Changes in Southeast Asia (Particularly Malaysia) following the 911 and 1012 attacks

Dr. Sayed Hussein Ali
Changes in Southeast Asia
(Particularly Malaysia) following the
911 and 1012 attacks

Let me begin by making some general remarks on globalization and describing certain features of Southeast Asia, which are relevant to my main topic of discussion.


About ten years ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the close of the Gulf War, President Bush Sr announced the concept of the New World Order. Related to this there were reports of a CIA document regarding the US strategies for a one-superpower world.

With communism having crumbled then, the document asserted that the new challenges facing the US would come from Islamic movements and some states described as rogue states. The latter, that include North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Iran and Iraq, have either communist or Islamic orientation.

Now, the US declaration of war against global terrorism – which is identified almost exclusively with militant political Islam, together with the threat of invading Iraq, and the naming of the so-called nexus of evil states, all appear to be the continuation by President Bush Jr of policies formulated during his father's presidency.

The 911 terrorist attacks on the WTC and Pentagon provided President Bush with the right opportunity. I view his efforts to form the global coalition to fight against international terrorism as a second phase of the process of globalization, namely, the military or security phase. The first and earlier phase may be called the economic or corporate globalization.

As Steven Staples, from the International Network on Disarmament and Globalization observes, there appears to be a connection between globalization and militarism which is not fully understood yet. This connection is well described by Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist who wrote.

"The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden first. MacDonald cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F15 warplane. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps".

Staples argues that the convergence of these military and corporate interests has further strengthened the military-corporate complex, where the militaries and corporations depend upon each other to pursue their agenda in the global economy. Some political leaders and scholars warn that this could lead to neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism.

Just to point out an example of such convergence of interests, let us take the case of Boeing, the world's largest maker of aircraft. It builds passenger planes like the 747 and 737 as well warplanes like the F-15 and F-18. The US government, which spends more than US300 billion every year on its military, can help corporations like Boeing. In fact, Boeing has admitted that "in the face of a slow down in civilian aircraft sales, it will depend on its substantial military production".

The US threat to attack Iraq also has both its military/security as well as the economic/corporate aspects. It has now become clearer than ever that at the root of the US declared intention to invade Iraq, to destroy its weapons of mass destruction, and even to overthrow Saddam Hussein, is the desire to control petroleum there. Iraq happens to have second largest depository in the world after Saudi Arabia.

Military spending is increasing not only in the US and several developed countries but also in some of the emerging economies. With more money allocated for weapons, less is left to spend for the fight against such 'traditional' social problems like poverty, inequity, disease, shelter and ignorance that are still prevalent in many parts of the world.

A final point to note here is that there is double standard practiced in the campaign on terrorism. It is directed more against civilian terrorism, whereas state terrorism that is perpetrated in some countries, particularly Israel, in various forms can be more dangerous. At the same time, the main target on terrorism appears to be selectively focused, presently more on those with Islamic background.

South-east Asia

Let us now turn to look at Southeast Asia. I shall enumerate certain features.

First, it consists of several countries that are made up of different ethnic groups belonging to various religious denominations, from Islam and Buddhism to Hinduism and Christianity. Muslims form the majority. It may be noted that about 25% of the world's Muslim population reside in SEA; out of this around 200 million are concentrated in Indonesia, which incidentally has the biggest Muslim population in the world.

In Indonesia there is a strong Islamic-based province of Acheh that had long fought the center, which is also Muslim, but secular in orientation. In Thailand and Philippines there exist Muslim minority communities in the southern part of their country. They have separatist movements, which have fought for autonomy from their respective central government, which are dominated by Buddhists and Christians respectively.

Second, the political system in SEA is quite diverse. Brunei is an absolute monarchy, where the ruling family monopolizes control over politics and petroleum. At the other end, Burma is ruled by the military that controls almost every sphere of life. In Vietnam, many aspects of the old style communist rule still remain; but Cambodia has already moved towards a western style elected parliamentary system.

Indonesia (after over 30 years of military rule), Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines (whose present President came to power through a civilian coup), all claim to practice Parliamentary Democracy. (In many cases, their parliament buildings are impressive but appear to be little democracy.) These are elements to suggest that different degrees of authoritarianism exist in the political system.

Third, economically SEA is still largely dependent on agriculture, with a large sector practicing near subsistence economy. Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand are the world's biggest exporters of rubber and also palm oil, some operated as smallholdings while others as plantations, a number of which are owned by foreign capital. Many of the SEAn countries are also moving towards manufacturing industries and international trade. And here we also find large foreign investments from the US, Britain, Japan and Australia.

