Foreign forces: Fodder for
anti-Americanism By Ioannis
KUALA LUMPUR - Last weekend US
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld goaded Malaysian
leaders when he told US naval troops he hoped the United
States would hunt for terrorists in Southeast Asia soon.
Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Razak swiftly fired
back, at the Asia Security Conference in Singapore:
"What we should avoid is the presence of foreign forces
in Southeast Asia to help us deal with this [terror]
threat ... We don't agree to the entry of a third
nation," he added, implying that Indonesia and Malaysia
were well suited to handle security in the Malacca
Straits, which spans the two nations (as well as
Singapore) and is widely seen as a possible terrorist
The salvos was fodder for the local
state-run press, which spun the story according to
script, portraying Najib as a stalwart protector of the
nation and the United States as a hegemonic power with
neo-colonialist intentions here. A day later, Najib
sounded more circumspect when he announced plans to work
more closely with the United States in combating terror;
and the issue fell away.
But lost in media
translation of the browbeating was the two statesmen's
reference to ideology. As to why US troops weren't
welcome, Najib said: "Not because we distrust those
outside the region, but because foreign military
presence will set us back in our ideological battle
against extremism and militancy." Rumsfeld meanwhile
said he was concerned with the "phenomenon of
Malaysia, which over the
past 25 years has lifted itself from an agricultural
backwater into a manufacturing, export-driven economy,
continues to get high marks from regional terror experts
for its preemptive efforts to fight the scourge.
"Malaysia has taken a tough stance against all Muslim
rebels, not just militants," said Andrew Tan, a security
analyst with the Institute of Defense and Strategic
Studies in Singapore. Indeed, 80-plus Muslims are being
detained under Malaysia's Internal Securities Act, which
allows for detention without trial and, according to
former detainees, has led to humiliation and torture.
But a concrete plan to address the rising
anti-Western sentiment here - the ideological components
of terror - say experts, appears to have gone missing
from Malaysia's counter-terror strategy.
prime minister [Abdullah Badawi] hasn't really said much
on this, he hasn't set a policy," said Kuala
Lumpur-based defense and security analyst Dzirhan
Abdullah's predecessor Mahathir
Mohamad may be best remembered in the West for saying
"Jews rule the world by proxy" at the Organization of
the Islamic Conference last October in the final days of
his 22 years in power. But after September 11, 2001, he
promptly closed Islamic schools suspected of preaching
hate. He called himself a fundamentalist and his country
an Islamic state. But he was also a first-rate raconteur
and polemicist who warned Malaysians often of the perils
of extremism - its causes, as well as the devastation it
could inflict on the country.
peddled his own brand of moderation in the form of
Hadhari Islam, which stresses development and adaptation
to the modern world. He talked up Hadhari a lot on the
campaign trail to beat back the hardline Parti Islam
SeMalaysia (PAS) and lead his conservative National
Front to a resounding victory in March parliamentary
But generally, he has appeared less
at ease on the issue of terrorism than his predecessor,
and generally he has avoided speaking about it in
length. He did make a rare exception on June 1, however,
when at a round table he acknowledged that Malaysia was
vulnerable to a terrorist attack and said "hijackers" of
Islam could not "make a virtue out of the massacre of
innocent men, women and children". Some praise
Abdullah's quietude, arguing that Mahathir's iron-fisted
approach encouraged dissent. But others say now is not
the time to be soft and quiet; that anti-Americanism is
reaching worrisome heights.
"There is a lot of
sympathy for extremists - and we need to address the
causes," said Kuala Lumpur Society for Transparency and
Integrity deputy president Param Cumaraswamy. "There
needs to be a greater awareness program. The public
should be educated more about what encourages terror.
"If you talk to ordinary people," he added,
"there is anger and that translates into sympathies to
The anti-Americanism, here,
many leaders and analysts say, correlates directly to
official US policy in the Middle East, particularly
Palestine and Iraq; as has been argued for the swell in
anti-Americanism throughout the world. But developments
here suggest that what's happening on the other side of
the world is but one component of the simmering rage;
frustration over the shape and course of Malaysian
development, what's being taught at schools, and the
role of the media are also key factors.
government and media work diligently to gloss over the
nation's myriad problems - from racial estrangement
between the majority Muslim Malays and the economically
dominant Chinese, to how the government's oppressive
policy has crippled inclination toward self-expression,
to the deteriorating quality of public education. Of
course, the US occupation of Iraq has abetted the cause,
and understandably so, say analysts.
natural that [Abu Ghraib] and the war in Iraq are
getting great publicity from the local media," said
Mohiden Abdul Kedar, vice chairman of the Consumer
Association of Penang. "They're being administered by
the country that proclaims to be the champion of human
But what is of growing concern, say
analysts, is the tone of the media's coverage, the lack
of nuance in its depiction, and the skewed reality it is
intent on promoting.
Wan Hamidi Hamid,
media-relations adviser with the Australian High
Commission in Kuala Lumpur and a former journalist,
scours the Malaysian media every day for articles to
serve the high commission. He said Western-bashing has
long been a favorite pastime of the government and its
media, but over the past year it has become more
unrestrained. Wire stories are being altered; he shared
some edited headlines from Saturday's wires as they ran
in local mainstream dailies: "20 white people disturb
Friday prayers in London"; "Christian terrorists kill 35
Muslims in Uganda"; "Zionists torture mother of
Palestinian freedom fighter".
"The content is
becoming more anti-Western and more openly [so]," Hamid
Many Malaysian analysts brush aside the
impact of anti-Western media reports and comments by
politicians here, calling it "just talk", and describing
Malaysians as a discerning lot with, generally, a
nuanced and informed opinion of the West.
said Hamidi, ignores the cumulative effect. It also
overlooks how growing uncertainties about Malaysia's
future and identity may be expanding their reach,
deepening their thrust.
When Mahathir was in
power the direction of the nation was clear, and for the
most part, people enthusiastically subscribed to the
vision: to become a fully developed, tech-driven nation
revered by the developing and developed world alike.
Mega-monuments such as the Petronas Twin Towers and
hub-aspiring international airport were erected to
impress upon that vision, as was a multibillion-dollar
"smart" city intended to attract international high-tech
companies and nurture home-grown talent. Today, however,
Malaysia increasingly looks like a nation whose big
dreams are behind it. No megaprojects are in the works.
International companies complain that not enough of the
local talent is up to snuff. Cafes are no longer abuzz
with pride and optimism; there's been a palpable
leveling in the air, as people wait for Abdullah to give
the nation a clear sense of where he's leading them.
One veteran commentator said domestic
developments coupled with US aggression and
unilateralism find an increasing number of Malays in a
quandary. They want to develop but feel they are under
attack, and so the proclivity is to retreat into Islam.
That inclination is being exploited at
universities around the nation, students from everywhere
from Sarawak on the eastern island of Borneo to Kedah in
the north by Thailand have told Asia Times Online.
"Recruiters for anti-Western groups are a
reality on every [Malaysian] university campus, I
think," said a recent graduate from Universiti Teknologi
MARA (UiTM). Most of these groups don't have widespread
appeal, but US foreign policy can't hurt their
recruitment efforts, the student said.
visit to the national mosque in Kuala Lumpur, with its
sprawling aqua blue roof of origami-like folds, found a
number of worshipers who said they were more
anti-American now than at any time in their lives.
Several also stated the need to try and forgive, which
they said was their duty to Islam.
exceptions. Said one wide-eyed believer from the eastern
state of Sabah, when asked what was the appropriate
response to the US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent
prison scandal, "We are seeing it now." He said
Malaysians who frequented a nearby mosque, popular for
its Saturday night gatherings, had just returned from
Iraq "to fight the infidels. More will be sent."
After the terrorist bombings in Madrid this
year, Mahathir said the George W Bush administration's
tactics in response to terror have made "the world a
more dangerous place".
The question here is, are
those tactics, coupled with the nation's struggle for
identity and direction in the post-Mahathir era - an era
of "escalating feelings", as Mahathir put it - making
Malaysia a more dangerous place?
avoided a major terrorist incident - despite the fact
that several high-profile international terrorists have
spent substantial time on Malaysian soil. Low poverty
rates, a history of tolerance, and the government's
message that suspected terrorists will be strictly dealt
with are all viewed as contributing factors.
Some experts say the government should add to
its list of deterrents a plan to give Malaysians a more
textured view of the West. They say the government may
be neglecting to do so because it feels the escalating
anti-Western sentiment is justified, and moreover,
because it's "just talk".
That Najib seemed to
revise his original comments, though, advocating "more
exhaustive discussions ... with the international
community", then going as far as to entertain the
possibility of collaborative anti-terror activities with
Western powers, suggests otherwise.
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