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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Mahathir's Worldly Concerns

Could a rigid Islam slow economic development?

By Roger Mitton Kuala Lumpur

Go to an essay by Zainah Anwar

A GOATEE BEARD, A VENGEFUL LETTER AND A GIANT DAM WERE the abiding symbols of an unusually serious annual convention of Malaysia's dominant party, the United Malays National Organization, UMNO. The nation's flagship daily, the New Straits Times, reported that last week's conclave was "full of somber speeches and relatively unexciting debate." In fact, it was one of the most portentous. Party leader and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called for a reformation in the attitude of Muslims toward their religion, warning them that devotion to rigid Islamist practices could thwart the nation's economic development. The speech was bolder than expected, and more biting than some felt comfortable with. Indeed, it seemed too serious for many. "Mahathir is brave, although sometimes not popular," said Malacca delegate Othman Muhamad. The prime minister's carefully reasoned words seemed to perplex many. The symbols were easier to grasp.

While the issue of more partymen sporting beards seems trivial, it is not. It epitomizes the conflict between reformist Muslims led by Mahathir and orthodox Islamists, who dominate the more conservative wing of UMNO -- and, these days, usually have beards. The prime minister has identified one of Malaysia's most daunting challenges: how to practice Islam in a modern world. Mahathir is deeply worried that obsessive religious practices, and adherence to rituals at any cost, will so preoccupy his fellow Malay Muslims that the nation's bid to achieve industrialized status within the next 20 years will fail. "While Malaysia is concentrating on doing so many things, other forces are using religion to pull us back," says Tajudin Ramli, chairman of Malaysia Airlines and a conference observer.

Mahathir's lengthy talk, more a lecture than a speech, was received in relative silence. As a deputy minister, Nazri Aziz, said: "It's a serious subject, you have to listen carefully. It is not something you stand up and cheer." Noted MP Khaled Nordin: "Mahathir is saying that Islam must be adaptable to the modern life. That we should think of this life and not just the afterlife."

Mahathir scorned Muslims who give more attention to the outward signs of their religion than to the real substance. "Why are there among us those who prefer Islamic symbols, such as clothes and beards, instead of focusing on more substantive matters for Muslims, like security and brotherhood?" Mahathir said. Dr. M, and others, fear people are being coerced into adopting these outward signs of piety -- and, worse, are being persuaded that such actions are more important than improving their lot in this world. Beside him was Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who has a beard and whose wife is always conservatively attired. Acknowledging this, Mahathir stroked his chin and smilingly said that he did not mean to exaggerate the importance of the issue. Delegates, especially the bearded men and the women in headscarves, tittered nervously. It is a big issue -- and the prime minister knows it.

"Mahathir's talk about scarves and beards surprised and confused many delegates," said Nazri. "To them, these things are Islam, and he is speaking critically." Many say having beards or wearing scarves is simply a way of showing that they are properly following the Islamic code. Some tried to reassure Mahathir. Businessman-turned-politician Fuad Hassan, a strong Anwar supporter, said: "We, the bearded ones, will not misuse our beards." Anwar himself jested that since he had a beard when he first met his wife, he could not shave it off now.

The banter did not soften Mahathir's message. At one point, the prime minister suggested that the traditional Muslim dress code was "no longer effective in reining in the lust in a multi-racial society." Mahathir went further than many men would have. Addressing an audience in which most men were bearded and most women had covered their heads, he said people placed too much importance on conservative attire. Muslims who wear headscarves and other such orthodox clothes commit sexual offenses and other crimes just as often as those who do not, he said. Indeed, he noted that Muslims commit proportionately more sex crimes than any other group in Malaysia. This was not what many in the audience expected, or wanted, to hear.

Mahathir's concern that Islamic extremism could be on the rise was no more welcome. "We practice Islam in moderation," he said. Echoed Tajudin: "Muslims here are more balanced between this world and the next. But in many parts of the world, frustration is leading to extremism. I'm worried a small group in Malaysia is pointing in this direction and this is dangerous." Mahathir is determined to cut them off.

The prime minister acknowledged that many would consider his remarks about Islam controversial. "I am aware that what I am saying will not go down well with a lot of people, including UMNO members," he said. Some even fear a conservative backlash. Notes Nazri: "It is going to be very hard [for these ideas] to prevail." Mahathir had been attacked when he spoke out against the arrest of three Malay girls who participated in a beauty contest in June. Talk that some were labeling the prime minister an apostate (apostasy, or renouncing the faith, is a mortal sin in Islam) spread quickly. Passions were inflamed. One of Mahathir's staunchest supporters, Kedah state chief minister Sanusi Junid, even said that if those who accused Mahathir of being an apostate came to Kedah, there would be a bloodbath. It is an indication of just how sensitive a topic the doughty prime minister has chosen to confront.

Now to the vengeful letter and big dam. Last month, a nasty "flying letter" was circulated in Kuala Lumpur alleging that Anwar was involved in extramarital affairs. The question on many delegates' minds was whether the smear campaign against Anwar could hobble his chances of succeeding Mahathir as prime minister. Anwar admitted filing a police report on August 15 and asking for an investigation of the letter's authors. The police did so, and say they found the allegations baseless. "It's hard to connect Anwar with a sex scandal," says Othman. "Rural folk laugh at such allegations." Both leaders said any more time spent on the matter would be wasted.

Anwar also dismissed the rumor that he would resign as finance minister. "Why are these people so keen to see me quit?" he said. One of his close advisers told Asiaweek: "I think they now realize it is inevitable that Anwar will succeed unless they do something fast. So they tried to put him down. It was an act of desperation." It appears to have failed. "Anwar is definitely qualified to be a future leader," says Bee Azman, an observer from Selangor.

Oddly, the one issue that Mahathir did not touch on in his speech was the economic turmoil that has shaken Malaysia over the past two months. Says UMNO MP Kamal Salih: "I wondered about this -- but then what better way to deal with it than by doing rather than talking." Mahathir's decisions were courageous, somewhat humiliating, but ultimately effective. He lifted deeply resented and counter-productive restrictions on the stock market and said many of the currency-sucking mega-projects would be "staggered" (some will likely be shelved altogether). The stock market and the currency promptly, and dramatically, rose.

The most notable casualty is the massive hydro-electric Bakun Dam in East Malaysia's Sarawak state. Many wonder if Mahathir's uncharacteristic and abrupt reversals, particularly on Bakun, will diminish his standing. But the prime minister's supporters are not worried. Says Ibrahim Ali, an UMNO Supreme Council member: "There is no loss of face for Mahathir in changing his mind because it resulted in the economy improving." Adds Tajudin: "It was a timely withdrawal. Only a big man can do that." It certainly took a big man to speak as Mahathir did last week. The only real question now is whether his performance at the UMNO assembly will prompt a timely retirement or persuade him to stay in power even longer. Only Mahathir knows the answer.

-- With reporting by Santha Oorjitham/Kuala Lumpur

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



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Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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