Mahathir’s Mixed Legacy on Race

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gives his last speech, Oct. 30, 2003
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad gives his last speech as Malaysia's prime minister, Oct. 30, 2003. Mahathir offered conciliatory words to Jews after comments he made earlier in the month sparked protests from world leaders and organizations (Photo: Jimin Lai/AFP-Getty Images).

When Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told a summit of Muslim leaders on Oct. 16 that “Jews rule the world,” he might not have anticipated the international outcry that followed. The following day, Mahathir’s spokesmen insisted that the remark had been taken out of context and was not intended to cause offense. But for those who know the record of this mercurial premier, his words might not have come as much of a surprise.

Mahathir, who will step down as prime minister at the end of October after 22 years in power, has long played “the race card” to benefit himself domestically.

To judge by his reception at the International Conference of Muslim Young Leaders held in Kuala Lumpur in September, his efforts have paid off. The delegation, representing 50 countries, nominated him to succeed Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations. Every question posed from the ballroom floor seemed to open with lavish praise.

Some credited Mahathir with transforming this once backward nation into an economic success story and preparing Malaysians to thrive in the global marketplace. Others hailed him as an inspiration to the Muslim world, not the least for managing to preserve peace among Malaysia’s various ethnic and religious groups—a task perceived as difficult at a time when many nations in the region with substantial Muslim populations are being torn asunder by extremist elements.

In the capital it’s easy to see what Mahathir’s fans are excited about—from the futuristic frippery of the hub-aspiring airport to the world’s tallest buildings. On Bintang Walk, Saudi and Western tourists stroll past upscale boutiques and sip drinks topped with whipped cream at the Coffee Bean Café, as dapper street musicians perform American pop songs.

It all suggests that Mahathir’s vision—for Malaysia to be a “fully developed” nation by 2020—is well on track. Even Washington has been enthusiastic. Ever since Malaysia denounced Muslim extremism following the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington has entrusted Mahathir’s government with setting up a regional antiterrorism center. And though the U.S.-led war in Iraq—which Mahathir vehemently opposed—has tested relations, Washington still tends to view Malaysia as a pillar of stability in the region.

But inside Malaysia a different picture is emerging. There is an undiscussed but palpable skepticism about what will happen after November 2003, when Mahathir’s hand-picked successor, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, takes over.

One of the keys to Mahathir’s success was his ability to appease the Malay Peninsula’s three main racial groups: Malays, Chinese, and Indians. He did this despite an affirmative action program that benefits the majority Malays (who make up 60 percent of Malaysia’s population of 23 million) and other native groups, known collectively as bumiputras.

The issue of race has always been close to Mahathir’s heart. He made a name for himself politically with his book The Malay Dilemma, which argued that Malays needed to change their “backwardness” or risk being dominated economically by Chinese Malaysians.

But unfortunately, rather than fully addressing the issue, Mahathir essentially made it taboo to talk openly about race. During his tenure as prime minister, he has jailed people indefinitely for questioning the government’s race policy. He has heavily censored the press and banned certain films and plays outright. Essentially, in Mahathir’s Malaysia only the government can talk about race; and for the most part, it has done so in ways that are both simplistic and inaccurate. In one typical example, an ad that loops on the airport shuttle’s plasma screens describes Malaysia as “a land where people of different, races, religions and cultures live in perfect harmony.”

A Malay university student told World Press Review, “We wouldn’t know how to begin talking with the other races about our differences. We talk among ourselves but that doesn’t exactly promote tolerance.”

By many accounts race relations have gotten worse during the Mahathir years. One high-ranking member of Mahathir’s party, the United Malays National Organization (UNMO), said, “There are parallel universes now. We all consider ourselves Malaysian, but we're not exactly Malaysian together. Very different notions of nation have surfaced.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, estimates that 95 percent of Chinese students attend private Chinese schools and 90 percent of Malays attend public schools. Many non-Malays deserted public schools in the 1980s and ’90s in the belief that the quality of education was deteriorating as the schools became too Islamic. The result is that some Chinese speak less than fluent Malay, the national language, and that the races often only interact when necessary.

Mahathir tended to put economic considerations first, reasoning that race relations and other social ills would improve as a result of economic gain. When he did talk about race it was to attract political support. Since all Malaysia’s major political parties are race-based, political survival often depends on playing the race card. Mahathir, it has been remarked, knows how to play this card better than anyone.

