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Doctoral Candidate, Monash Asia Institute, Monash University sasch4@student.monash.edu.au

Will this be the Asian century? The economic history of the twentieth century is marked by two important processes. The first is the sheer unstoppable advance of global capitalism. The second is the emergence, or rather, re-emergence of Asia after circa four-hundred years of near-complete submission to Europe and its colonial outposts in North America and Australasia. The phenomenal recovery of postwar Japan along with Southeast Asias long economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s, and the rise of first China and then India over the past three decades have lastingly reconfigured the global balance of power. It is in the larger context of these shifting economic and political structures that the question of whether the twenty-first century will be Asias century must be approached. This paper addresses itself to this subject, which is also the theme of the 17th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, through an

This paper was presented to the 17th Biennial Conference of the Asian Studies Association of Australia in Melbourne 1-3 July 2008. It has been peer reviewed via a double blind referee process and appears on the Conference Proceedings Website by the permission of the author who retains copyright. This paper may be downloaded for fair use under the Copyright Act (1954), its later amendments and other relevant legislation.

2 analysis of the engagement with this question on the part of Malaysias former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad. Along with Singapores Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Mahathir has remained closely identified with the mid-1990s argument that circumscribed democracy and a communitarian spirit could help account for Southeast Asias prosperity and growth. Liberal democracy and the open society, conversely, were depicted as Western imports not automatically suited to the needs of the developing, ethnically complex societies of Asia. Malaysia and Singapore (as well as other countries such as Indonesia, which also participated in this debate) approached the thematic from different angles and pursued different lines of the argument. Nonetheless, the proponents of the Asian way regularly sought to underscore their case with references to the increasing prosperity of Asias consumerist societies on the one hand, and on the other hand, the bloated, morose welfare states of Western Europe, or the breakdown of law-and-order in North American cities. Indeed, urban insecurity and lack of civility in the public sphere were a major socio-cultural point of criticism of leaders such as Dr Mahathir, who regularly spoke of the continued cultural refinement of Malay(sian)s and other Asians despite rapid economic transformations experienced by their societies. Easterners still value traditions and etiquette. They still emphasise communal wellbeing. While individuals have rights, these are not allowed to undermine the wellbeing of society as a whole: nakedness, cohabitation, neglecting traditional ways, drug abuse and unwillingness to work are unacceptable to Eastern societies. On the other hand, politeness, observing etiquette, respecting the needs of society and family, traditional ways and diligence are highly respected and practised. For these reasons the societies of a number of eastern countries are now safer, more secure and more advanced than those of the West.2 Coinciding with the period of sustained economic growth in Southeast and East Asia, and the stagnation of many mature Western economies during the mid1990s, this became known as the Asian values debate. Marked by European and North American soul-searching as well as new-found self-confidence among many Asians, the time also saw a flurry of academic and non-academic publications addressing themselves to the expectation that after almost two centuries of

Mahathir (1983a)

3 Atlanticism, the Pacific Rim would now emerge as the connecting node of a new global Mediterranean. Some of the better-known popular titles included Frank Gibneys 1992 The Pacific Century or John Naisbitts 1995 Megatrends Asia: The eight Asian megatrends that are changing the world. Incidentally, both books can be found in the personal collection of Tun Dr Mahathir and are on display at his office in Putrajaya. In some of his speeches, Dr Mahathir likewise referred to David Hitchcocks survey of Asian-Western differences in societal and personal values that emerged as a key document of the Asian values debate.3 This essay will examine Dr Mahathirs pronouncements on the roles of Asia and Asians in the new global order based. It is based on a comprehensive analysis of his speeches and writings, of which I have collected more than a thousand. Apart from evaluating Dr Mahathirs statements, this essay will also examine how his assertion that Asia offered an alternative to the Western model was received by Malaysias multicultural people.4 In particular, this paper will look at how Dr Mahathirs championing of Asian values or Eastern culture sat with his longstanding Malay nationalism as well as his governments concurrent Islamisation policies. The parallel rise of Asian values and Islamisation seem only initially as a contradiction. As this paper will show, both emphasized similar issues the facilitation of rapid economic growth, a communitarian spirit and the deferment of individual gratification and may therefore actually be seen as the strategic inverse of one another. In many ways, Asian values and Islamisation reinforced each others objectives and were ideally suited to send the same message to different audiences. Dr Mahathirs political rhetoric seems to be marked by the increasing presence of Asia. For example, while he mentioned Asia in only a single speech in 1981, Dr Mahathir would refer to Asia in thirteen speeches by 1996. Throughout the late 1990s, between ten and fifteen of his major speeches annually were devoted to the subject of a resurgent Asia. Altogether, one hundred and twenty-five of Dr Mahathirs speeches deal with Asia, its people and their relationships with the rest of the world. These speeches are complemented by published monographs such as The New Deal for Asia (1999), Reflections on Asia (2002), and the jointly-authored The Voice of
3 4

