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Mahathir’s Path

May 26, 2015

After being a preferred destination of illicit capital and cheap labor, Malaysia is becoming a role model for Asia’s illiberal democracies. Its authoritarian style of governance is particularly appealing to the governments of Asia’s poorly governed countries.

At a program, organized on the anniversary of current Bangladeshi PM’s returning to home from exile, senior Awami League leaders hinted that the ruling party is going to take on authoritarian stance in coming days. Health Minister Mohammad Nasim said,” We believe in democracy. However,we do not believe in complete democracy. We believe in Mahathir Mohamad’s democracy. Bangladeshi PM is treading on Mahathir’s heels. We will stick to this form of democracy. We have no trust in that form of democracy which burns people to death, which promotes hurling of petrol bombs and which provides shelter to the killers of Father of the Nation.” Refuting Health Minister’s claim, Finance Minister M A Muhith said,” Mahathir did Mahathir’s programs in Malaysia. In Bangladesh, Hasina will introduce her own programs, and through these programs we will make Bangladesh a development model to the world.”[1] But deeds and policies of Sheikh Hasina govt support the Health Minister’s claim.

Our politicians’ love for Malaysia, read affluent Malaysia, is not new. The elder son of former BNP PM, notorious for his corruption, made frequent trips to the country to learn “how the country made such a stunning progress in short span of time“. The eye-dazzling structures bemused them so much that they hardly notice toil and sweats of other communities and poor workers from Asian countries behind the aesthetic marvels.

The two countries have similarities and differences (see my table). Unlike Malaysia, Bangladesh’s population is homogeneous. Though Islam is the dominant religion in both countries, cultural identity of Bangladeshis comes into play when their existence is at stake.

The Malays, account for 60% of the total population, always feel vulnerable living with the entrepreneurial Chinese and culturally and intellectually advanced Indians. It was Mahathir who introduced discriminatory laws and policies to subdue the other races. To capture the racial discrimination, essayist and political commentator Pankaj Mishra mentioned a line from satirical play ‘Atomic Jaya’, written by Huzir Sulaiman, in one of his books[2]:

“The Chinese do the work, the Malays take the credit and the Indians get the blame.”

Malays turned to their religious roots to strengthen their Muslim-Malay identity. Malaysia is importing crude version of Islam from abroad and it introduced Sharia laws parallel to British legal system. It is no surprise that it has become an education hub of narrow Islamic views about the world. Its institutions not only teach and disseminate the rigid theological views they also accommodate Islamist thinkers. Current Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu, a strong proponent of Pan-Islamism and a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer, is perhaps its high profile export to the world[3].

Unlike Malay’s Muslim-Malay identity, it was the language movement that heralded the rise of Bengali nationalism. The success of that movement triggered a series of movement culminated into the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, trashing the theory of separate nations for Muslims and Hindus. After the independence, it was people’s crave for democracy, which is “in their DNA”, put Bangladesh back on the track of participatory democracy in spite of several military interventions. No regime can rule Bangladesh indefinitely against their will. Two parties—Awami League and BNP—torchbearers of Bengali and Bangladeshi nationalism are ruling the country in turn. But decisions are not made democratically within the parties and the founding families of the two parties have the last say on every major issue. Moreover, constitution completely ignores the existence of indigenous community. Hasina govt restored country’s first constitution with a slight change: it retained Islam as state’s religion. So, the constitution lost its secular nature. Religious rulings, aka fatwa, were legalized during the incumbent govt’s tenure.

After getting independence from Britain, different ethnic groups locked into bloody riots quite a number of times in Malaysia. Mahathir introduced policies that gave Malays privileges over other ethnic groups[4]. United Malays National Organization(UNMO), dominated by Malay Muslims, is the only party that has been ruling the country for a long time.

Similarities and Differences between Malaysia and Bangladesh

Similarities and Differences between Malaysia and Bangladesh

Concoction of Islam and Malay nationalism accelerated Islamic revivalist movement and created a society where women covered themselves with conservative clothing. Like his controversial racial theories, Mahathir’s vision about science education among Muslims is shocking and regressive. While on a personal business trip to Bangladesh, Mahathir gave an interview to a local TV channel. In that interview Mahathir said,

“Muslim’s apathy to science education is really pitiable. They should educate themselves in Science. Only science-educated Muslims can make sophisticated weapons to compete with the West.”

Mahathir did not like any opposition and came down hard on his critics. He imprisoned his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim for being critical towards him, bringing false charges.

Bangladeshi prisons are now overcrowded with political prisoners without having any formal charges against them. One after another repressive laws are introduced to restrict freedom of media which is playing more and more the role of opposition in the absence of real bipartisan democracy.

When it comes to race, religion and oppressing the opposition, Bangladesh’s PM is following Mahathir’s path. Yet she miserably failed to emulate Malaysia’s quick development as most of her development projects are crippled by corruption and delay. Even if she somehow manages to replicate Malaysian miracle in the long run, there is a note of caution from Mahathir’s biographer Barry Wain[5]:

“[However], he would not be able to escape responsibility for many of the problems likely to plague Malaysian society in the future, from creeping Islamisation to corruption and inequality. For while he held Malaysia together for 22 years, the political-administrative system atrophied and decayed under his personalised brand of governance.”



[1]. He made the comment while giving an exclusive interview to an online news agency.

[2]. Read ‘A Great Clamour’ by Pankaj Mishra.

[3]. Ahmet Davutoglu was an Assistant Professor of Polticial Science at International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation, a research institute of International Islamic University of Malaysia, from 1990 to 1993. For more, read ‘Asia’s Cauldron:The South China Sea and The End of A Stable Pacific’ by Robert D Kaplan.

[4]. Mahathir introduced National Development Policy (NDP) that was aimed to benefit the Malays.

[5]. Read ‘Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times’ by Barry Wain.


From → Analysis

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