18 January, 2019

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A Malaysian Lesson

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

From a broad sweep of post-colonial history one can discern a number of parallels between Sri Lanka and Malaysia. For example, in demographic size, growth and its pluralist makeup, in the type of government and struggle for independence, and in promotion of ethno-nationalism and religion to gain political mileage, there a number of similarities than differences between the two nations. Pundits may disagree in details, but the broad picture cannot be disputed.

However, there was one remarkable similarity observed on the eve of political independence that led to governments in both countries to adopt similar approaches in dealing with it. The majority community in both countries, Buddhist Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and Malays in Malaysia, were found at that time disproportionately disadvantaged in respect of socio-economic justice. While the Chinese minority in Malaysia were far ahead in economic advancement compared to Malays, a similar imbalance, especially in the field of education and professionalism was noted between minority Tamils and majority Buddhists in Sri Lanka. British imperialists in both countries divided and ruled and deliberately promoted discriminatory development. Naturally, the new rulers after independence resolved to rebalance the colonial imbalance.  

In both countries it was majoritarian politics that became instrumental in the hands of successive governments to introduce and implement policies deliberately targeted to benefit the ethnic majority at the expense of minorities. Two ethnic riots, one against Tamils in Sri Lanka in 1957 (there were others followed culminating in the 1983 pogrom) and the other against Chinese in Malaysia in 1969, set the two countries on a parallel path of divisive politics and socio-economic re-engineering. What the New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed in 1971 did for Malays in terms of socio-economic rebalancing, the Sinhala Only Bill of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, followed by nationalization of private colleges and standardisation of university entry criteria under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, did in professionalism for the Sinhalese. While NEP in Malaysia was used as weapon to redistribute wealth, language and university policies in Sri Lanka were intended to achieve the same objective but indirectly through avenues of educational opportunities. Like Sri Lanka, Malaysia also made Malay the official language in 1969 with similar intention.

Without discussing the details and the pros and cons of these measures in both countries, there is one commonality which is worth commenting and in which the Malaysian solution can teach a lesson or two to Sri Lanka. Social re-engineering founded on majoritarian ethno-nationalism has its own limitations. In Malaysia, after redistributing already accumulated wealth, creating more wealth within the majoritarian political framework became a problem. Once majoritarian rule was assured through the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), which kept the Chinese out of the political equation while drawing the Indians into it via the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), rise of factionalism within the majority community became unavoidable. Government economic policies benefiting the Malay Bhumiputra soon created a class of nouveau riche who began using its newly acquired wealth to compete for political power and influence. Factionalism and money politics introduced corruption, which spread like cancer into government administration, public institutions, judiciary and even private businesses, reaching its pinnacle during the prime ministership of Najib Razak.  Even in the field of education quality was sacrificed for quantity and public service became the employer of last resort to unemployable Malay medium graduates. Malaysia was speeding on a road to economic disaster and social disequilibrium, aided by high level corruption, lax administration and ethnic nationalism.

Sri Lanka followed a parallel path since mid-1950s. Once the Tamils opted out of the political equation with an agenda for a Tamil State in the name of federalism, majoritarian rule was assured for the Sinhalese with the support of Muslims. Except for a short period in 1960 when the Federal Party allied with the UNP, Tamil leadership was constantly out of the nation’s ruling circle. Muslims of course played the same role as Indians under MIC in Malaysia, backing ruling regimes. Although there was no equivalent of an UMNO, the Sinhalese vote-bloc with Muslim support was sufficient enough to guarantee a Sinhalese majority government after each general election. The Tamil blunder of opting out handed over the government to the Sinhalese. As in Malaysia, socio-economic re-engineering in Si Lanka benefited the Sinhalese enormously over the years and created among them a ballooning class of bourgeoisie that vied for political power and influence. Sinhalese medium graduates overfilled the public sector and standard of administration declined. Like in Malaysia, majoritarian politics had its impact on the economy. After redistributing existing wealth further wealth creation to satisfy the rising aspirations of an avaricious bourgeoisie was handicapped by ethnic politics and religious nationalism. Factionalism within the Sinhalese took the form of two major political parties each supported by sections of the bourgeoisie. Money soon entered politics and corruption ensued reaching its apex during the Rajapakse regime.