E.g. Mahathir (1995) According to the latest census data available, Malaysias population of Malays and non-Malay indigenous communities make up about sixty-five percent of the population. Ethnic Chinese represent twenty-six percent, Indians of largely southern Indian origin eight percent. Source: Malaysia National Census 2000, Department of Statistics Malaysia, available URL: http://www.statistics.gov.my/english/frameset_census.php?file=pressdemo, accessed 27 August 2008.

4 Asia: Two Asian Leaders Discuss the Coming Century (1995), published in Japanese under the more robust title The Asia That Can Say No. Even such a limited quantitative content analysis reveals a notable increase in the presence of Asia in Dr Mahathirs political rhetoric over the period 1981-2003. Why did this happen? What did Dr Mahathir mean when he spoke about Asia? What was Malaysias role, embedded, in but at the same time also encapsulating Asia in microcosm? What predictions did Dr Mahathir make about the future? Would the twenty-first century be the Asian century? Did this have anything to do with the Asian values he was propagating? What was the role of Islam? How did his governments Islamisation policy sit with the talk of an Asian renaissance? These are some of the major questions this paper seeks to address. Phase 1: The absent Asia Between the 1940s and the early 1980s, Asia was absent from Dr Mahathirs writings and speeches. There are no references to Asia in his major works of the period, including a 1964 English-language essay titled Interaction-Integration, which examines the tensions between Islam and the largely pre-Islamic adat or customary practise of the peninsular Malays. There is not much mention of Asia in the The Malay Dilemma (1971) or the Guide for Small Businessmen (1974) either. While Dr Mahathir famously criticised the continued economic marginalisation of the Malays in newly-independent Malaya, he made no apparent attempt during this phase to connect Malay disenfranchisement to Asia-wide or even global parallels, as he would in later phases. Unlike the increasingly vocal leftist critics of the global order, Dr Mahathir never questioned the underlying rules of the game. He did not advocate socialist utopia; rather he called only for a level-playing field that would give developing countries a chance to prosper under the free market. Instead of rejecting the inflow of Western capital into Malaya/Malaysia,5 Dr Mahathir wanted more of it but simply on equitable terms. While Asia was absent during this first phase, the Western world was present at two levels in Dr Mahathirs rhetoric. On the one hand, Western was shorthand for a modern way of looking at the world, while the rural culture of the

Gaining independence from Britain in 1957, the Federation of Malaya was renamed Malaysia in 1963 when the Malay Peninsula was amalgamated with three other previous British colonies in Southeast Asia. Singapore exited Malaysia in 1965, but the Bornean federal states of Sabah and Sarawak have remained parts of the enlarged Malaysia.

