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Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads


Back to Part 2, Kuala Lumpur


When you travel to a city like Malaysia, it becomes obvious that Malaysia is wealthier and more developed than other Southeast Asian countries. (The exceptions are Singapore and Brunei, the two places I will not be visiting.) Given that it was colonized as were the other countries (and especially given that Thailand was not), why is it so well-off economically?

Certainly, part of this has to do with the wealth of natural resources to be found on Malaysian soil. But many Southeast Asian countries have a wealth of resources, but are not doing as well economically. Another reason would have to do with the economic policies of the government, which have moved Malaysia away from exporting its resources towards an emphasis on manufacturing, providing high-paying jobs to the country's workers. Those policies have also set the country to investing in transport, communications and energy systems, which have in turn helped support the moves to industrialize (and make it a very easy place to travel in!).

I would guess that part of it has to do with the country's emphasis on inter-racial harmony and cooperation. It was not always this way. Before 1969, ethnic Malays were very poor relative to non-Malays in the population. While they had many advantages relative to other ethnic groups, in terms of land ownership, educational opportunities and government positions -- all of which made those other groups unhappy and even resentful -- they owned only 1.5% of the country's business wealth (though comprising more than half the population) and made less than half of what non-Malays did. The tensions rose to a point that riots broke out in that year (1969), with hundreds being killed. The government responded with a sort of affirmative action program that guaranteed the bumiputra ("sons of the soil," referring to the Malays and indigenous peoples of Eastern Malaysia) would have a greater share of the nation's wealth. Many Chinese and Indians left the country because of this decision, taking their wealth with them, but Malaysia was able to weather the crisis. Over the long run, while Malays still aren't equal in wealth to other ethnic groups, they're much closer, and the more equitable distribution has contributed to a racial harmony that, I believe, has contributed greatly to the nation's economic success.

Perhaps Malaysia's success also has to do with a healthy suspicion of getting too much "help" from the West. By not overextending themselves on international loans, and working to build up their own resources (by improving transport, etc. and investing in education), they have been able to do very well. The country has been hit hard by the Asian economic crisis, though; interestingly, many suggest a major reason is that Malaysia still was taking on too much foreign investment, and that enabled non-Malaysians to devalue the ringgit (Malaysian money) without due cause, with disastrous effects on the economy.

One paradox here is listening to the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Mahathir Mohamad ("Datuk Seri" is a term of honor), speak about "Asian Values" and the corrupt moral values of Western societies, while -- at the same time -- seeing so many things Western in the streets. Perhaps it's just that modernization has a very particular face, and under the surface Malaysia IS a very different place from those in the West. Certainly, people here are not willing to accept everything they hear from Western countries, nor that Western culture is "better." This sign was graffitied onto a wall near my hotel, which essentially says "Go reform yourselves, America" (or, in an even more liberal interpretation, "America Go Home"). It was written after Vice President Al Gore's visit to Malaysia in which he supported demonstrators calling for political reform in the country. The demonstrations were in response to what many consider unconscionable repression and persecution of Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister who is being tried in a highly-publicized trial as I write this. (You can read about it in most newspapers.) What Mr. Gore didn't account for is the intense resentment many Malaysians feel when foreigners "interfere" in their affairs, a feeling Dr. Mahathir has been quick to exploit. This has taken much of the wind out of the demonstrations -- exactly the opposite of what Mr. Gore seemed to be trying to accomplish!

Is this skeptical or even anti-Western attitude healthy, at least in terms of its effects on the Malaysian economy? Hard to say, but you've got to admit the country's doing quite well!

Want to dispute my opinions, or offer your own? Write me and tell me what you think -- and your ideas will be added to the site for all to learn from!

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