Downward spiralling parallel paths in both countries demanded parallel reversals. The one who closely watched the descent in Malaysia with great consternation was Mahathir Mohammed, the chief architect of pro-Bhumiputra policies and who built that country as a beacon of stability and prosperity before retiring in 2003. It was he who made UMNO the fortress of Malay politics and pillar of Barisan Nasional (National Front) that ruled Malaysia uninterruptedly for sixty years. It was the assumed support of UMNO and the political influence it wielded that gave Mahathir’s successor prime ministers the false confidence that victory at elections would be guaranteed even if they failed to fulfil their promises to people. Najib Razak’s government in particular, with all its massive financial and administrative corruption and outright embezzlement pf public funds, was lulled by this confidence. The nonagenarian Mahathir Mohammed with undiminished patriotism realised not only the crippling limitations of majoritarian politics but also the national danger posed by ethno-religious-nationalism. He therefore decided to re-emerge from retirement and determined to reverse the downward spiral. From a position of Malaysia for Malays in 1960s he now cried Malaysia for Malaysians. With a proven record of past achievements Mahathir Mohammed methodically exposed the colossal failure and fraudulence of Razak’s government and promised Malaysians that he would make the culprits accountable and bring them to justice. Najib Razak, who was about to escape from the country, was stopped at the airport and is now facing multiple charges of corruption and theft, and his collaborators have been removed from their positions. Already, part of the funds embezzled has been recovered. The rest is now history. It would have been unimaginable in the 1960s for Mahathir Muhammed to appoint a Chinese as Minister of Finance and a Sikh as Minister of Communications and Multimedia. Now he has done it. Similar changes have taken place in top positions of the government where not ethnicity but merit has won the day.

Sri Lanka does not have an equivalent of a Mahathir and therefore is in desperate need of a new and enlightened head of government who could lead the nation in the interest of all Sri Lankans. Majoritarian democracy should be given up in the interest of meritocratic governance. Rule of law must be enforced and former politicians and administrators who betrayed peoples’ trust must be made accountable and brought to justice. Those who promised to do this in 2015 have succumbed to the pleasures of power and the art of prolonging it. The much touted yahapalana remains another empty rhetoric. The country needs a clean government and has to create wealth without sacrificing equity and justice. That can be done only by a government that treats every community equally, rewards merit and shuns mediocrity. Pluralist Singapore, without any natural resources except its people, started on that principle and demonstrated remarkable progress in every aspect of national development. Malaysia, with plenty of natural resources took an ethno-nationalist path, realised its limitations and now decided to reverse it.  There is a lesson here for Sri Lanka to learn and bring about a reversal. Is there a leadership that can take up the challenge?                     

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Latest comments

  • 6
    0

    Sri Lanka doe snot have visionary Leaders and is primarily for Sinhala buddhists. Both the Mahinda Rajapakse and Ranil are one and the same. Maithripala is no different. But he is better than the previous too. Ranil’s only wish is to be eternal PResident or PM. Mahinda Rajapaakse only wants his elder son to succeed. The country is in trouble.

  • 3
    0

    Singapore, becoming part of the Malaysian Federation in 1963, seceded in 1965 and, under the efficient, firm and clean leadership of Lee Kwan Yew, became a prosperous city state and continues to prosper long after Lee Kwan Yew.

    Wonder what would have been the situation if Singapore remained part of the Malaysian Federation. Another Sri Lanka?

  • 5
    0

    I will read this more carefully later and respond.

    In November I spent fifteen days in Malaysia, and because it was my first time out of Sri Lanka in twenty-four years, I was particularly struck by the fact that Malaysia has handled its problems much better than we have.

