Menu

Search

  |   Business

Menu

  |   Business

Search

Anti-Semitism won’t help Mahathir solve Malaysia’s problems

More than two weeks after Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad banned Israeli Paralympians from entering his country, the 93-year-old politician shows no sign of backing down. In fact, despite the outrage his decision has provoked, Mahathir has gone even further, launching further measures against Israel while proudly reasserting his anti-Semitic views.

Mahathir’s conduct is worrying for both local and international observers. For the global community, it just demonstrates the deep-seated anti-Semitism that lingers within Malaysia, and remains a go-to propaganda tool for the country’s politicians. But for Malaysian viewers, it also suggests that Mahathir is ignoring the serious problems his country faces, and is instead trying to deflect attention with some pointless scapegoating.

The row erupted on January 10 when Mahathir confirmed that Malaysia would deny visas to Israeli swimmers for the World Para Swimming Championships, to be held in Sarawak this summer. The Jewish state responded by accusing the 93-year-old of “rabid anti-Semitism” and the International Paralympic Committee joined the condemnation, while stressing it intends to find a solution to the problem.

But Mahathir and his government remain unbowed. In fact Malaysia has ramped up its ban, stating that the country will no longer hold any sporting events involving Israel. Mahathir himself has challenged the IPC, saying that “if they want to withdraw the [Para Swimming] hosting rights from Malaysia, then they can try to do so.” Attempting to justify the ban, he has called Israelis crooks” and even cited Donald Trump’s border wall, saying every country has the right to keep “undesirables” out.

Officials in Kuala Lumpur maintain that their stand is motivated by support for the Palestinian people in their struggle against Israeli occupation. But, to many observers, it is simply further evidence of the anti-Semitism that has colored Mahathir’s 54-year political career. In addition to claiming Israel is the sole cause of Middle Eastern problems, he has described Jews as “hook-nosed” with an instinctive sense of money” and challenged historical accounts of the Holocaust. In a speech at the Oxford Union, just days after confirming the Israeli ban, Mahathir stoically refused to apologize for his past comments, and said they were simply a matter of free speech.

Wider problem

These comments have made Mahathir hugely controversial in the West. The Oxford Union, already facing accusations of bias against Israel, has been branded “a disgrace” for inviting him to speak. And sadly, in Malaysia, the comments are nothing out of the ordinary. This is a country, after all, where Jews and Israel are routinely blamed for all sorts of problems. Having previously governed Malaysia for 22 years, Mahathir has played a key role in fomenting this anti-Semitism, blacklisting everyone from composers to soccer stars for their links to Israel. Yet he is simply following a tried-and-tested playbook: Malaysia’s demagogues have been whipping up anti-Jewish sentiment ever since 1957, when the country won independence and immediately boycotted Israel. A desire to build relations with powerful Arab states in the Middle East has made this policy particularly prudent.

It’s proved extremely popular on the home front, too. The increasingly hardline approach to Islam common among the Malay ethnic community, which accounts for roughly 50% of Malaysia’s entire population, provides the ideal pretext for hatred of Jews. So, too, does resentment of the minority ethnic Chinese community, which is criticized by Malay nationalists for draining the country of its wealth – a slur hurled at Jewish communities for centuries. According to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish NGO, more than 60% of Malaysians exhibit anti-Semitic beliefs.

Change of course

Yet rather than resting on old prejudices and criticism of his predecessor Najib Razak, Mahathir might be advised to start looking forward rather than back. Instead of playing on perennial stereotypes, he might want to ask why Malaysia remains blighted by ethnic tensions, a far cry from the message it sends to Western tourists. Instead of dredging up grotesques of Jewish financiers, he might want to consider why his economy is shackled by soaring debt and sluggish growth. Instead of telling foreigners not to come to his country, he might ask himself why so many talented migrants are choosing to leave voluntarily.

Many analysts blame Mahathir’s previous regime for these problems. They say that it was he who borrowed heavily to fund a program of industrialization, whose profits ended up in the pockets of his cronies. They highlight that he championed a program of affirmative action, which gave the Malay community a head start in housing and academia and persuaded many talented Chinese Malaysians to emigrate. And it was he who arrested opponents and curbed press freedoms, stoking the very tensions which continue to hold the country back.

Less than nin months into his second term of office, Mahathir has already made a number of embarrassing U-turns, prompting questions about the prospects for his much-hyped ‘new Malaysia’ and throwing the spotlight on his previous mistakes. To complicate matters further, he is facing a potential challenge from Anwar Ibrahim, a man he himself had jailed for sodomy.

Anwar himself is unashamedly hostile to Jews and Israel, yet he is better known for his progressive policies; some commentators believe it was this reformist agenda that got him thrown in jail. Although Mahathir anointed Anwar as his successor upon releasing him from prison, many believe the pair are already forming rival camps, ahead of an early challenge. If that happens, Anwar is sure to arrive with a bold policy platform, one which will throw Mahathir’s recent struggles into even sharper relief.

So, while kicking out at the Jews might be an easy way to curry support, it won’t solve the real challenges that Mahathir faces. Nationalistic rabble-rousing may have been the keynote of his political career, but now, for the sake of his country’s, it’s time to learn some new tricks.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes.

  • ET PRO
  • Market Data

Market-moving news and views, 24 hours a day >

May 24 04:00 UTC Released

MYCPI NSA

Actual

121.1 Index

Forecast

Previous

121.1 Index

May 24 04:00 UTC Released

MYCPI YY

Actual

0.2 0

Forecast

0.4 0

Previous

0.2 0

January 31 00:00 UTC 688617688617m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

January 31 00:00 UTC 688617688617m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

January 22 19:00 UTC 700437700437m

ARTrade Balance

Actual

Forecast

Previous

-1541 %

January 31 00:00 UTC 688617688617m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

January 22 19:00 UTC 700437700437m

ARTrade Balance

Actual

Forecast

Previous

-1541 %

January 31 00:00 UTC 688617688617m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

January 31 00:00 UTC 688617688617m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

January 31 00:00 UTC 688617688617m

ARAnnual Primary Balance*

Actual

Forecast

2016 bln ARS

Previous

Bln AR bln ARS

Close

Welcome to EconoTimes

Sign up for daily updates for the most important
stories unfolding in the global economy.