Fourth, many countries in SEA are also producers of petroleum. It is interesting to note that just as at the global level the biggest oil producers are mainly the Muslim countries in the Middle East, in SEA petroleum is produced almost entirely by the predominantly Muslim states of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Although Indonesia and Malaysia have their nationally owned Pertamina and Petronas, multi-nationals like Esso, Shell, Caltex and BP are well known in the region. There is considerable foreign investment here too.

Fifth, SEA is situated in a strategic area. The Straits of Melaka, between Malaysia and Indonesia, has historically been and continues to be an important naval highway between the West and the East. Anything from small trading vessels up to nuclear warships ply the straits. It is not internationalized, and can be a source of military conflict should any power tries to control it.

Sixth, some of the SEAn states have defense or security arrangements with the western superpowers. There is the Five Power Defense Agreement (FPDA), which succeeded SEATO; its membership comprises Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. Both the Philippines and Thailand have long allowed US military bases in their territories. Malaysia has a defense agreement with the US, which was signed by PM Dr. Mahathir in 1984. So too does Singapore. All these clearly contradict the spirit of Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) declared by and for the SEAn region.

Effects of 911 on sea

The US-led worldwide campaign against terrorism has dramatically increased its military alliances and cooperation with the SEA region overall, although it varies from country to country. Perhaps it is closest in the Philippines, where President Arroyo enthusiastically welcomes US military personnel, weapons and advice to help her in the onslaught against the notorious Abu Sayaf group.

On the other hand Indonesia, which was initially lukewarm, has now declared her commitment to hunt down local groups suspected of being involved with terrorist activities. In pursuit of this, recently President Megawati passed a decree to allow the arrest and detention of suspects for six months without trial. Thailand, on the other hand, is beginning to allege, quite opportunistically, that the weak separatist movement there smacks of terrorism.

Japan and Australia have taken greater and even more aggressive role in SEAn regional security. They have partnered with New Zealand, Korea, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore to form a seven-nation coalition called the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Some questions have been raised within certain circles as to why the membership of OEF does not include any country with majority Muslim population.

According to one Col Brian T. Kelly (Division Chief, East Asia Pacific Joint Staff), "Numerous Pacific nations approved use of airways, seas and infrastructure for OEF". US military alliances with the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore have been reinforced. India has renewed its military ties with US and reached out eastward to help protect the Straits of Melaka.

There is unfortunately a perception among a growing number of Muslims that the US-led campaign is actually meant to be against Islam in general. Be that as it may, without direct US role, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Cambodia "have signed an agreement to combat terrorism that promises combined training, hotlines, border controls, and increased cooperation". (Col Kelly).

Further, on 20th May 2002 members of ASEAN signed a joint communiqué endorsing military related coordination, for purposes that include information and military exchanges as well as regional training programmes. They have also agreed to establish an Anti-Terrorist Centre in Kuala Lumpur, for military fellowships, training and mutual exchange of information and intelligence too. But Malaysia has been careful to insist that it will not include joint military actions. On 2nd August, Malaysia and the Philippines signed an agreement with Australia for mutual defense and intelligence exchange.

All these things happened before 1012 (the Bali Attack). Some people view it is an act of desperation by certain extremist Islamic individuals or groups to give vent to their anger against the West. They assert that the main source of this anger arises from US and Israeli state terrorism against the Palestinians and other Muslim communities. But there is also the element of some extreme groups who want to impose Islam everywhere.

Unfortunately, the anti-terrorist attacks and counter-attacks have reared the ugly heads of racism and religious extremism; and so, innocent people become victims in the crossfire.

The US government considers SEA to be its second front in the war against terrorism. It alleges certain countries in the region have knowingly or unknowingly served as havens if not springboards for some of the most active militant or alleged terrorist Muslim groups. After 1012, attention and attacks were focused on certain individuals and organization suspected to be behind the Bali Attack and to have links with al-Qaeda.

All of a sudden a religious cleric by the name of Abu Bakar Bashir, and the organization he leads, the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), recently shot into international prominence, at times oven overshadowing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. (There are documentations now available that allege this group was originally promoted by the military in Indonesia, through its intelligence, to fight against the communists initially at home,)

Nearly two months after 1012, which killed over 100 Australian holiday makers, PM Howard declared that Australia reserves the right to adopt the preemptive defense strategy to strike at terrorist individual or group, in any country. His declaration was supported by President Bush, but met with strong reactions, especially from Indonesia. Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia.

Bitter vituperations, borne out of deep-seated prejudices, led to some uncalled for remarks that bear racial undertones. These could undermine cooperation. In fact. Malaysia and Philippines have already threatened to withdraw from their agreement with Australia made only four months before.

