Malaysia is not dissimilar to Indonesia and Singapore in that all these countries have long-serving, non-elected leaders who tend to stick around until they're almost dead, before passing the reins of power onto a well-groomed deputy. There are elections here, as in Indonesia, but the National Front party, dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) majority faction, has held power continuously since independence in 1957, and the opposition has all but disappeared. Malaysia is a one-party democracy, and it doesn't look as if this is going to change any time soon.
The current Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has been in power since 1981, which is even more impressive when you consider that the UMNO expelled him from the party back in 1969. His deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, is much more liberal, but there's no sign of Mahathir stepping down yet1. This has produced an environment where the leader does pretty much what he wants.
To the outsider, the most obvious effect of this democratic dictatorship is the proliferation of anti-western propaganda. Dr Mahathir, in his personal support of Islam, has to tread a fine line between keeping the Muslim fundamentalists happy, with their calls for a ban on alcohol, gambling, snappy dressing and having a good time, and the Chinese, who make lots of money and gamble like crazy (not to mention the fact that they eat pork, something that Islam bans). A common bond between the Islam of the Malays and the neo-Confucianism of the Chinese is a hatred of the West, even if Mahathir isn't that keen on admitting that the Chinese are in the same boat as his own Malay people.
Of course, anti-western propaganda is often hypocritical. Singapore is a good example of a country that accepts the West and flourishes; Mahathir, however, blames almost everything on the Americans, claiming in his book The Voice of Asia that 'western societies are riddled with single-parent families, which foster incest, with homosexuality, with cohabitation, with unrestrained avarice, with disrespect for others and, of course, rejection of religious teachings and values.' I haven't read anything like this since studying Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale in school; Mahathir's vision of Asian Values, as he calls them, are that Asians are hard-working family people who are morally sound, religious and good at making money, and that the West is simply the opposite. Of course, neither of these stereotypes is accurate; stereotypes never are.
So in Malaysia, examples of Mahathir's opinions abound, from the media to the political stage. Take this poem that was published in The New Straits Times on , on the 'Young Times' page, a page aimed at young people:
by Wan Imran Wan Chik
America here, America there,
America seems to be almost everywhere,
Sticking their noses into other countries' affairs,
Right down until your very own underwear,
'Cause they think that this whole world is theirs.
A modern country but with uncivilised people,
Infecting the world with their lifestyles and ideology,
They live without tradition or moral values, making everything look so very simple,
Invading the world through weapons of psychology,
By creating their utopia called Americanology.
'A' serious effect upon the Earth's ecology,
Making fewer friends and more and more enemies,
By disrupting other countries' peaceful economy,
Without saying 'Excuse me!' or 'I owe you an apology!'
Advanced in space travel and in astronomy,
Creators of nuclear bombs and war technology,
Heroes only in movies, novels and short stories,
'Cause every last American President needs a lobotomy.
America is a hero only to fools' eyes,
It is a villain wearing a disguise,
Plaguing the world by telling lies,
Only to be seen by leaders who are wise,
Leaders who listen to their nations' cries.
For those who are foolish America's price they will pay,
To become an uncivilised country but modern in every way,
By gambling their future to be modern and richer today,
As social problems would grow each and every day,
And the countries' identity, cultural and traditional heritage would just seem to fade away,
Which is the only defence against America which has gone far astray.
Pretty full on, isn't it? To complete the picture, Malaysia practises positive discrimination against non-Malays, which has caused considerable issues in the past. When Malaysia was first set up in 1957 following the departure of the British, it was going to be made up of Malaya (now called Peninsular Malaysia), Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and Brunei. At the last minute Brunei pulled out to protect its oil interests, and after two years Singapore was kicked out, leaving modern Malaysia as Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. Singapore's leaders cite Malaysia's discrimination against non-Malays as the reason that their country left the Federation, because Singapore refused to extend these pro-Malay policies to its people, who are mostly Chinese, not Malay.
These days Malaysia is still made up mainly of Malays, but the number of other groups – Chinese, Indians and so on – is significant; the government, however, doesn't treat everyone equally in law. For example, non-Malays can find it difficult to go to university in Malaysia due to restrictions imposed on the number of places available to them, so gifted 'immigrants' often go abroad for their schooling, to places like Australia and America.
But there is no doubt that Malaysia is thriving and has managed to create a stable and forward-looking economy from a post-colonial market that consisted of rubber, tin and timber exports only. Even if its Prime Minister is rather too fond of huge building projects to satisfy his ego, there are plenty of worse regimes in the world; and after Singapore and Brunei it has the highest standard of living and most developed economy in Southeast Asia, which is impressive.
1 In , Anwar was sacked and was put on trial on charges of corruption and committing illegal homosexual acts, for which he received a six-year jail sentence. Then, in , Anwar was put on trial for sodomy, and in he was sentenced to a further nine years in jail. Anwar Ibrahim says he was framed, and that the whole thing was a political set-up. Whatever, it left Dr Mahathir unchallenged as Malaysia's leader until he retired 2003, after 22 years in power.