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MAHATHIR AS MUSLIM LEADER Ooi Kee Beng From Malay to Muslim Dilemma At the relatively mature age of 45, Mahathir Mohamad published The Malay Dilemma, an effective formulation of the position taken by many Malay nationalists about the unacceptability of the socio-economic state of the Malays.1 With it came fame, and infamy. The book was written in haste after his suspension from the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) following his public criticism of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first premier, in 1970. After being rehabilitated in 1972 by the succeeding premier, Abdul Razak Hussein, Mahathir quickly rose within the political hierarchy. In May 1981 he became Malaysia's fourth prime minister and stayed in that position until he retired in October 2003 at the age of 77. Along the way he fought and won countless battles against political rivals on all imaginable fronts, and worked to turn Malaysia into an industrialized economy. Alongside the impressive economic progress, an Islamization of Malaysia took place during Mahathir's watch. In 1982 he brought Islamic youth leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who was not a member of any political party at that time, into UMNO, purportedly to help him put an Islamic stamp on his modernization ideas, and to resist the Islamist party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). That is the generally accepted interpretation of Mahathir's surprise move. Such conclusions result from the assumption that Mahathir — and UMNO for that matter — is basically a secular leader concerned with the material development of his country and his own ethnic group, the Malays, and that the "Muslimness" of the Malays was of lesser importance. Yet, Mahathir himself had claimed that he did not accept the polarity of secularism and religion, even if this particular conviction appears to have come late in his life. In The Malay Dilemma, for example, Islam is not dealt with centrally. Ooi Kee Beng is Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. Mahathir as Muslim Leader173 While such a stance may be regarded as a rejection of what is normally considered a Western dichotomy, Mahathir's position was just as much — if not more poignantly so — a criticism of Muslim leaders through the ages who turned their backs on all knowledge that they considered not to be religious. He blames the fall of Islamic polities on these ulamas. Of equal interest is the fact that from the very beginning of his political career, his idea of national politics was based on historical argumentation that also generated a global perspective on the subject. From the Malay point of view, his book amounted to a tract on Malay decolonization. From the Muslim point of view, his championing of Islam is a critique against the historical abandonment of the religion's material function and of scientific knowledge. Much of the dynamics that informed his policies during his time in power could be traced to ideas proposed in The Malay Dilemma. These ideas were a desperate call for the socio-political decolonization of the Malays, and also provided guidelines for the construction of the Malay nation-state. Thus, if proper attention had been paid to the ideas expressed in this book, his "Look East" policy and "Buy British Last" initiatives at the start of his premiership would not have shocked so many. Also, Mahathir's aversion towards the Commonwealth and towards Australian political attitudes would have been expected. In short, a historical diagnosis informed by moral outrage, followed by a quick cure had been the gist of Mahathir's long period as leader of the Malays. In the later part of his period in power, however, especially after 11 September 2001, his speeches began to touch more and more on Islam, on the backwardness of Muslims, the misunderstanding of Islam, and Western aggression against the Muslim world. This was understandable in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan, and then Iraq. However, this shift in focus has become permanent, given his retirement and the unhappy attempts he had made over the past year to criticize the Malaysian government over various matters, especially with regard to the national car project. Mahathir had gone from being leader of Malays to the position of strident...


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pp. 172-180
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