The 1012 attack has almost completely shattered the tourist industry of Bali and affected adversely the economy of Indonesia. In fact, its reverberations are also felt in other parts of the region, which have been declared by many Western countries as being unsafe for travel and tourisms. This affects foreign currency earnings for a number of countries. At the same time, foreign capital has stopped coming to some and, in fact, there are instances where they have been withdrawn.

The aftermath of 911 and 1012 has also given rise to another form of complication that is no less important, although it is seldom alluded to. A large section of the Muslim population in SEA, like the rest of the world, are wary about the US-led anti-terrorist campaign and the threat to invade Iraq, as much as they are angry about the occupation of Palestine. The more the US puts pressure, the greater the Muslim anger and resistance seem to become.

Not surprisingly, these have driven more Muslims towards Islam and against the Christian West, as represented by the US. They do not relate this to the ideological or political concept of imperialism or even economic and military globalization.

It may not be fully realized, but the US policy to establish a one super power world, now apparently pursued through anti-terrorism, makes it more difficult for secular forces and progressive or modernist Islamic movements to gain support in their own country. This is especially so when they are seen to be pro-US. But even if they are not, they are constantly under the threat of losing out to the radical Muslim groups or parties.

This appears to be happening in Malaysia.

Changes in Malaysia

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic society, with around 55% Malays, 28% Chinese, 10% Indians and the rest consisting mainly of several indigenous (or Orang Asal) groups, the majority of which are Kadazan-dusun in Sabah and Iban in Sarawak. The Malays are almost all Muslims by birth and by law. The Chinese and Indians largely Buddhists or Taoists and Hindus respectively, but there is a growing number of Christians among them. As for the Indigenes in Sabah and Sarawak, they have their own traditional animistic beliefs or are either Christians or Muslims.

The majorities in each group live in their own geographical area speak their own language and practice their own culture. In fact, many of them are also involved in their own respective economic activities, for example, Malays and indigenous communities as peasants in rural areas, Indians as workers in plantations, and Chinese as traders in rural as well as urban areas. Prior to independence particularly, Malaysia served as an example of a plural society par excellence.

But things have changed a great deal due to the processes of education, administration, urbanization, and industrialization, which have occurred rapidly after independence in 1957. Through education, the role of Malay as lingua franca and official language has become important for inter-ethnic communication. New form of administration gave rise to new social classes, although most government posts are reserved mainly for Malays through a system positive discrimination.

Urbanisation, which was encouraged by the government, especially after the communal clashes on May 13, 1969, resulted in large number of rural Malays coming to work and interacting with Chinese already in town. But a large number also tended to take up different jobs and separate dwelling areas. Industrialization has increased the size of the working classes, which is more inter-ethnic in composition. But, to some extent a large proportion still distance themselves from one another owing to culture and religion.

These changes have led to new social formation in Malaysian society based on class. At the same time the ethnic divide continue to persist, although to a lesser degree.
The Lower Classes is made up mainly of Malay and indigenous peasants in the rural areas, Malay workers predominantly in the government sector, Chinese workers in the private sector, and Indian workers in the plantations. But there are also a growing number of those from different ethnic backgrounds who intermingle with one another as workers in some of the new industries. A new element is the immigrant workers - estimated to be nearly two million, who form the workforce especially in construction, plantation and homes.

The Middle Classes are a fast expanding group. Here too there is still ethnic division. The Malays mainly serve in the middle and higher rung of government as administrators. The Chinese are mainly businessmen and executives in the private sector, as well as being members of the different professions. A larger proportion of Indians are in the various professions and also in business.

But, with the help of government educational and business sponsorship, more Malays are also entering into businesses and the professions. Within the Middle Classes there is greater amount of shared style of life and even values. But at the same time, there is tendency for sharper conflicts to occur because of competitions for positions, licenses and scholarships that are based on the quota system that presently favours Malays.

In the Upper Classes the Malays are made up of aristocrats, ministers, senior bureaucrats and successful businessmen; while the Chinese and Indians consist of more corporate figures and less ministers or senior bureaucrats than the Malays. During the last two decades the government has spent enormous amount of money on development, particularly on those referred to as mega projects.

Vast opportunities have been open to aristocrats, retired ministers and bureaucrats, as well as businessmen close to the powers that become extremely wealthy from big contracts or allocation of shares. Crony capitalism was on the ascendancy, checked only by the financial downturn that swept Malaysia and the region beginning mid-1997. Common political and economic interests have kept members of the upper classes in stronger bond inter-ethnically, compared to the other classes.