“It’s no coincidence that around election time the news channels show footage of the anti-Chinese riots that coincided with Suharto’s fall,” says Steven Gan, editor of, whose staff computers were recently confiscated when he ran a letter that questioned the Mahathir government’s record on race relations.

Many Chinese supported Mahathir, feeling he maintained a conducive political climate for business. But Mahathir’s race-based politics—under which Malays are granted a large number of university and government seats—has spurred what one Malaysian Chinese writer termed “a reverse racism of a sort.”

Those same policies have found Malays no less resentful of the Chinese; some assert that affirmative action has just made Chinese, the second-largest ethnic group in Malaysia, more nepotistic and determined to succeed. And although Mahathir’s economic policy has given rise to a vibrant Malay middle class, many believe that the affirmative action program has made Malays more dependent and less empowered. The prime minister himself has indirectly conceded the point, urging Malays to get rid of their “crutches.”

Khoo Kay Kim, professor emeritus of history at the University of Malaya, says Malaysia is home to 50,000 unemployed recent university graduates, the majority of whom are Malay. “A lot of them coasted through school knowing full well that space would be made for them. Sadly, they didn’t develop much in the way of employable skills along the way.”

Some of the roots of the Malay-Chinese divide can be traced to the decades before Mahathir’s reign, and particularly to the Iranian Revolution, which inspired an Islamic revival among many Malays. During those years, nation took a back seat to religion and this increased skepticism about non-Muslims and the “impurities” of the outside world.

But the affirmative action program has seen the emergence of a new divide—among Malays themselves. The Malaysian opposition complains that the program didn’t pay enough attention to who needed the assistance most; rich Malays benefited. Resources were wasted. Economic dominance was consolidated.

The Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s led to a political crisis, as Mahathir’s deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, mounted a political challenge. Anwar is now serving a 15-year jail sentence on what many consider trumped-up sodomy and corruption charges.

Feeling betrayed by what they consider Mahathir’s dirty politicking, many Malays, particularly those in rural areas, have begun to support the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is pushing for an Islamic state governed by Shariah law. PAS now has political control of two states, and may very well pick up a third in the next election. In its strongholds, there are separate seating areas for men and women. Drinking alcohol and singing karaoke—both popular pursuits here, particularly among the Chinese—are banned. The green-and-white party flag flutters from porches and mosques while children lounge about in knit PAS caps, as though an election is in full swing.

The party’s critics charge it with atavism and promoting extremism. PAS officials say the party is merely pushing for a more egalitarian state. Less debatable, says a disenchanted UMNO official, is the effect PAS’ emergence and Mahathir’s inability to solve race issues is having on the country. “We are experiencing a creeping conservatism. Religious energies are being misdirected. The potential economic and political ramifications are immense.” In September, Pakistani officials arrested 15 Malaysian students suspected of being second-generation leaders of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network.

In the meantime, Mahathir has benefited from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq; he has used Malaysians’ sense of indignation to foster unity and distract them from the fissures at home. In July, at his last speech given to the UMNO General Assembly before retirement, he classified people of European descent as greedy, bent on recolonizing the world, sexually immoral, and as “rejecting the institutions of marriage and family...and accepting the practice of free sex, including sodomy, as a right.”

Predictably, local media raised no objection to the comments. They have served Mahathir dutifully over the years, to the point that some Malaysians have begun to question how much of Mahathir’s reported contributions to the country have been manufactured.

But the episode contains a starker message, one that is practically ingrained here: It is fine to talk disparagingly about other races, so long as the remarks don’t target Malaysians.

An assistant of Badawi, who has a reputation for being more open but less charismatic and formidable than Mahathir, says that his boss’ challenge as prime minister will be to keep UMNO united. In large part, that will depend on maintaining a sound economy and keeping race relations in check. Many experts say the two are inextricable, and that a faltering economy may well expose the shortcomings of Mahathir’s race policy.

In the meantime, there is hope that the transition may help open a new chapter in Malaysian history, in which an honest dialogue about race relations—through universities and the media, and from the lips of the political elite—is encouraged.

In the words of an expatriate American basketball coach, who says that vacant taxis often speed by him when he tries to flag them down on Malaysia’s streets, “We may still have race issues back home, but at least, from time to time, we get together and talk about them.”