Malaysia’s America

“We are afraid of flying, afraid of certain countries; afraid of bearded Asian men, afraid of the shoes airline passengers wear; of letters and parcels, of white powder.”

Mahathir bin Mohammed, Feb 25, 2003.

Numbers were down for the Twenty-Third Turtle Symposium in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, held in March 2003. Americans had been arriving through Dubai, with a connecting flight to KL, but they came in a trickle to a conference that had been touted as exotic, a unique experience outside the Americas. The war on Baghdad had yet to break, but the number of American tourists to the entire South East Asian region had already plummeted. The phoney war was being played out in the United Nations discussing a peace on life support, and Americans arriving at the conference were a mixture of fatalists, jingoes and indifference. One of the organisers of the conference was prescient enough to observe that President Bush had achieved a “miracle” in diplomatic stupidity: getting much of the world to support an otherwise loathsome regime.

Outside the Legend Hotel on Jalan Putra, the American in particular and the Westerner in general has become a problem for Malaysian politics. We live, as Arthur Schlesinger pointed out at Havana in talks commemorating the Cuban Missile crisis last October, in one of the most dangerous periods in history. The mood in this developing country is no different: there is danger everywhere. The day after the war began, acting Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi urged Malaysians on national television to restrain themselves from attacking “western interests”. The bustling sidewalk restaurants, many twenty-four hours and open to the intense humidity and smog in the air, broadcast cable television and the droning of CNN, an invitation to provocation. But a careful inspection of these particular CNN-friendly restaurants finds few Malays. The Muslims in KL prefer the service provided by Al Jazeera footage. Qatar’s coverage is more sanguinary: the civilian casualty, absent in the sterile lobotomised narrative of CNN, appears constantly. The government channels prefer to mention civilian casualties, highlight Anglo-American setbacks. During the fighting, the focus in the government-controlled media is on heroic Iraqis, defiant in Baghdad before the columns of American marines. Pictures in the New Straits Times on April 7 were captioned with “Yo America, We Are Still Standing”, showing defiant Iraqi soldiers “waiting for another round of firefights with US troops.”

The Petaling Street deep in Kuala Lumpur’s China Town, where Americans find Western products faked, reproduced and mocked ­ the awkward Rolex, the noxious fumes that pass for perfume, cumbersome handbags, imitation Mont Blanc pens ­ there are loquacious Arab traders who pass regular commentary on the war. They will ask where you are from, and their reply is often a quip. For one Rolex dealer, “Why don’t you trade in watches rather than bombs?”


The Rolex dealer is less subtle than his leader and Prime Minister Datuk Mahathir, but past any great abstraction, these Malaysian views come down to the same thing: the war against Iraq has been an affront to civilisation and peace. Even more dangerously, it is a step in the domestication of the world in the image of America. In Mahathir’s words to Non-Alignment Movement delgates, “It is no longer just a war against terrorism. It is in fact a war to dominate the world i.e. the chromatically different world. We are now being accused of harbouring terrorists, of being Axis of Evil, etc.” (Feb 25, 2003)

This is not to say that Malaysia expressed no sympathy for Americans lost in the 9/11 attacks. Badawi even suggested in an interview on the BBC special addition for Asia that, “Everyone had given their full backing, there was great sympathy.” But the superpower erred as “America has somehow not recognised that there was an opportunity to provide that leadership, something which everybody wanted” (April 2, 2003 BBC Special Edition). More than anything else, the war on Iraq, as was argued by Germany and Francehas placed the campaign on terrorists in jeopardy. Badawi preferred to be more diplomatic: “It will be more difficult in that there will be a lot of problems that may be even bigger than we anticipated before.”

Even more forthright than Badawi, who appears as dull and mechanical, is Mahathir. Americans might have remembered his critique of the Asian currency crisis of 1997, a mixture of penetrating insight and racial hysteria (it was Jewish speculators, argued Mahathir, who were responsible for the financial meltdown).

Mahathir’s critique of the war is an extension of his overall critique of the deviant global policeman, the corrupt hegemon. The United States is the superpower that represents the wealthy, the wounded wealthy after 9/11. Mahathir told the delegates of the Non-Aligned Movement in a KL meeting a month before the war how the post-9/11 world had fragmented into indigent victims and affluent belligerents. “Since Sept 11, the rich and the powerful have become enraged with the poor half of the world.” The Third World continues to receive the ire of the developed world, despite bin Laden’s wealth and the well-educated status of the terrorists who appropriated Third Worldist revenge on the planes of 9/11. At the core of Mahathir’s critique of the war on Iraq is the suspicion of Washington’s geopolitical fascination with oil and the Middle East. Underpinning US ambitions lies the relentless probing of the unconscionable capitalist: “Relieved of the need to compete with the communists, the capitalist free traders have ceased to show a friendly face.” The other side of excessive militarism is excessive capitalism. Here, the main architect of the global freemarket is not, as Francis Fukuyama would have it, a catalyst for peace, but an instrument for projecting military force.