There appear to be two forces at work in the society. On one hand there is the force that pulls in the direction of ethnicity, while on the other, in the direction of class. Looking at it historically, in most instances the ethnic pull has always been much stronger. Classes have existed in themselves but have not acted for themselves. It is more often ethnic groups that have acted for themselves, resulting in acute tensions or conflicts. Ethnicity has often invariably influenced the political processes in Malaysia more than class, although they also have strong economic roots.

Politically, the ruling elites are made up of the leadership of a coalition comprising 14 political parties, the majority of which are mono-ethnically based. This coalition, hatched after the 13th May Incident, is called the National Front (BN) and is led and dominated by the UMNO, which is an entirely Malay party. The other prominent components of BN are a Chinese party (MCA) and an Indian party (MIC). Although the coalition is multi ethnic in appearance, in reality each party pursues ethnically oriented programmes, in order to attract the support of their respective ethnic communities.

In multi-ethnic societies, there is a tendency for ethnic tensions or conflicts to become more acute when the economic pie shrinks. In fact, when the economic downturn occurred the underlying inter-ethnic tensions became more strained. There were less development projects available. A large number of companies found it difficult to continue existing owing to the downfall of business and increase in debts.

The government created institutions such as Danaharta, which was meant to relieve the strain of non-performing loans (NPL) on companies. But inevitably only big corporations controlled directly or indirectly through cronies, closely associated with the government top leadership, gained. The majority of them are Malays, and they are helped in accordance with the special position of Malays (or Bumiputera - son of the soil), as provided by the Constitution, and commonly referred to as the "Malay privilege".

Under the second phase of globalization, military and security measures against terrorism taken by the US, Malaysia has to bear some burden of its adverse impact. Malaysia has been accused of being a meeting place and a springboard for the plane attack on the WTC, and serving as a haven for a number of characters highly suspected of being deeply involved with the Bali bombing.

Repeatedly it has been declared unsafe for foreign travellers and tourists. Income from tourism industry has fallen by more than a third. At the same time foreign investments have not been coming and, in fact, recently there have been reports of withdrawals. The economic consequences are quite serious, although perhaps not as serious as in Indonesia.

Despite this, Malaysia is now recording a growth rate of more than 3%, and the IMP has reported that it is well on the way to recovery. But, the benefit of all this is not evenly distributed. Small businesses are severely affected, in fact they have not recovered since the economic slowdown of the late nineties, and some of them have been forced to close.

It so happens that the majority of the smaller businesses belong to the Malaysian Chinese. They do not enjoy the same special position as guaranteed for Malays, and so they are not given the first preference to be rescued. They also find it more difficult to get bank loans to help them, because majority of them have neither influence nor security.

There is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among non-Malays of the Malay special position, and this creates ethnic strain, although it has not burst out into any conflict yet. Actually, there is a rational basis for having this policy. The Malay community, which is more rural-based, is economically and socially in more disadvantaged position than the non-Malays in genera1. It is realized that socio-economic inequality based on ethnicity can lead to explosive situations in a multi ethnic society. But now, there is also growing inequality within each ethnic group.

Indeed the implementation of the Malay special position has been the cause of anger not only among non-Malays, but also among Malays with low income and status, or without any influential political links. This is because Malay special position is often used by the ruling elite primarily to benefit those close to them, who are already in privileged position and wealthy. It has not been properly used to alleviate poverty among the Malays, for example, what else the other ethnic groups.

Finally, I wish to discuss briefly the effects of 911 and 1012 attacks on religion and education.

We have observed above that the Chinese, Indians and indigenous people are the minority communities in Malaysia. But they form a rather large proportion; for instance, the percentage of Chinese in Malaysia is much higher than those in Indonesia and Thailand, but like in those countries, they play a big role in the economy, although not as dominantly as foreign capital from Britain, US, Japan and Singapore.

Politically, the Chinese or the Indian political parties have a role to play in government, albeit not as dominant as the Malay party; a few of their leaders serve as ministers. But a good number of Chinese feel dissatisfied because they perceive themselves as being "second class citizens" with less than equal rights compared to the Malays, mainly because of such policy as the Malay special position. But despite this policy, the economic standing of the Chinese continue to be much higher than the Malay community, There are more Chinese than Malay millionaires in the country and more Malays living in poverty. The per-capita income of Chinese is higher than Malay.

There is no similar kind of minority situation in Malaysia as that found in Southern Philippines or Thailand. Nevertheless, as noted earlier, there are bases of inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts. But now, especially within the context of the anti-terrorist campaign, there is not only the increase in tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in the country, but also growing competition and even conflict between the so-called radical Islam and moderate Islam.

