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March 06, 2009

Post-Racial Malaysia? Obama Mania Hits

Malaysia for Obama

By Dinda Elliott

Condé Nast Traveler's deputy editor is in Malaysia this week.

Obama-mania has hit Malaysia. The U.S. president's name is on the tip of everyone's tongue all across the country: "Do you think Obama can save the economy?" "Obama is one of us; he grew up in a Muslim country." "Obama speaks bahasa!" "We believe Obama will make things better."

One reason Malaysians are so thrilled about Obama's story is that they see parallels between what has happened in the U.S.--the election of a politician who represents radical change, and perhaps even racial and global healing--and what might happen in their own country. Malaysia these days is charged simultaneously with a sense of trepidation and optimism.

I got a wonderful dose of politics for breakfast in Kuala Lumpur the other day at the home of an old friend, Karim, an erudite upper-class Malaysian lawyer and writer, and his partner Valentine, an art gallery owner. Over fish curry, dahl, and chapati, the conversation in their art-filled apartment, overlooking the rich folks' villas of Damansara Heights, flowed from how President Obama has reached out to the Muslim world to whether Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's fallen-now-back-again former deputy prime minister, will be the same kind of transformative figure as Obama, uniting racially divided Malaysians behind a drive for clean government. "Anwar is certainly an icon," Karim said.

If Obama's election has historic resonance, my friends explained, Anwar's story is historic, too, because it reflects how much Malaysians have changed. Under the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, Malaysians grew timid--and learned to keep their mouths shut in exchange for economic development. But in 1998, Anwar started raising questions about unfairness and corruption in the government. His boss, Mahathir, lashed out, with a suit alleging that Anwar engaged in sodomy. Anwar spent six years in jail.

But though Anwar was in jail, the anti-corruption reform movement he launched in 1999 took hold in the hearts and minds of the Malaysian people.  So, it seems, did his message of racial justice. For decades, Mahathir's policies were based on an affirmative action program that offered school slots, cheap loans, and insider business deals and contracts to the Muslim Malays, who traditionally had been the poorest Malaysians despite being the majority. The affirmative action economic policies quickly turned into cronyism: only a handful of well-connected Malays got really rich. The policy backfired. Nowadays, Malaysia's Chinese, Indian, AND Malay populations all feel left behind. Frustration is bringing them together.

Last year, Mahathir's allies lost five of Malaysia's 13 states in an unprecedented debacle for the country's ruling elite.

Anwar is a different sort of politician. He quotes Confucius and the Indian poet Tagore, along with the Koran. "People are fed up," Valentine said. "They wanted change, they're sick of the racial games, so they voted for the opposition." The irony: now that the ruling elite are on the run, they no doubt will try to play divisive, racial politics more than ever.  "Actually," my friend said, "things here could get pretty unstable."

Further reading:
* Earlier this week in Kuala Lumpur, Dinda found out that Malaysian markets are not for the meek
* Dinda's first day in Kuala Lumpur, when she got all the gossip
* Dispatches: On the road

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