|Malaysia's blind path to
KUALA LUMPUR - In its race to
develop, the Malaysian government has always had
one eye on Western achievement - in terms of
science and technology, dynamism, efficiency and
pluralism. The other eye has been conscious of
Malaysia's Muslim identity and the dangers of
falling for the "superficial conclusion that the
Islamic system of society and economics is not
compatible with the requirements of progress, and
should, therefore, be modified on Western lines,"
in the words of the late Islamist Muhammad Asad.
The speeches of former despot Mahathir
Mohamed, who retired in late 2003 after more than
22 years in power, distinguished between Asian and
Western values. He devised the "Look East" policy,
which cited Japan as a model. Then, in 2001, to
pander to Malaysia's 60% Muslim majority, he
officially declared Malaysia a Muslim state. His
favorite tune is said to be Frank Sinatra's "My
Of late, the government has been
hailing its "balancing act" as a rousing success.
Speaking at a panel titled "Modernization
without Westernization" at the World Economic
Forum in Davos last month, Deputy Prime Minister
Najib Razak said in effect that Malaysia has
adroitly combined Islam and modernization to
become a beacon of inspiration to the Muslim
world. "The Starbucks and McDonalds will still be
around, but we still preserve our culture ... We
are a fundamentalist Islamic country" that has
become a "source of force" for modernization, and
is "ahead of the other [thriving Asian economies,
such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan], and they
are looking toward us."
But back home a
different picture is taking shape, one in which
the government has been less mindful of progress
than it has claimed; and a worrisome number of
people seem to be sinking into a mass consumerist
lull of mediocrity, rather than collectively
pushing toward brave new heights.
government has talked a lot about preserving
"Islamic" and "Eastern" values. "But many aspects
of development haven't really been thought out,"
said Mohammad Haji Salleh, professor of literature
at Universiti Sains Malaysia. "There's been too
much emphasis on rapid capitalistic growth."
The price of growth
Malaysian Institute of Economic Research estimated
that the country grew by 7.2% last year. But that
growth might have come with a price. A recent
United Nations development report found Malaysia
to have one of the worst income disparities in
Asia, with the richest 10% of Malaysians earning
22 times more than the poorest 10%. Meanwhile,
Malaysia suffers from among the highest obesity
rates in Asia: 59% of Malaysian go to a fast-food
restaurant once a week or more, compared with just
35% of Americans and 11% of Europeans, according
to an AC Nielsen's Consumer Confidence and Opinion
Survey; it also states that 98% of Malaysians eat
at fast food restaurants. Only Filipinos frequent
fast-food restaurants more often.
bid to join the ranks of the industrialized world,
Malaysia finds itself grappling with the challenge
of any developing nation: how to incorporate the
myriad admirable qualities associated with the
West while resisting the seemingly pernicious
From a Muslim perspective, walking
this fine line is essential to proper development.
Assad, writing in the 1930s, said "there is only
one thing which a Muslim can profitably learn from
the West, namely, the exact sciences in their pure
and applied forms". Wisely, most progressive
Muslim scholars today aren't as dismissive of
Western achievement as Assad. But blind imitation
and consumption remain a concern for most devout
Muslims. And in Malaysia, those tendencies have
arguably been less tempered than they have in most
other developing Muslim nations.
predictably most pronounced in the capital city,
Kuala Lumpur, where a recent European visitor was
overheard saying on her day of arrival, "Mall
culture is more prevalent here than in the
States." That might be overstating it, but even
Malaysians, from journalists to laymen, often
lament that their capital city doesn't offer much
beyond shopping. Certainly it does - the
much-neglected national library and art museum out
along the highway come to mind - but retail
shopping, much of it with a global touch, seems to
dominate leisure pursuits here.
Lumpur retail market was worth RM13.77 billion
(US$3.62 billion) in 2004, or 26.7% of Malaysia's
total retail industry, according to Retail Group
Malaysia, which tabulates the retail data for the
Malaysia Retailers Association. The group says an
additional 3.23 million square feet (984,504
square meters) of retail space will be built
around Kuala Lumpur in 2005, and 4 million more in
2006, much of it in the form of mega- and
hypermarket-anchored shopping centers. Knowing
this, it seems only fitting that Kuala Lumpur is
home to "Southeast Asia's biggest shopping mall".
Word has spread. Arrivals from Saudi
Arabia, for instance, many of whom attest that
they come for the shopping, were up 53% last year.
And the craze doesn't end in the capital;
for the whole of Malaysia, retail sales grew 7.7%
last year, and the industry growth rate is soon
expected to surpass the country's gross domestic
product growth rate.
From an economic
perspective, the figures are encouraging; the
state of retail is said to be a strong indicator
of the health of an economy. From a less
dollars-and-cents viewpoint, they might be
unsettling. But are they cause for panic?
'Courtesy and noble values'
one travels away from city centers, what
distinguishes Malaysia and its healthy mix of
cultures becomes more evident; arguably, as Najib
suggested, the core remains intact. Even among
some urbanites, there is a growing mindfulness of
culture and religion. The tudung, or Muslim
headscarf, for instance, is more popular than
But some warn against confusing the
appearance of spiritual values with actually
"Most Malaysians have not
really thought about consumption and how that is
tied to moderation of religion," said Masjaliza
Hamzah with the women's right's group Sisters in
Islam. "Do they see a link between their religion
and work ethics, between their religion and how
they should treat others?"