The Malay party (UMNO), that leads the BN Government, considers itself as espousing moderate form of Islam. It brands the Islamic Party (PAS), which is the strongest opposition party as being radical, although it believes and participates in parliamentary democracy, and has never been proven by the government as being involved in any form of militancy, especially armed struggle.

In an attempt to counterbalance the support PAS enjoys, Dr Mahathir recently declared Malaysia as an Islamic state, without altering the Constitution or going to Parliament. There is an attempt to describe it as a "secular Islamic state". This is to contrast it with the Islamic State propagated by pass, which is creating greater fear among non-Muslims in particular. The move is seen as a political ploy by Mahathir to outflank PAS and attract more Muslim-Malay support to the UMNO.

The strength of PAS lies in the unswerving support it receives from communities in the northern and eastern provinces of Peninsular Malaysia, especially Kelantan and Terengganu states. The area is highly populated by Malays, who are relatively conservative Muslims, with less than 5% of the population being non-Malay. Their economy depends very much on agriculture, based on paddy cultivation, and they are also among the poorest in country.

There are a good number of traditional "pond ok" (cottage) schools, where students live in and study religion mostly by rote. These schools and their religious teachers thrive on the community support. In certain ways they are like the "pesantren" in Indonesia. These schools are the main source of formidable support and leadership for PAS at the local grass-root level. The government has long wanted to close down these schools and assimilate them into the government education system, but they have not succeeded.

At the same time, there have also been religious schools established privately, but receiving some financial aid from government. Recently, the Prime Minister accused these schools of being involved in politics, with students allegedly being taught to hate him and his government.

The government has now threatened to withdraw its aid, unless the schools stop its allegedly anti-government activities. Perhaps, anti-terrorism, which seems to be associated with the campaign against Muslim militants, has made it easier for the government to pursue this line of action, and perhaps move on to close the "pondok" schools. But there has been no allegation yet that any of these schools has been used for training potential terrorists.

Following 911, a number of people have been detained under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA). This act provides power to the Minister of Home Affairs to detain a person without trial for two years, and renewable every two years indefinitely. This is more severe than Megawati's decree.

After 1012 more were detained. In all over 70 persons have now been incarcerated. They have all been alleged to be involved in militant Islamic activities aimed at overthrowing the government by force. The government knows it can use this act without fear of provoking any criticisms from the West, merely by declaring that it is acting against Islamic extremists.

Actually, this act has been used since it was enacted in 1960 to detain thousands of people, some for a few days and many others for very long periods of up to 15 years. Different grounds have been given for such detention, from supporting communist cause, collaborating with Indonesia during the Confrontation, involvement with the Reformasi movement that was alleged to plan overthrowing the government by force, being members of "deviationist Islamic teachings", to forging passports and identity cards. Now, involvement with militant Islam is used quite freely as ground for detention.

The detainees are never brought to court on their charges. But recently, four of the Refomasi detainees, three of whom are leaders of the Justice Party, took a case against the government. Surprisingly, the highest court of the land found their detention to be mala fide and so can be considered illegal. Later, another court ordered one of those detained for alleged militant Islamic activity to be released. The Home Minister decided not to release the Reformasi leaders, and the police rearrested the so-called "Islamic militant" within less than half an hour after leaving the detention camp.

The government is not only using the ISA to suppress opposition to continue in power. It is also curbing opposition party newspapers by using the Printers and Publications Act (which empowers government to ban publication), and banning political rallies and peaceful assemblies by resorting to the Police Act (which specifies that any group of more than four persons can be declared as illegal assembly).

At the same time, the mass media., which are almost all controlled or owned by government or government parties, are fully manipulated to spread repeatedly disinformation or even lies against opposition parties, without providing them space to reply.

The anti-terrorist campaign has provided opportunity for the Malaysian government to exercise more authoritarian powers. Despite that, PAS appears to be retaining if not gaining popularity, among Muslims, particularly in the Malay heartland, thanks partly also to the anti-terrorism campaign. Nevertheless, at the same time, the majority of non--Muslims, and even some section of Muslims, who are more liberal or progressive but not supporting the government, have qualms about this development. It is not conducive for harmonious inter-ethnic relations.

Unfortunately, it makes it more difficult for the Justice Party (Keadilan) and the Peoples Party (PRM), which are for social justice and against authoritarian rule, and not having the establishment an Islamic state in Malaysia as its objective, to gain more influence. But it certainly provides a greater challenge for both parties to work hard and emerge as a third political force that is needed in the country for a new Malaysia of the future.