During the regime of Dudley Senanayake, Malaysia was the preferred Southeast Asian state for Sri Lanka.
Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had taken 10 years in London to pass his barrister’s examination. Even then after 10 years he had to be coached by his friends, including many Sri Lankans, to scrape through.
His mentor was a Sri Lankan – Issadeen Mohammed KC – who practised in the Colombo courts. Though both were Muslims, they were keen whisky drinkers. Malaysia’s road to independence was facilitated by Tunku’s loyalty to Britain. But Malaysia freed itself from Britain and had a compact with the West through ASEAN.
Unlike Dudley, J.R. Jayewardene (JRJ) turned to Singapore and the close relationship we enjoyed with Malaysia dimmed partly because Malaysia was also going through much turbulence, including anti-Chinese riots. How was Malaysia to favour the Malays or Bumiputras without derailing the economy and beginning an ethnic war as it happened in Sri Lanka?
In reality, it was a very complex problem but the UMNO or Malay-dominated political party managed ethnic tensions better than both Bandaranaike and JRJ.
Unlike India, which backed the LTTE, communist China stayed clear of supporting the Malaysian Chinese, who were, except for old Chinese immigrants, called ‘nonyas,’ relative newcomers, some of them fleeing from the Chinese communists.
This was what Mahathir called ‘The Malay Dilemma’ in his best-selling political tract in which he argued for State intervention on behalf of the Bumiputras by not only uplifting the Malay-dominated countryside but by ‘shoehorning’ them into urban business and trade, which was a monopoly of the Chinese. In effect, it became the charter for Malay ‘crony capitalists,’ who collaborated with the ethnic Chinese capitalists and made lots of money due to State patronage for them as ‘frontmen’.
At this stage, Mahathir became the hope of the nationalist-minded Malays who were excluded from the family cabals which ran the country after the eclipse of Tunku Abdul Rahman.
These cabals were formed around Prime Minister Tun Razak, who is still considered the hero of rural Malays. It included Razak, his brother-in-law, and later his son – the disgraced Najib – who were prime ministers later on.
Mahathir and his then favourite Anwar Ibrahim [recently sworn in as PM] stood up against nepotism and corruption and became popular, especially among the Malay nationalists who complained that the sybaritic Najib Razak and his relatives were not giving a due place to Islam.
The duo became very popular in the Islamic heartlands like Kelentan, Kedah, and other northeastern states which were dominated by Islamic fundamentalists of the party called PAS with its ties to the Mullahs. Together they were able to capture power in UMNO, but they soon fell out and Mahathir launched a merciless attack on his erstwhile protégé. It was a long-drawn-out and vicious attack which kept Anwar a prisoner on trumped-up charges, including sodomy.
A good administrator
Mahathir is a classic outsider. He has a South Indian Muslim ancestry on his father’s side. But he and his wife were dedicated doctors who won the affection of people for their integrity. He became popular because he created a new and prosperous Malaysia through honesty and tough decision-making. He was a good and fearless administrator who once asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) not to interfere with the Malaysian economy.
On his visits to Sri Lanka, he emphasised the need for education and investment for development. He created a capitalist class from among the traditionally slow and non-entrepreneurial Malays, who have often been likened to the Sinhalese. He increased the per capita income of Malaysians way above that of the Sri Lankans.
But old age made him authoritarian and erratic. A born vote-getter who won handily in the past, he was comprehensively defeated in the recent elections. At 97 years, he did not heed the call made to him by the public to retire. He has to see his rival Anwar take oaths as prime minister with the encouragement of the Agong or King, who wants to modernise the role of the Sultan in the Malaysian Constitution.
A recent survey of our parliamentarians has shown that a large number are over 75 years of age. Several are over 80. Many of the oldsters – like the senior Rajapaksas, Vasudeva, and Sampanthan – have held major office and cannot adapt to being in limbo.
Perhaps the experience of Mahathir will convince them that they should go before they are thrown out by an angry public. That also was one of the demands of the Aragalaya.