5 Malays implicitly represented the old-fashioned, superstition-ridden ways of the past that had facilitated Asias colonisation in the first place. On the other hand, Dr Mahathir clearly stated that Asias spiritual traditions, in the case of the Malays their Islamic faith, could help them and other non-Westerners6 distinguish between the good and evil of Western culture.7 Although Asia remained absent as a term, Dr Mahathirs critique of the West for its double-standards and hypocrisy core themes of his political worldview that would endure throughout his political life can be discerned even during this initial period. One of his earliest speeches as freshman Member of Parliament indicates this: Patent laws were drafted during colonial times in the interest of the European colonisers. These laws only afford protection to strong countries from economically weak countries, which [in] itself is strange and unjust. But when [Western governments] feel [patent] rights affect their own people negatively, they dont hesitate to change the rules or to exclude themselves, as the British have recently done.8 Dr Mahathir has evidently long been incensed over the manifest injustice of these double-standards. As he told the 1982 general assembly of the United Nations: The age of empires and imperial powers is practically over. But the world has not as yet become a better place for the previously colonised.9 Although Dr Mahathirs criticism stayed the same, the spatial categories and geographical classifiers which he employed to express his criticisms have changed. Asia does not appear as a major classifier until the 1980s, when it replaced Dr Mahathirs established contrasts between poor and rich nations, previous colonizers and previously colonized, or the advanced North and the struggling South. While he maintained the same argument of geo-cultural difference and geopolitical injustices, Asia only became a notable category and a distinguishable element of his rhetoric in the 1980s.

Dr Mahathirs usage of terms such as Easterners during this first phase did not suggest cultural commonality. It seemed to be merely the lowest common denominator that was defined largely in opposition to Westerners. 7 Mahathirs 20 July 1947 letter to the Sunday Times, reproduced in Abdul Kadir (1995:3). 8 Malaysian House of Representatives (1964: col. 726) 9 Mahathir (1982b)

6 Some of the reasons for the absence of references to Asia during the first four decades of the speech and writings examined here include the communitarian political structures of newly-independent Malaya/Malaysia, which did not facilitate the emergence of a supra-ethnic consciousness beyond the parochial issues of race, language and religion. Another factor was the conservatism of Kuala Lumpurs top leadership, which remained suspicious of the third-worldist kind of political rhetoric it instinctively associated with its arch-rival in Jakarta. Finally, memories of the Pacific War and the bloody inter-ethnic clashes after the Japanese occupation in the erstwhile British territories of Southeast Asia were still too fresh to enable the emergence of a supra-ethnic Asian consciousness. Asian intellectuals beyond Malaya/Malaysia had been experimenting with the concept of a pan-Asian cultural identity since the late nineteenth century (cf. Milner & Johnson 1997:1-19). Before the 1980s, however, there was clearly insufficient middle ground between Malaysias Malay-Muslim, Chinese, Indian, Iban, Kadazandusun and Eurasian populations to create a viable supra-ethnic Malaysian identity much less a plausible Asian identity that extended across the continent as a whole. During this period, there was also certainly insufficient self-assuredness to support the championing of the Asian way. That was to come only in the following phase. Phase 2: The discovery of Asia The 1980s were a pivotal decade, marking the beginning of both Malaysias tremendous economic growth, as well as the beginning of its somewhat paradoxical sociopolitical transformations towards a country at once more Islamic and more Malaysian. The early 1980s also heralded the beginning of the second phase in Dr Mahathirs engagement with Asia. This is the period of Dr Mahathirs discovery of Asia and its virtues, when (in almost complete inversion of classical modernization theory) Asias cultural characteristics were listed as the true reasons for its economic growth. Asianness was now posited as conservative social values such as familyorientation, but also a communitarian spirit and consensus-mindedness in decisionmaking. All of these, Dr Mahathir seemed to suggest, were irreconcilably opposed to the values of Western liberalism including individualism, permissiveness and lack of discipline.