Mahathir insists that Islam and its terrorist credentials has been over-privileged in Western discourses by allegations of terrorism. Muslims “did not have a monopoly of terrorism, certainly not on the scale of the holocaust, the pogroms and the inquisition.” Then there is the spectre of Israel’s atrocities: “the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, the shooting and killing of children, the use of depleted uranium coated bullets, the bulldozing of Palestinian homes while the occupants are still in them, the helicopter, gunships, etc. And Israel is now threatening to use nuclear weapons” (NAM address). To fight this international deviance, Mahathir suggests a community of nations. In his closing words to the NAM delegates, “We are mindful that the world we live in today is unipolar in character and is vastly different from the multi polar world of the founders of our Movement.” His suggestion is “that the well being of the world will be better served by a strong multilateral system, revolving around a United Nations that is more representative and democratic, than a unilateral system based on the dominance of one power, however benign that power may be” (NAM address).


The Malaysian press’ view on the war has been much of the same view as Mahathir, who controls it with the threat of closure and sackings. On this score, there is little need for Mahathir to fear dissent. Journalists see the United States as an imperial power intent on controlling the Middle East. A major publication called Malaysiakini editorialised US involvement in Iraq as virtually unique: “Very rarely, especially in recent times, do we see US imperialism laid bared in all its unvarnished ferocity” (Mar 20, 2003). The same editorial insisted that “this war is not about saving Iraq, let alone its Kurdish minorities.” Ten days later, the same editorial suggested that, however brutal Saddam was, nationalism would step in to repel the foreign invaders. After all, Joseph Stalin’s still managed to convince 26 million to die “defending Stalin’s Soviet Union from the Nazi invasion” (Mar 31, 2003). Some commentary was more extreme: America was seen by one legal scholar at the University of Malaya interviewed on evening news as a habitual “gang-rapist”, having assaulted the UN’s legitimacy and Iraq’s entitlement to defend itself.

On remote beaches in Malacca, where a voluntary turtle hatchery scheme is being developed, there are bin Laden merchandise and slogans. Girls serving customers at the hawker stalls that have grown on the beaches of Port Dickson also wear images of the sinister bearded wonder. Outside the Selangor Bird Park in KL, the curious tourist can inspect a panorama of 9/11 shots at the local ticket store ­ before, during and after the catastrophe. The assault on Iraq has amplified these contrasts, minimising sympathy for Americans after 9/11.


Malaysia provides a test-case as to how American interests, and for that matter non-Malay interests might conflict with the ruling Malays, otherwise known as Bumuputeras. The Iraq war produced visible division in the community, tapered over already existing divisions that exist due to the affirmative action policy that has favoured Malays for over three decades. Even as the groundwork was being set for the war on Iraq, the debate on non-Malay (Chinese and Indian) assimilation and the social standing of non-Malays raged in papers. One pro-assimilation advocate wrote to Malaysiakini that, “The Chinese and Indians are better off in Malaysia compared with their counterparts in other countries where they are in the minority” (Jan 30, 2003).

The Chinese and Indians are ecstatic: they see Saddam as an over privileged, oppressive analogised Malay, Islam as a constellation of similar, ruthless powers. The concept of a moderate Muslim, so debate the Chinese hawkers, is an oxymoron. The Indian taxi-drivers that occupy the vicinity of Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman are adamant that war ‘should be given a chance’. This is what the war on Iraq has effectively done. Polarity has increased. Nations that are fitted in the haphazard, confused collective of the ‘coalition of the willing’ assume the form of heroic supporters in underground discussion and café speculation. The Iraqi civilian and soldier feature as heroes in the Malaysian Peace Movement’s slogans, but the heroes for Indians and Malays in this conflict are American and British soldiers. The non-Malay minority see the Coalition as guardians against the excesses of Islam. Already, the argument goes, American violence will act as a sedative on Malay privilege. There might be evidence of this, though this is anecdotal. The World Youth Muslim Centre, located near the privileged homes of various ambassadors to Malaysia has gone quite, its signs less visible in the district where it is located. The madrassah that was frequently used in the vicinity of KL’s more affluent suburbs, is now dilapidated, and without a sign.

But even as the American forces are now claiming to have liberated Baghdad, it has ignited debates in Malaysia that have the potential to compromise the delicate, somewhat artificial balance of ‘racial harmony’ the government eagerly promotes. It is a nation that is based on contrivances and simulations: racial stability, industrial progress, and now, the war on Iraq. The American image in South East Asia and Malaysia’s perceptions of itself have suffered. If Bush’s doctrine of seeking terrorists is extended to its logical conclusion, Malaysia lies somewhere in the hierarchy of American aims, “harbouring” terrorists like Al Qaeda sympathisers responsible for the Bali bombings.

BINOY KAMPMARK is currently a Hampton Scholar at St. John’s College, University of Queensland, and recently back from a visit to Malaysia.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: