09 May, 2007

Malaysia back-pedals into the future

Malaysia has done much to deserve its reputation for economic dynamism and social harmony, but a flurry of actions by the country's hard-line Islamic authorities illustrates the contradictions within the Malaysian model, and raises doubts about the country's effort to rise to the ranks of developed nations by 2020.

In a globalised and competitive world, Malaysia cannot modernise its economy without modernising its society. In practical terms, this means choosing the universal values of freedom of conscience and freedom of inquiry over the narrow dictates of Islamic orthodoxy.

The most recent example of this ongoing clash between the modern and the medieval involves Revathi Masoosai, a 29-year-old ethnic Indian woman born to Muslim parents but raised by a Hindu grandmother. Last month, Malaysian religious authorities forcibly separated Revathi from her Hindu husband, Suresh Veerappan, and handed their 15-month-old daughter to Revathi's mother.

Under Malaysian law, anyone born to Muslim parents is automatically considered Muslim, and converting to another religion is illegal. (No such injunction bars non-Muslims from embracing Islam.) Since Muslims come under the purview of sharia, non-Muslims cannot seek redress from secular courts.

Revathi's case is only the most recent of a string of similar incidents. In 2005 Islamic authorities deemed that M. Moorthy, a celebrated mountaineer and a practicing Hindu according to his wife, had secretly converted to Islam before his death. Over his wife's protests, Moorthy's body was taken from his family and given a Muslim burial.

In another infamous case, Lina Joy, a computer saleswoman in her 40s, has spent nearly 10 years unsuccessfully seeking official recognition of her conversion from Islam to Christianity.

Two years ago, followers of an offbeat spiritual movement called Sky Kingdom - known for revering a giant cream-coloured teapot - saw their commune razed by authorities who declared their beliefs "heretical". In recent months, Hindus have taken to the streets to protest a spate of temple bulldozings. In each of these cases, the government of PM Abdullah Badawi, who publicly champions a tolerant approach to faith, has stood by for fear of angering religious hotheads.

The nub of the problem lies in Malaysia's inconsistent approach to modernisation. Unlike Singapore, which stands for equality before the law and a strict meritocracy, Malaysia has sought prosperity against a backdrop of deepening Islamisation and handouts for ethnic Malays.

Until recently the Malaysia of vice squads and apostasy laws did not intrude upon the Malaysia of glittering skyscrapers. But the rise of China, India and Vietnam, and the demands of a shift from low-cost manufacturing to more knowledge-intensive work, raise serious doubts about the viability of the Malaysian model.

The country needs freedom of inquiry to unleash the creativity of its people. It needs to foster an atmosphere of tolerance to staunch the outflow of the country's brightest non-Malays and to attract overseas investment. Neither is likely without rethinking the twinned and contentious issues of ethnic preferences and religious supremacism.

Of course, it's too early to write off Malaysia just yet. Its success over the past four decades depended on shrewdly balancing ethnic politics and pragmatic economics. After riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969 between the prosperous Chinese minority and ethnic Malays, Malaysia instituted a programme to raise the Malay share of national income. The government aggressively favoured Malay businessmen, and Malays gained a virtual monopoly on government scholarships for overseas study. At the same time Malaysia followed outward-looking economic policies that encouraged foreign investment and export-led growth.

As with other parts of the Muslim world, the rupture with the past brought by prosperity rose in tandem with Islamic consciousness. The oil boom of 1973 allowed the Gulf States to bankroll efforts to Arabise the Muslims of SE Asia. The ripples of the 1979 Iranian Revolution were felt directly on Malaysian college campuses. During the 1980s the headscarf became ubiquitous among Malay women. Meanwhile, in a bid to outdo the Islamist opposition in terms of piety, the ruling United Malays National Organisation, went on a mosque-building spree.

In the wake of Malaysia's troubles during the Asian financial crisis in 1997, long-serving PM Mahathir Mohamad became something of a global cheerleader for anti-Semitism - accusing Jews of "rule[ing] the world by proxy". Meanwhile, disregard for non-Malays - for the most part Chinese and Hindu Indians, who together make up a third of the country's 25 million people - expressed itself most clearly in the architecture of the new administrative capital, Putrajaya. Acknowledgment of other cultures is conspicuous by its absence.

By some measures, Malaysian affirmative-action policies have worked. The Malay share of corporate equity rose from less than 4 percent in 1971 to between 20 and 45 percent in 2006. Over the same period per capita income quadrupled. Malaysia is the world's 19th largest exporter.

At the same time, rather than enable the Malays to compete effectively as equals, Malaysia has ended up creating a class of crony capitalists dependent on government largesse and a Malay population that sees special privileges as a birthright.

Often this supremacism is expressed in terms of religious intolerance. The one silver lining: liberal-minded Muslims such as lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar and academic Farish Noor have joined non-Muslims and a plethora of blogs in criticising this trend.

These troubles could not come at a worse time. Malaysia's strength in low-cost manufacturing is being challenged by China and Vietnam. The government has invested heavily in technology infrastructure in the form of the Multimedia Supercorridor, ambitiously hailed as the Silicon Valley of the East. But amid competition for scientific talent and despite relaxing some of the usual race laws, Malaysia finds it hard to retain Indian and Chinese engineers. Meanwhile, many of the brightest students - especially non-Malays - migrate to Australia, the US and Singapore.

For Malaysia then, the fate of Revathi Masoosai has wider implications. Its resolution will signal whether Malaysia seeks a future as a prosperous and pluralistic trading nation, or a country whose inconsistent efforts to modernise ultimately doom them to failure.

Sadanand Dhume

Sadanand Dhume is a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, DC



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