7 [Westerners] dont work hard anymore and prefer to relax. Through their unions, western workers demand all kinds of comforts, to the extent that Western countries pay higher allowances to those on the dole than those who work. Because of that, many choose not to work.10 Buoyed by Eastern successes and a Western world mired in strikes, unemployment, protests, growing poverty, crime, the unraveling of society and economic meltdown (at least, this is how it seemed from the perspective of the average Malaysian newspaper reader) Dr Mahathir began to speak about Asia not merely as an alternative to the Western order, but about Asia replacing the West. The way Asia would get there would be by sheer demographic weight, but above all by hard-work, discipline, the privileging of communal harmony over personal freedoms and the willingness to forego the immediate gratification of desires. These were social values which Dr Mahathir could discern across Asian societies. Together with the developmentalist state that delivered increasing prosperity but was unencumbered by the excesses of western-style liberal democracy, these Asian values had been the secret to Japans phenomenal postwar recovery. In Dr Mahathirs view, Asian values had underpinned the economic growth of Japan, along with the rise of Tiger Economies like that of South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Malaysia identified what we believed to be the factors which contributed towards Japan's success. They are the patriotism, discipline, good work ethics, competent management system and above all the close cooperation between the Government and the private sector. And so we tried to adopt these practices and instil these cultures in our people. And everyone now acknowledges that Malaysia has made better progress than most other developing countries.11 Culturalist factors loomed large in the debate, but these were more than simply Chinese successes. Dr Mahathir and other proponents of Asian values insisted that these were Asian successes based on Asian ways of managing economics and politics. Conversely, what appeared in the 1980s to be Asian failures such as the Philippines and India, were reduced to their adoption of unsuitable Western concepts such as

10 11

Mahathir (1984) Mahathir (2002b)

8 liberal democracy or a free press.12 At the same time, Asian values were more than a cultural veneer for local authoritarianism. They implicitly also carried counterhegemonic claims to a strident Western universalism long underscored by its unquestionable military and economic dominance. The post-war success stories of Japan and the Asian tigers, as well as tiger cubs such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia were thus portrayed during the second phase as ready-made examples for other developing countries to follow. In Europe or America, there may well be much greater pluralism and so-called freedom of the press, but in Asia it has been and will continue to be, the good of the many rather than the selfishness of the few or the individual that is treasured. That is the way democracy has developed in many Asian countries and I believe this is going to be the Asian form of democracy for the future as well.13 A key element of Dr Mahathirs engagement with the subject of a resurgent Asia and of Asian values during this second phase was the overarching quest for authenticity. For almost a century, Asians had grappled with the question whether progress and modernity could ever be truly Asian, or would they have to be irreconcilably connected to the European experience? The Asian values debate, along with Malaysias attendant policy of seeking to menyerap nilai-nilai Islam dalam pentadbiran or infuse Islamic values into government, is at one of its most basic levels the attempt to formulate an autochthonous political identity that could finally arrest the intellectual decline that had culminated in the colonial intervention. The very Asiatics and Orientals, who until recently had been refused entry into the colonialists clubs and who had been held irredeemably backwards, were now growing from strength to strength. In the view of Dr Mahathir and other proponents of Asian values, it had been the Asians holding fast to Asian social values which had made this resurgence possible. As he elaborated in his 1999 book A new deal for Asia, Personally, I never liked the term East Asian miracle because it seemed to imply that our accomplishments were achieved through


E.g. Mahathir (1996a), also Mahathir (1982a): The Philippines was [ruled by] both Spanish and Americans, and they felt so divorced from the other countries of Southeast Asia that in the eyes of some people, they could hardly be considered Southeast Asian. 13 Mahathir (1999:44)

9 some form of magic rather than through the hard work, blood, tears and genius of our peoples.14 Probably the best-known early policy directive of this second phase, heralding in fact its arrival, was Kuala Lumpurs instruction to Malaysians (and particularly Malays) to look East to the examples of Japan and South Korea.15 To speak of Asia as a cultural unit and to move away from the image of the ethno-nationalistic Malay ultra was a political tactic that probably didnt aim to please, but ended up sitting very well with Malaysias vital non-Malay communities that still represent more than forty percent of the population. This shift coincided with a gradual transformation of Malaysian identity towards the more inclusive, supra-ethnic bangsa Malaysia that Dr Mahathir would increasingly speak about by the beginning of the 1990s.16 Bangsa Malaysia would finally be able to overcome the countrys century-long division between bumiputera (princes of the land) and descendants of migrants from China and South Asia. Above all, all Malaysians would be Asians par excellence: self-confident and thoroughly modern, enmeshed with the world and in touch with their various ancestral traditions, but meaningfully united by being-Asian. Even as Malaysias Islamisation continued to gather pace, both bangsa Malaysia as well as the governments continued talk of Asian values meant that Malaysia, even beyond the purely economic, remained a welcoming place for its non-Malay citizens. In fact, the can do message of the pragmatic, tolerant, pluralistic and this-worldly-oriented reading of Islam that was encouraged by the government tallied with the basic ideas of both bangsa Malaysia as well as the strong discipline and good work ethics which Dr Mahathir was able to discern across all Asian cultures. This was also the time that Dr Mahathir began to engage himself seriously with the question of Asias future. Over Malaysias decade of irrational exuberance between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, Dr Mahathir seemed convinced that the world axis would tilt in Asias favour and that humanity was standing at the cusp of an Asian or a Pacific Age. And many agreed with him especially scholars of Asia As he told his audience at the ASLI World Leadership Conference in Kuala Lumpur in 1994,
14 15 16

