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new internationalist
issue 236 - October 1992

Country profile: Malaysia

photo by CHRIS BRAZIER In the clammy heat of downtown Penang you can stop by a streetside hawker and buy a drink made from one of the many fruits displayed on the stall - starfruit or watermelon, guava or pineapple.

Malaysia seems a country of ease and plenty, with its fertile soil, kindly climate and efficient infrastructure. It is a rapidly modernizing nation which wants to maintain distinct South-East Asian traditions and keep its Malay, Chinese and Indian communities in harmony.

The beaches, delicious food and pleasant people make Malaysia a tourist's delight. But the country has often attracted news headlines for a darker side: whenever someone is caught possessing drugs - and hanged as a result.

Malaysian leaders are still smarting at the treatment they receive from Western nations which castigate Kuala Lumpur for its imprisonment-without-trial laws and for hacking down the country's tropical forests. Environmentalists predict that Sabah (on the island of Borneo) will be 'logged out' by the end of the 1990s, despite protests from the region's victimized and dwindling tribes.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, who is considered authoritarian and combative by critics, is under strain at home because Islamic fundamentalism is spreading, especially in impoverished Kelantan state in the north. Muslim voters there recently installed an anti-Mahathir group called the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party. Though Islam is already Malaysia's official religion, many Muslims now demand stricter laws.

Despite strong Islamic links, Malaysia's Government supported the United Nations' authorization to use force against Iraq in the Gulf War, ignoring the hundreds of Malaysians who loudly volunteered to defend Baghdad. But the War's biggest impact was mostly a slump in international tourism.

Mahathir's multi-racial coalition Government is also grappling with demands for independence in the oil and timber-rich Sabah state. The struggle for Sabah also threatens to divide Malaysia because the movement for autonomy is led by Christians while the rest of the nation is controlled by Muslims.

Mahathir claims: 'There is some connection with a third country - I don't know which - but there is a definite plot to take Sabah out of the (Malaysian) federation'. It is unclear if he was suspicious of Indonesia or the Philippines, which objected in the 1960s to Sabah joining Malaysia.

The Government is also under attack for its use of the Internal Security Act, said to be designed originally to prevent racial conflict between Malays, Chinese and Indians. But critics say the Government also uses it against politicians, trade unionists, community workers, environmentalists, religious leaders and others to crush dissent and human rights.

Richard S Ehrlich


LEADER: Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $2,320 (US $21,790)
Main exports: Tin and rubber, followed by machinery and transport equipment and other goods; timber from Sabah and pepper, cocoa and oil from Sarawak. Also manufactured goods and palm oil. One of the world's fastest growing economies.
Main imports: Intermediate and consumer goods.

PEOPLE: 17.9 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 16 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Former British colony, occupied by Japan during World War II. Malays control much of the Government, Chinese run some of the biggest businesses; there is also a sizeable Indian minority.
Religion: Islam is the national and majority religion.
Languages: Bahasa Malaysia is the national language. English common in commerce and industry. Chinese dialects, Tamil and Punjabi also spoken.

Sources Asian Development Bank, World Health Organization, World Development Report 1992, The Asia and Pacific Review 1991/92, Government statistics.

Last profiled In January 1980



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Reasonably equitable; 17% of the population is said to live in poverty.

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
70% for women; 78% for men. Widespread use of English.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Prosperous and attracting foreign investment.

1980: [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Draconian imprisonment-without-trial law puts human rights at a low.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Though modem society allows women to work, Islamic tradition curtails their ability to reach the top.

1980: [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
70 years (US 76 years)

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Politics now

Government intolerant of
local and foreign critics.


NI star rating

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previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page [image, unknown]

New Internationalist issue 236 magazine cover This article is from the October 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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