malaysian history or recognised that studying in Chinese was not somehow unpatriotic.
To be sure, Mahathir has made enormous contributions to Malaysia's development, overseeing the rise of the country from an Asian backwater to a modern nation that enjoys considerable status in the developing world.
Still, it is impossible to ignore the fact that for all of the economic progress, Malaysia's political system has made little headway. Mahathir's main political rival of the last eight years, Anwar Ibrahim, remains in jail. The son of the leader of the main Chinese opposition party has been repeatedly jailed for actions as innocuous as distributing pamphlets and again for taking up a young girl's sexual harassment case against a government politician. The Mahathir-led system has kept the peace and provided the stability necessary for development, but it is riddled with corruption and abuse of power. The government breaks up peaceful demonstrations, censors the press, jails opponents and uses state money to bail out politically connected businessmen.
It is also a system that is hopelessly inadequate to respond to the varied aspirations of a modern electorate.
There should also be concern that after so many years, when Mahathir probably should have been looking to make a graceful exit, he still felt he needed to resort to racist outbursts. It suggests he does not believe Malaysians, and the politically dominant ethnic Malays are ready to take responsibility for themselves. Instead, they still need a "foreign" bogeyman - whether it be "Jews on Wall Street", "arrogant Singaporeans", unpatriotic Chinese, or predatory Westerners - to keep them together and to blame when things go wrong.
Apart from farewelling the "Old Man", the other major goal of the Umno conference was to cement party support behind Mahathir's hand-picked successor, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has a reputation for being more diplomatic, urbane and open than his mentor. Hopefully, Badawi will prove that with his choice Mahathir did know that it was time to leave behind the race issue that was so central to his reign.