TCS Daily

Hope in Southeast Asia?

By Alan Oxley - March 24, 2004 12:00 AM

The rout of Islamic radicals in the general elections last weekend in Malaysia, a moderate Islamic country, is being touted as good news. Given bombings the weekend before in Iraq and Israel by radical Islamic groups, it is. But the good news looks even better. Malaysians appear to be supporting Malaysia's new Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, because he is honest as well as moderate. This could be a lot more important.

The result of the Malaysian election was stunning. For over thirty years, Malaysia has been ruled by a coalition of racially based parties dominated by UMNO, the political party representing Malays. They are the biggest racial group in Malaysia and are Muslims. This was the party of Dr Mahathir. He became Southeast Asia's longest serving ruler, by exploiting racial politics. His spin on that included attacks on Western values and globalization. He espoused anti-Semitism. But, at 78 years of age, his time was up.

He selected Mohamed Badawi to succeed him. Mahathir had a ruthless record against political opponents, jailing his Deputy Prime Minster and political rival, Anwar Aziz, on charges of corruption and sodomy. Anwar said they were trumped up. Many believed this. Mahathir had secured political control of Malaysia's court system several years before.

Badawi, the Foreign Minister was mild mannered and self effacing. Many Malaysians regarded him as more representative of the Malay character than the abrasive Dr Mahathir. Mahathir anointed him as successor, but as soon as Mahathir retired, Badawi acted.

He declared what everyone in Malaysia suspected. One third of all funding for all government contracts was corruptly siphoned off. His predecessor had promoted grand government infrastructure schemes worth billions - a national poll highway, rail transit systems, a new national airport, a new grand prix racing circuit. In his last few weeks in office, Dr Mahathir unexpectedly awarded a big national railway project to a Malaysian group, headed by one of his cronies.

One of Badawi's first acts as Leader was to cancel the project. He then authorized the arrest of a handful of high profile figures close to the Government on charges of corruption. Malaysians were fascinated. He was also skating on thin political ice.

Professor S K Jomo, a Malaysian academic and a left-wing critic, had published a book a few years before in which he chronicled how Mahathir had built a political system of "money politics" like that in Japan. Government acted corruptly to provide funds not only for its corrupt leaders, but for the political machine so it could service its internal operations. Jomo was anti-big business and exaggerated his claims, but his general description of the political corruption model looked right. Badawi could not take his crusade too far without challenging powerful political interests in his own political party.

He called an election with eight days notice, the shortest in Malaysia's modern political history, and then broke another record. He increased his coalition's control of the national parliament; and, possibly more importantly, he wrested political control in parallel elections for State Governments in north Malaysia where militant Islamic parties had ruled for several years. Undoubtedly he has established his own political authority.

Under Mahathir's rule Islamic fundamentalism had risen steadily in Malaysia. This appears to be a global phenomenon. It is also happening in Turkey and Egypt, other moderate Islamic countries. Like them, Mahathir also had ruthless internal security and used it against security threats. Nevertheless, he was shocked to discover after the Bali bombing that the Southeast Asia ally of Al Qaeda responsible for the bombing had covertly run training schools in Malaysia for several years.

In Malaysia the rise of fundamental Islam is seen as a response to modernization. It appealed to poorer Malays in rural areas who were uncomfortable about change (Malaysia grew rapidly under Mahathir, averaging growth of seven to eight percent for many years) and resented the wealth in the cities and corruption among its leaders. It was among rural Malays that the Islamic parties made political gains.

Mahathir's relentless attacks on the West were evidently a screen to deflect attention from corruption. Badawi campaigned against corruption and ran a skillful election campaign emphasizing him as a modest Malay.

He now has a political mandate to clean up Government and politics in Malaysia. This is good news for Malaysia. Corruption was breeding Islamic fundamentalism and increasing business risk to unacceptable levels for foreign investors. The economy had been losing competitiveness.

Mahathir had argued the virtues of the private sector as the tool for development, but used this to justify crony capitalism to give advantage to the Malay community, which historically had been poorer than the smaller Chinese community (about one third of the population) He was no advocate of free markets and he did undermine the rule of law.

Abdullah Badawi's record as a free marketer is unknown. But if he make corruption unrespectable in Malaysia and restores the independence of the judiciary, he will have laid vital foundations for growth and stability in Malaysia and Southeast Asia.


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