Malaysia in 1982: A New Frontier?

Jerry Bass
1983 Asian Survey  
THE FIRST EIGHTEEN MONTHS of Malaysia's so-called 2M administration evoked the heady days of the New Frontier in the United States.' Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's fourth prime minister, presents a picture of vigor and activism. Just as contrasts between Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy highlighted the change in the temper and tempo of American public life, so the avuncular cast of the Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Razak, and Dato Hussein Onn governments underscored the impression in 1982
more » ... impression in 1982 of a new Malaysian brush dedicated to sweeping clean complacency and corruption. The year's constant theme, on which the administration campaigned in the April 22nd election, was to provide a "clean, efficient and trustworthy" government. The year began with a number of symbolic signs of the technocratic bent. Precisely at 11:30 P.M. on December 31, 1981, clocks in Peninsular Malaysia were advanced one-half hour to bring its time in conformity with the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. In markets and shops where Malaysians purchased their rice and vegetables, sarongs and saris-and increasingly their videocassettes-the metric system replaced the local system of weights and measures. Punch clocks were introduced in government offices and employees required to clock-in at work. Civil servants had to declare their assets and, lest the message be missed, the Anti-Corruption Agency was reestablished. In his book, Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt emphasized Kennedy's tendency (at least after the Bay of Pigs episode) to bypass formal governmental channels. Mahathir is described as similarly inclined to call unexpectedly on officials with operating responsibilities to monitor particular projects or policies. Performance, speed, results, he announced by word and deed, were what counted. He appeared, moreover, the embodi-191 ? 1983 by The Regents of the University of California 192 ASIAN SURVEY, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, February 1983 ment of the values he propagated, demanding no more from others than he asked of himself. Mahathir is the first Malaysian prime minister who is not from the traditional Malay aristocracy or educated as a lawyer in England. Of middle class origin, he obtained a medical degree from the University of Malaya in Singapore and practiced medicine for eleven years before entering politics full-time. He appears to be a thinker and an idealist, even a "rebel," who gained the highest position in the land unsullied by the usual compromises of political life. Malaysians remember how, after the 1969 communal disturbances, Mahathir was drummed out of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) when a critical letter he sent the then prime minister and UMNO president, Tengku Abdul Rahman, became public. They recall the sensation caused by his 1970 book, The Malay Dilemma, banned in Malaysia until last year, that contributed to perceptions of him as an "ultra" or Malay extremist, a background (though he has largely lived it down) that lends authenticity to the reformist image of his administration. Sensitive to the potentially disruptive effects of appearing too radical, however, Mahathir stated repeatedly that he abides by the established policies of the 11-party ruling coalition, the National Front (NF), and is concerned only to assure their effective implementation. He could hardly maintain otherwise given his accession to the prime ministership through the "normal" channel of the deputy prime ministership. The election itself illustrated the government's careful balancing of continuity and change. NF candidates represented its component parties in virtually the same ratio as in the 1978 election. However, more incumbents were replaced, almost 50% in UMNO's case, than in any other election. Thus the NF structure was kept intact, but used to provide a cadre of leaders more representative of (the new candidates were, on the whole, younger, better educated, and more often from professional backgrounds) and responsive to the 2M style. The election, held nine months after Mahathir replaced Hussein as prime minister upon the latter's retirement because of poor health, and more than a year earlier than required by law, was framed by the 2M administration as an opportunity for the country to pass judgment on its stewardship. That the NF would be returned to power was a foregone conclusion, but the extent of its victory confounded the "consensus among analysts . . . that the government will not win as handsomely as it did in 1974 or 1978."2 The party line-up in the 154-member parliament, with the 1978 results in parentheses, was as follows: NF, 132 (131); Democratic Action Party (DAP), 9 (16); Parti Islam Sa-Malaysia (PAS), 5 (5); and independents 8 (2).3 In Peninsular Malaysia, the NF gained 9 parliamentary seats-UMNO, 70 (70); Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), 24 (17); Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), 4 (3); Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (GRM), 5 (4)-and increased its vote from 57% to 61%. In East Malaysia, on the other hand, the NF lost seven seats, in-
doi:10.2307/2644351 fatcat:laakn7bngnamraolrg3dkd5equ