It seems the
government is asking the same questions. Premier
Abdullah Badawi has talked abstractly a great deal
about Islam Hadhari, or civilizational Islam,
which through 10 points sums up his vision for a
progressive Muslim society. And last month
Abdullah announced a "courtesy and noble values"
campaign in which he bemoaned "the erosion of
values and the disappearing smile on Malaysian
faces". A local newspaper followed up with "The
Rude Malaysian Contest", in which readers voted
"jumping the queue", "bad driving", "spitting" and
"not giving seats to the elderly" into the top
Some global watchers argue that
a breakdown in traditional values is the
inevitable consequence of progress. Many
fast-developing Asian economies seem to support
the logic. But the concern with Malaysia is the
seeming lopsidedness of the government's
priorities. "The government has spent the last 20
years to make Malaysia economically viable, but in
terms of software, we haven't kept up. We haven't
developed critical thinking," said Hamzah. This,
she said, is partly due to draconian legislation
designed to discourage self-expression and a
restrictive, coddling education system that hasn't
grown in tandem with the economic sector.
Salleh, the literature professor, worries
that these realities, combined with the
proliferation of mass consumerism, do not bode
well for Malaysia's future.
"I'm afraid if
[the tendency] goes unchecked we'll find two
divides," he said. "One will be the very rich who
own businesses, the other will be a very large
number of consumers who tend to forget
The government has always
viewed the majority Muslim Malays as most
susceptible to falling into the latter category;
from the 1970s to present the government has
upheld an affirmative-action program to improve
their work ethic and empower the community. But
more than 30 years on, some say Malay
"backwardness", as Mahathir called it, remains a
In a speech last week,
Abdullah urged the Malays to stop wasting time and
develop themselves into "towering" personalities:
"The Malays need to change their attitude to one
that is more constructive. We need to use our time
wisely so that we can better ourselves and become
more successful. We should have the objective to
better ourselves, our families, our race and
country ... spend time to look for good ideas.
Look at how you can write that working paper for a
business project, or plan how to get your child to
succeed in school. Stop wasting time, wasting your
energy and wasting your effort."
though the government senses something is slipping
away - that if the Malays don't transform
themselves soon it might not happen. Perhaps it's
no coincidence that last month the religious
department here raided a popular nightclub and
arrested around 100 patrons, all of them Muslim,
for "indecent" behavior (See Islamic law called 'indecently'
vague February 10). Or why the number of
late-night road checks around the capital appear
to have increased in recent months.
then the government ignores or supports efforts
that seem to outright emasculate its calls for
positive change. "Genting theme park to woo more
Malay visitors," read a headline in a local
newspaper on January 24. A main attraction at
Genting, about a 45-minute drive from the capital,
is gambling. Meanwhile, the Education Ministry is
said to support co-curriculum programs at the
theme park for school children.
government's task - how to keep the economy
humming while meeting the demands and helping
preserve the integrity of its various communities
- is not an easy one. (Besides Malay Muslims,
there are sizeable Chinese and Indian communities
on the peninsula, and many indigenous people
living in the eastern Borneo states of Sabah and
But according to Hamzah and
others, many of the ruling Muslim elites'
gestures, which appear to signify a balanced
approach to growth, are self-serving and
"I don't hear authorities
bending over backwards to ensure there's equality,
justice, freedom and dignity in their 'Muslim'
communities," as stipulated by the Koran, said
Hamzah. "We are emphasizing rituals and preserving
the 'image' of what the authorities want to define
as Islam, rather than internalizing the essence of
the principles of the Koran ... in the daily lives
of those who believe."
In a word, it's
cultural, spiritual and intellectual development
some find to be lacking. Others believe that in
time Malaysia will strike the right balance. After
all, the relatively young nation didn't gain
independence until 1957.
Interest in these
and other areas - a greater overall mindfulness -
will occur, said Chua Beng Huat, author of Life
Is Not Complete Without Shopping: Consumption
Culture in Singapore. Chua said much of this
is already happening in next-door Singapore.
"Building of shopping centers has slowed rapidly.
Parents are opening up the idea of their students
studying film and other arts, whereas 10 years ago
The concern is that there is
a weak intellectual tradition in Malaysia; and a
weaker work ethic, with less overall value placed
on education and entrepreneurship than in
Also, many of the government's
feel-good programs - from Islam Hadhari to Vision
2020, a government initiative that seeks to make
Malaysia a fully developed country within the next
15 years - are not being seen through to their
fullest. Stability and economic growth have been
Malaysia's top priorities and have often been
conflated with justice and advancement.
Enlightenment is expected to follow - only the
cart might be in front of the horse. And with
hypercapitalism moving at full-throttle, it may be
less a matter of when and more a question of if
the trend can be reversed.
Gatsiounis, a New York native, has worked as a
freelance foreign correspondent and previously
co-hosted a weekly political/cultural radio
call-in show in the US. He has been living in
Malaysia since late 2002.
2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.
Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)
All material on this
website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written
© Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times
Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong
11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110
Asian Sex Gazette Southeast Asian Sex News