    • 1
      0

      As Dr. Ameer Ali has said the similarities of the two countries are striking. Why then, have we fallen so far behind?
      .
      I’m pretty sure that we were far ahead of Malaysia about 1950. While it is true that Malaysia has petroleum and we don’t, that became a factor only long after we went off the rails.
      .
      While it is true that Bhumi Putraism matched Sinhala-Buddhist obsessions, I don’t think that they had obsessions of the sort that we have with the Mahavamsa and Ariyanism. The Malays are Muslims, many devout, but not people who believe that they are a chosen race. I don’t think that they are as nastily Islamist as the rich Arabs.
      .
      We Sinhalese have so many obsessions with being special to the core – against all evidence, I find that so many really imagine that all Tamils were brought here by Europeans.
      .
      And take Mahathir; he may have been the creator of Bhumiputhra, but he himself is half Malay, half INDIAN: I was surprised myself when I read it up prior to going there. He had been a strong leader for over 20 years before he retired. And, I should imagine, an honest one. Remarkable guy: 93, and again Prime Minister. Who, of our guys went on longest? Junius R.J. He was an important minister at Independence, and went on until forty one years later with the last twelve years of his politics being as virtual King. Known for what? Craftiness.
      .
      Yes, we’ve been done for because of our politicians, and we still can’t kick them in to their places.

  • 10
    0

    One major difference between Malaysia and Sri Lanka is in Malaysia Mr. Mahathir Mohammad did not care much for Democracy but gave priority to political stability whereas in Sri Lanka, our guys wanted to make Sri Lanka a beacon of Democracy in Asia and failed to bring political stability. Leftist and so called socialist politicians killed entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka. Demala politicians, instead of thinking as Sri Lankans and joining hands with the majority to bring stability and promote economic development played hell with racial politics.
    This country also had an opportunity to move forward but the Sinhala idiots who voted to Sirisena in 2015 ruined that opportunity. The White Supremacists who were jealous of the success under Mr. Mohammed tried ‘Regime Change’ using Anwar Ibrahim but due to luck the Malaysians had it failed. In Sri Lanka, the White Supremacists succeeded and as a consequence this country has plunged into an economic crisis. This is exactly what the White Supremacists wanted and our ‘Thuppahi’ leader delivered it to them.

    • 4
      0

      “This country also had an opportunity to move forward but the Sinhala idiots who voted to Sirisena in 2015 ruined that opportunity”
      .
      Thanks to so said “Sinhala idiots” that we are in danger from great danger, and the country is ruined rather than fully destroyed

    • 3
      2

      Eagle Eye!
      You always see a PREY in every thing. The Tamils who had a kingdom of their own was forced to merge with the Sinhalese by the Britishers. Of course they did no want to lose their identity but continued to associate well with the Sinhalese until they were PURGED out by Sinala only and other innumerable discriminatory Measures. If not for the discriminations heaped on the Tamils, both could have lived like Puliyam Palamum Odum. Like the tamarind fruit which is protected by the shell but untouched by it. But you wanted to crush the shell and expose your misdeeds. It is sour indeed.

  • 7
    1

    If we managed to bring sodomy charges against the ‘Thuppahiya’ and put him behind bars as they did in Malaysia to Anwar Ibrahim, this country could have been better off.

  • 3
    0

    Gosh….what a comparison. Everything was the same between M’sia and SL till 2018, when Mahathir retook over and changed it all for meritocracy. It’s too early in the day to tell the outcome isn’t it! Anyway, M’sia with her oil and gas and razing of trees for oil palm, certainly had a lot more money to prevent ethnic wars than SL. That’s the only difference. But meritocracy might be a good thing also for Sri Lanka.

  • 6
    0

    R.T.F.
    You are wrong ..
    Sri Lanka HR is better than Maia in many ways ..
    We have more talented people but Sri Lankan government does not care about it ..

    • 0
      0

      Lankan No 1,

      Agreed. The hardworking and intelligent per person Human Resource in SL is plentiful. But the HR-agency-system of connecting the hardworking and intelligent individual HR into the greater employment network is zilch – except for HR- systems to get menial workers to the Middle East……plentful of agencies for that. Rest is about family connections and running after big shots.