Mahathir (1999:27) E.g. Mahathir (1983b) In particular: Mahathir (1991)


We know that the 21st century will indeed be the Asian century. We are moving into an age of Asian leadership as Asia emerges to become one of the primary drivers of global economic growth. The rise of East Asia is only natural and inevitable given the dynamism of countries in this region.17 Phase 3: The Century of man It is important to point out that Dr Mahathir seemed to have changed his views on the inevitability of an Asian century even before the Asian Financial Crisis struck Malaysia in 1997. Instead, in the middle of the unparalleled prosperity of the mid1990s, Dr Mahathir began to call for the establishment of a colour-blind, post-ethnic world order. The Malaysian Prime Minister argued that humans everywhere should work together to make the twenty-first century the century of the world, or the century of mankind. As he told the Global Panel meeting in The Hague in 1996: There are now many, especially from my part of the world, who fervently believe that the twenty-first century will be the century of Asia and should be the century of Asia. They believe that Asia will inherit the future, will dominate the world. I believe that this is a mirage wrapped in incredible arrogance. The century of Asia will not come. The era of Asian dominance over this planet will not arrive. This will not happen. Nor should we in Asia aspire to a new hegemonism.18 Instead of the Asian century, Dr Mahathir argued that Asians should work together with Africans, Europeans and Americans to make it the century of the world or the century of mankind. The world century would indeed herald the end of Anglo-Saxon dominance over the world and would usher in an age of equality. As he told his London audience in 1997: The Century of the World will be an Age of Connectivity between peoples, places, information, and ideas. In this context, Asia has a special role to play in the creation of the World Century.19 Although connectivity itself may not automatically be equality, Asias increasing enmeshment in the globalised world would allow history to run its natural course and
17 18 19

Mahathir (1994b) Mahathir (1996c) Mahathir (1997a)


11 enable Asian societies to catch up with their counterparts in Europe and North America. While Dr Mahathir frequently expressed his hopes that not one single people should inherit the world, he was convinced that Asia would play a more significant role in the twenty-first century. As he told his audience at the 1996 Pacific Dialogue in Kuala Lumpur: We of Asia will increasingly demand and we have a right to demand a little maturity and sophistication on the part of those who wish to analyse and proselytise; who so easily slip into the role of policeman, prosecutor, judge and jury; who so habitually try, judge, punish and persecute without even giving us a hearing Already, the Asia Pacific is where sixty percent of the world is. On this planet, at this time, already sixty percent of all the goods and services are produced in the Asia Pacific. In the decades ahead, the economic centre of gravity must shift towards Asia. 20 Dr Mahathir continued to insist on the need for cultural autonomy and the need for cultural and discursive independence from the West. Only an Asia that was allowed to develop along what he described as Asias own values could play the required role of motor for global growth and prosperity. At the same time, Dr Mahathir underscored the point that a resurgent Asia should not turn into an aggressive or arrogant Asia. Phase 4: Disillusionment Southeast Asias phenomenal growth rates of the 1980s and 1990s, and the stridency with which the leadership of countries such as Malaysia and Singapore claimed their economic successes for the Asian way, seem to have led some in the West to question the universality of its historical experience.21 Conversely, the Financial Crisis of the late 1990s seemed to have produced among a number of Western commentators an almost palpable sigh of relief amid widespread Schadenfreude. This was picked up by many in Asia as triumphant point-scoring with racist undertones. In his angry 1998 lecture to the Harvard Club Malaysia, Dr Mahathir was representative of such perceptions:

