by Farish A. Noor © News And Media Limited UK
In the old days of Empire, the world was cut neatly into chunks that bore the trademark of the European colonisers. The world then was also divided according to the colonialist ethnographic register: people were classified into equally neat categories, depending upon the traits and features that each racial group was meant to embody. Africans were relegated to the lowest rung of the evolutionary ladder, once the spurious equation between their colour and their supposed inferiority was proclaimed to be a fact by the scientists of Europe. Then came the Asians, who were industrious but conformist, drone-like and without history, as John Stuart Mill, the doyen of Liberal thought argued. Europeans, by some happy coincidence, turned out to be the best of the lot. The fact that they were white was empirical evidence, if any was needed, that they were meant to be on the top of the heap.
The world of today may seem to have undergone a massive socio-political revolution on a global scale. But a closer examination of the situation would reveal that the elites of Europe and the United States are still inclined to hold on to their dreams of power and dominance even though they have since tumbled from their pedestal.
The talk of the world today is that the future belongs to Asia. According to such prestigious American journals as Time, Newsweek, and the British weekly, The Economist, etc, countries like Japan, Korea and Taiwan are the beacons of the future which are drawing wealth, capital and talent eastwards to greet the new millennium. Next come the aspiring tigers of the east: Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. But behind the praises being sung about the 'Asian miracle' the Huntingtonian world-view is being framed by the superficial fiction of the rise of Asia as the new economic threat to Europe and the US.
Of all these countries, Malaysia is the one which deserves closer attention. While Japan, Taiwan, Korea and the rest are often seen as economic miracles that are leading the way to the future, the success of Malaysia in ascending the ladder of development remains problematic and more complex, for Malaysia is different from her other dragon and tiger cousins in several ways. Unlike Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, Malaysia is an Islamic country, whose official religion is Islam. Since the 14th century Islam has been in the Malay archipelago, and it has left a lasting impression on the tolerant and accommodative culture of the people there. It has also left a deep impression on the political and entrepreneurial culture that has evolved in the Indo-Malay world. Islam's influence is also much evident in the ethical and moral outlook of the people. Thus unlike the other Far Eastern countries which seem more concerned to build their place in the sun, Malaysia is the only tiger that has paused to look back at its lesser and more unfortunate cousins nearby.
While the other tigers were willing to parrot the litany of anti-Arab condemnation fed to them by the Anglo-Saxon powers, it was Malaysia that openly supported the struggle of the Palestinian people. Malaysia was also the only tiger vocal and forceful enough to raise the issue of Bosnia, or to condemn the hypocrisy of the powerful, industrialised countries and the UN. The reason for Malaysia's not toeing the line with the others is simple: Malaysia is torn between running with the Asian tigers and trying to help her sisters in the Muslim crescent.
This aspect of Malaysia's identity and development has hardly been mentioned or studied by European or American observers. The reasons are many. It may be because of their perennial fear of Islam and inability to imagine that an Islamic country could actually make it to the ranks of the developed world. Or it may be due to a fear of acknowledging that somewhere in the Islamic crescent there exists an Islamic country profoundly affected in its development by its Islamic ethos which may one day compete with the rest.
So the trend continues relentlessly. Whenever there is a report or a feature on Malaysia, it is the facts and figures that are paraded before the viewers or audience. Two recent documentaries shown on the BBC in Britain serve to reinforce these misconceptions: East Beats West and the series The End of the Western World' (12 and 19 May 1996). In both reports, Malaysia is portrayed as an 'Asian nation' that has developed because of its 'Asian culture'. Hardly ever does the dominant religious and ethical culture of Malaysian society - Islam - receive credit for its success. The secret of Malaysian success is explained in terms of that curious metaphysical quality, 'Asian-ness'.
This is, of course, a roundabout way of returning to the politics of the age of empire, when Asian societies were described as being diligent but conformist and authoritarian. The reports on Africa and the Arab world would bear out this hypothesis, for in the contemporary reportage on Africa and the Arab world all one can see are the same degrading and extremist stereotypes that were in abundance at the zenith of the empire.
Fortunately some of Malaysia's elites are not quite prepared to be seduced by such double-edged flattery. Despite concerted attempts by the global media and the governments in Europe and the US to play the countries of the 'third world' against each other and to compare the degradation of Africa to the 'miracle' of Asia, Malaysia's elites have not given in. They have clung on to the globalist and internationalist outlook of her founding fathers of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) generation, as well as to their bonds with the Muslim crescent.
Malaysia's commendable efforts to keep in touch with the rest of the southern world - though expensive - have helped retain the bonds between the 'non-Western' countries of the South, be they Asian, Arab, African or Latin American. The attempt by the Malaysian Airline System (MAS) to fly direct from Malaysia to Latin America or Africa is part of this overall project of keeping the South united and to break away from the chain of dependency on the developed countries of the Europe and the US. The picture looks somewhat encouraging: the Seventh Malaysia Plan revealed recently shows that between 1990-1995 Malaysia's trade with the South ammounted to 14% of her total trade. (Though this was already an increase of 20% over the period) The latest challenge to Malaysia's determination to develop these links comes at a time when the elites of the developed world are busy trying to inflate the egos of Asians by describing the result of their hard work as nothing short of a 'miraculous' feat of superhuman achievement.
In the past, all cultures east and south of Suez were regarded as universally inferior. Today, some are regarded as 'super-human' others, degenerate and irredeemable. The constant attempt to inflate the image of Malaysia as an 'Asian miracle' (while downplaying the role of Islam in her success) is a contemporary form of the old distinction between the 'good nigger' and the 'bad nigger'. The intention remains the same: to divide and rule, if not by force then by the more dangerous tactics of flattery and persuasion. For this reason, Malaysia's elites have to bear in mind that the country needs to serve as a beacon for the rest of the rising crescent and not to be so easily persuaded about their 'miraculous' Asian abilities just because Newsweek or the BBC told them so.