Malaysia's blind path to progressKUALA 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 Way".
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.
The 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
The 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.
In its 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 ones.
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.
They are 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.
The Kuala 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'
As 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 ever.
But some warn against confusing the appearance of spiritual values with actually living them.
"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 offenses.
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 themselves."
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 nagging problem.
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."
It's as 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.
But 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.
The 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 Sarawak.)
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 superficial.
"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 they didn't."
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 Singapore.
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.
Ioannis 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.