20 21

Mahathir (1996b) E.g. the Tory leader David Howell encouraging Britain to adopt some of the values that had made Asias economic growth possible (quoted in Thompson 2001:164 FN 5).


12 It is impossible for our non-Asian foreign detractors to believe that Asian Government leaders can be honest at all. If they do anything at all for the good of their countries it must be because they are corrupt and want to help their cronies and their families. These racist views will persist. It must be remembered that these racists are the descendants of the old white-supremacist colonialists. They cannot get rid of their spots and stripes.22 Although Dr Mahathir had long been a critic of what he perceived as Western hypocrisies, his increasingly difficult relationship with decision-makers in the West (whom he held responsible for the Financial Crisis) loomed large in his engagement with the question of whether the twenty-first century would be the Asian century. As he wrote in his 2000 book The Malaysian Financial Crisis: As one Frenchman said, the genie has been let out of the bottle and no one in the world can put it back in. 23 Dr Mahathir continued: This is a remarkable admission considering that the people who let out the genie are the same people who have appointed themselves as the policemen of the world, the champions of human rights and justice for the oppressed people in the world.24 Although glimpses of his proposal for the century of mankind or the century of the world would resurface periodically throughout this fourth and final phase of his engagement with Asia, the Financial Crisis and above all, his growing domestic and international political isolation drove the Malaysian Prime Minister into making increasingly angry statements that divided the world into stark binary classifications based on phenotype. Dr Mahathir looked to world history to argue that Europeans and Asians had different personalities. The ethnic Europeans, who are very clever, brave and have an insatiable curiosity,25 could not but base their millennium of world dominance on acquisitiveness. A prosperous and successful Asia, conversely, would preside over a

22 23 24 25

Mahathir (1998) Mahathir (2000a:57) Mahathir (2000a:57) Mahathir (2003a)


13 peace without an imperium26 and thrived because of its prosper thy neighbour27 philosophy. Even China, at the absolute height of its imperial power in the premodern era, had never impinged upon the territorial integrity of its neighbours, as Dr Mahathir stated somewhat incongruously in 1994.28 Dr Mahathirs earlier critique of Western greed and myopia was thus increasingly undermined by a caustic, defiant and one-sided analysis that would become a distinguishing mark of the fourth phase of his engagement with Asia. This was, of course, also the period during which the talk of a global Jewish conspiracy against predominantly Muslim Malaysia came to the fore.29 Despite its weaknesses, Dr Mahathirs pointing out of the inequities of the international economic order during the three earlier phases had provided an articulate southern critique of the excesses of northern capitalism. His earlier criticism had carried the promise of discovering alternatives to the Western narratives and Western conceptual architecture (Milner 1999). Dr Mahathirs pronouncements on Asia during the fourth phase, however, ceased to reflect visions for a more just future for all of humankind. Instead, his vitriol seemed addressed to specific segments of the Malaysian electorate such as the MalayMuslims, who had begun to desert the Prime Minister and his ruling coalition party. During the fourth phase, there was little of the bold alternative narrative Dr Mahathir had held out before. It had been Malaysias political crisis of his own making that unraveled Dr Mahathirs vision for the universalistic century of mankind. His engagement with Asia degenerated into an increasingly desperate defence of the Old Order, for which his government relied on the anti-Western sentiments mobilized through its near-complete control over the Malaysian press landscape. It makes sense to reconsider the political situation Dr Mahathir found himself in during the late 1990s. On the one hand, his dismissed, tried and jailed erstwhile deputy Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim had emerged as the undisputed defender of liberal values, of the Asian renaissance embedded within a universal humanism. Anwar was even beginning to formulate a rival script to Dr Mahathirs bangsa Malaysia that would bring together Malaysias multi-cultural people. On the other hand, Dr Mahathirs core electoral constituency (i.e. ethnic Malays living in the over-weighted
26 27 28 29