      M’sia is far better that way because they are more egalitarian due to Islam ( pity about the razing of ancient forests though, because desert climes look holy……but yet, many Muslims were up against the destruction of the forests at that time).

  • 2
    0

    Law and Order situation in Malaysia, there was no breakdown, was battered and bruised – like for what obtain in India. In SL there is a near complete breakdown.
    This is “A Malaysian Lesson” – the only lesson, Dr Ameer Ali.
    .
    Is there a chance of a Lankan Mahathir?
    The Lankan Najib Razaks will stop the search before it begins.
    Our only hope is in the main players, in the friendly ‘us vs us’ game, cleaning themselves.

  • 3
    1

    A good article, but he has forgotten to mention of Muslim politicians who are religious fanatics and had become an obstacle for Sri Lanka’s development. Former Minister Ashroff was transporting arms and ammunitions to Eastern Province during Chandrika’s period which also contributed as an obstacle for the unity of Sri Lanka and creating division in the country. Malaysia also had some problems. Yet the minority Tamils never resorted to abduction of Malays and converted them into Hindus. But there was reported news recently that in the Eastern Province two Muslim male teachers forcibly abducted a Tamil girl and made her to read Quran and converted her into Islam, after Hisbullah was appointed Governor. Is Maithiripala giving a threat to India and other Western democratic countries using Article 2(7) of the UN Charter as a tool, through Hisbullah who is alleged to have links with Wahabbist Organizations. What is the guarantee that Sinhala Buddhist girls will not be abducted and converted to Islam tomorrow and what is the guarantee that these innocent girls will not be sent to ISIS as slaves making the country unstable? It is true that Mahathir came to power with UMNO but developed the country with good intention. Yet he broke ties with Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore when the latter demanded equal rights for every community. Though Malaysia had a booming economy, it also had a deficit budget like Sri Lanka, whereas Singapore had a surplus budget and last year it was declared 2nd richest country in the world. This is because all communities were given equal opportunities without any discrimination and there was transparency of good governance. They do engage in abducting people of other communities for conversion. Freedom to embrace any religion of their choice is still guaranteed in Singapore which is also a factor for Singapore to develop in an unprecedented manner. Though there were instances of demolishing Hindu temples in Malaysia, it was brought under control. Now it has stopped.

  • 0
    0

    Dear Dr Ali

    A very comprehensive comparison and thank you.

    I have lived in Malaysia since 2002 and watched how a divided community was brought together over time. The Malaysians are very patriotic and show a lot of ‘tolerance’ come what may as long as they are Malaysians. They have a good IC finger printed system allows this at all official level to keep track of all issues and cause the National Security Act goes a long way in a Developing country then now a very strong Nation takes care of millions of Asian children future too by employing them in all sectors.

    Timely intervention by Dr Mahathir and he was well received by the young because they acknowledged his policies and he was there to intervene to prevent the misuse too………an amazing story of a Visionary politician who humbled all…..even the ones who used to curse him for that was wrong with the few.

    The Country is blessed with resouces and can absorb all the blunders helped.

    More than anything they have neighbours like Singapore and we have TN made all the difference.

    They have foreign policy just like any other developed country looks after the interest of Malaysian future.

    We killed all our own leaderships/capability now opens the door for rape by all……..little we discuss the amount of business foreign people have done and made profit in SL when we were too busy killing each other…………hate to say we SL may have even invested in the blood letting too.

    Nation building vs Nation destruction.

  • 0
    0

    Last 71 years Sri Lanka as a country went through mayhem, due to the mismanagement of the politicians, mainly the UNP and SLFP. Sri Lanka, then it was known as Ceylon was given to the first government UNP on a plater by the British. Unfortunately, ever since 1948 onwards, our country had been put on the mat slider drifting on a downward trend and no sign of prosperity. It would be a good lesson for other countries as well, those who set their goals as race and religion without embarking on sustainable economic development will meet their end in a similar fashion.

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