Since 31 August 1963, Malaysian politics, one of Malaysian politics’ core values, has exploited the country’s racial and ethnic differences to retain and strengthen their vote banks. Policies such as the New Economic Policy and National Development Policy attempted to improve Malay’s lifestyles and incomes, including Malaysia’s local people. These policies have created heated debates in the country. Recently, Prime Minister Najib Razak did appear to be taking a U-turn by introducing New Economic Model to ensure development across all regions, races, and sectors of the economy (Hooker & Othman, pp. 47-48, 2003).
Before coming in power as the country’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, took a bold stance by writing the book “The Malay Dilemma.” He believed that the Malay Dilemma is the fact that many different ethnic groups and communities have ruled the country, learned the native people’s language, took over their ancestors’ resources and business and exploited them for their excellent Malaysian History. He believed that the Malays had become strangers and slaves in their land. They have the most significant stake in the country, and the growing discontent amongst these people was the leading cause of the country’s racial riots. The dilemma is that the Malays are forced to accept the systematic steps taken by the government to give them exposure in the economy, and according to Mahathir; they should get it to move forward in order to create an integrated, peaceful, and ethnically diverse Malaysian society (Cheah, pp. 301-302, 2002).
Mahathir placed immense importance on Islam and Islamic principles during his regime in the country during his era. Mahathir believed that Islam strongly stresses equality and social justice in all lifestyles. The people’s inability to follow those and principles and the government’s failure to implement the same has remained the primary cause behind the Malay Dilemma (Hunter, pp. 264-268).
Mahathir gets the credit for the economic progress and development that he brought to the country, which started in 1990 when the previous monetary policy expired. Mahathir’s National Development Policy aimed to increase the share of Malays in the national income to 30 percent, reducing poverty in the country, attracting foreign investment through liberalization and a free-market economy, and improving the infrastructure in the country and others. Until 1997, the Malaysian economy grew at an annual average growth rate of 9 percent. However, the 1998 Asian financial crisis happened to put the brakes on the country’s economic growth (Khoo, 74-75, 2003).
In his early years of power, Mahathir has realized that the Dakwah movement is a strong force, and to ensure his passion, he will have to focus on the same as well. Therefore, under Mahathir’s Mahathir’s administration, the government placed great importance on Islam and with the help of Anwar Ibrahim, the finance minister of Malaysia then, a process of Islamization started in the country with the government adopting a “look east” rather than “look west” policy. Also, this resulted in increased media coverage for Islam and Islamic issues, raising funds for Islamic religious organizations, founding Islamic banks and Islamic insurance companies, including Islamic teachings and principles in the school curriculum and others (Mohamad, pp. 20-21, 2010; Peletz, pp. 55, 2002).
As a Muslim, Mahathir held this belief that Islam is different from other religions, and it is a complete code of life. Therefore, Islam should have its due interference in the matters of State as well. When Mahathir came into power, there was an increasing wave of Islamism amongst the Malays, who were becoming more religious and more conservative. Since they represented the most significant chunk of Mahathir’s vote bank, he had no choice but to ensure that Islamic teachings should reflect in his policies as well. Necessary here to understand is that time and time again, Mahathir has claimed that he does not believe that Islam is a violent religion in itself. Muslims’ violence and bloodshed are still because Muslims have deviated from Islam’s fundamental teachings (Wain, pp. 152-153, 2010).
As mentioned earlier, that Mahathir did take various steps for Islamization in the country. Those steps were not targeted at non-Muslims to convert them to Islam, but that targeted the Muslims and tried to reinforce deeper and stronger religious beliefs in their hearts and minds. In the first stage of Islamization in Malaysia, Mahathir and his government included Islamic texts into the educational curriculum and emphasized displaying Islamic architecture throughout the country. The second stage of Islamization included creating, growth, and expanding Islamic institutions such as Islamic Banks, Islamic Insurance companies, Mosques, Madarsas, and others. More Islamic courses became a part of the universities’ curriculum, and more and more students were being sent to the Middle East for becoming Islamic scholars. The third stage, with which the non-Muslims started feeling increasingly uncomfortable, was the expansion of power with the Shariah courts. Malaysia was referred to as an Islamic State after 9/11, and police were assigned to stop “immoral acts” in public (Stewart, pp. 89-90, 2003).
Mahathir laid down Vision 2020 in 1991, who wanted to see Malaysia as a self-sufficient and economically viable nation by the end of 2020. Mahathir believed that for achieving the same, the country would have to have real economic growth of 7 percent over these thirty years. This would allow the government to become a highly industrialized nation. Vision 2020 is a picture of a highly prosperous, tolerant, liberal, progressive, developed, moral, scientific, technologically advanced, and competitive society (Sharma, pp. 52-54, 2003).
Conflicts between Mahathir and Ibrahim emerged during the late 1990s when it was revealed that there are huge differences between the two leaders in their way and approach to governance. Mahathir groomed Ibrahim as his successor. This was also the general impression, but after seeing the disappointing show by Ibrahim during the two months when Mahathir was on vacation and Ibrahim was in charge of the country, cracks became wide open in their relationship. Mahathir sacked him and opened cases against him to keep him away from political activities (Milne & Mauzy, pp. 341-342, 1999).
Unlike other countries, Malaysia does not have a huge Islamic majority, and only 60 percent of the country’s people are Muslims, which means that any acts of Islamization increase discontent amongst 40 percent of the country’s population, which is indeed a huge figure. Questions were raised that if Malaysia were to be an Islamic state, which model would it follow. Would it be the Saudi Arabian model with strict rules and law enforcement or the Pakistani model where the laws are Islamic but weak? (Saw & Kesavapany, 2006).
Mahathir has always had problems in terms of ideologies with PAS. Mahathir has identified himself as a moderate Muslim, whereas PAS is a fundamentalist Islamic Party that talks only about Islam. Their manifesto lacks any details on the economy and social issues. Still, the only focus is on the Islamization of the State and Shariah’s enforcement, which is hoped to be the solution to all problems. Mahathir recently bashed the party for wanting to implement Hudood laws in the country (Hilley, pp. 196-197, 2001).
As mentioned earlier, Mahathir dealt with Anwar’s threat by using his power via law enforcement agencies and the judiciary. All the cases and allegations against Anwar were brought into the public to be put into prison for a while. During the Asian Financial crisis, Mahathir initially followed the IMF’s policies to put government spending and increase interest rates. However, this only made matters worse for the country. Therefore, Mahathir quickly decided to peg its currency to the US dollar, use the Keynesian approach of big government and increased government spending, and lower interest rates. The system quickly generated results, and Malaysia’ recovery was the fastest amongst all countries in the South East region (Dhillon, pp. 36-37, 2009; Peletz, pp. 55, 2002).