Mahathir (1989) Mahathir (2003b) Mahathir (1994a) E.g. Mahathir (2000b)


14 rural constituencies) was increasingly starting to vote for the Islamist opposition PAS. Instead of offering the visionary leadership he had prided himself on throughout the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, Dr Mahathir was thus forced to chase the Malay vote through attempting to mobilize ethno-nationalist sentiments. His engagement with Asia thus ended on the same negative note that his engagement with Islam ended in during the 1990s and reflected the same deeply flawed political strategy. Conclusion The above has been an overview of the evolving engagement we can observe in Tun Dr Mahathirs speeches on Asia, and how he responded to the question of whether the twenty-first century would be the Asian century. In many ways, Dr Mahathirs engagement with Asia reflects his changing political fortunes and circumstances. He began as an ethno-nationalist with little interest in a continental identity, became a statesman and leader of a rapidly developing tiger economy, and ended his career as an increasingly isolated autocrat who resorted to cultural arguments to validate authoritarian rule. Throughout the four phases we have observed in his engagement with Asia, however, the Asian values discourse as well as its less developed predecessors fit neatly into Dr Mahathirs overall political worldview. He was looking for cultural factors to explain Asias successes in the postwar world, just like he was looking to cultural factors to account for what he perceived as the failures of the Malays. Values and mindset determined the success, or otherwise, of a people, of a country and even of an entire continent. Beyond ideological convictions, Dr Mahathirs engagement with Asia was also an astute political choice. To tap into Asian successes made clear sense at a number of levels. In and beyond Malaysia, his advocacy of an Asian way reverberated positively with the man on the street. Abroad, Dr Mahathir came to be seen as the man with the gumption to stand up to Western hegemony. It is still very common for Malaysian overseas visitors to be given a thumbs up for their leaders courage when in Damascus or Dhaka, but even in some predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods of Brussels or Birmingham. At home, Dr Mahathirs engagement with a resurgent Asia had the net effect of underscoring the governments project of nurturing a supra-ethnic Malaysian national identity known as bangsa Malaysia. The public imagery of bangsa Malaysia was distinctively pan-Asian, as bangsa Malaysia brought together Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Kadazandusun and the many 14

15 smaller ethnic groups of Malaysian in a harmonious blend of peoples, languages and religions. Slogans such as Malaysia, truly Asia were thus aimed as much at international as at domestic audiences, hence Tourism Malaysias massive billboards within Malaysia itself. Speaking of Asia also provided cultural validation for the Mahathir administration. Assailed on cultural grounds from the Islamists, speaking of Eastern identity or Eastern values. Asia could be deployed as a defensive strategy over accusations of cultural contamination. In fact, Asia and properly understood Islam seem to have been used as each others strategic inverse. A comparison of the treatment of Asian values and properly understood Islam in Dr Mahathirs speeches, writings and interviews shows great parallels. His criticism of the Wests hedonism, the love of pleasure and the gratification of the senses, the selfishness of its quest to gratify base physical desires and the very way in which community has given way to the individual and his desires30 was easily juxtaposed to the superior morality of either Asians or Muslims. Dr Mahathirs very this-worldly emphasis of what Islam was meant to achieve for the individual believer tallied with what he saw as the underlying reasons for Asias postwar success: obedience, emphasis on social harmony, placing the good of the community above self-gratification, a sense of purpose, discipline and the steely will to succeed. It was the continued presence of these values in Asian societies as well as what Dr Mahathir called Asias role as primary custodian of old fashioned cultures, values and ways,31 which entitled the continents inhabitants to the leadership of the future short-term setbacks such as the Asian Financial Crisis notwithstanding.

30 31

Mahathir M. (1993), Speech at the Seminar on Muslim and Christian Minds, Kuala Lumpur, 14 September Mahathir (1997b)


16 References
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