A country never simply is, for what a country is also depends on how and where it positions itself in relation to other nation-states and other, external geo-political interests. Witness for instance the current location and standing of Pakistan, which has been cast of late in the light of an 'unreliable' ally and accused of harbouring pro-Taliban elements. Pakistan's international standing is as much a result of its own choices as it is the result of how the external world looks at it - and in the case of the latter the opinion of the global media is often instrumental in determining the standing and fate of nations too. Today Pakistan is labelled all sorts of things, but remember that this is the same country that was, in the 1980s, considered one of the most vital allies to the West thanks to its support of the campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan. This is also the country that has taken in millions of refugees from Afghanistan, with little credit given to it. And dont forget that it was also Pakistan that was the crucial go-between the during the Nixon era when Washington wanted to re-open channels of dialogue with China.
Malaysia's standing has also shifted over the past six decades, and this has reflected the geo-political and geo-strategic realities of the Cold War and the power vacuumm that followed in its wake. But in the case of Malaysia, one important shift has occured, even if it has passed largely unnoticed by many. By this I am referring to how Malaysia - in the 1980s and 1990s - seemed to have had slightly more clout than it does today, simply because of the ideological subject-positions it assumed then.
In the 1980s and 1990s Malaysia stood in the camp that opposed the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and took the opportunity to denounce Apartheid in several regional and international forums. It also took a stand on issues such as Palestine and other third-world interests. Perhaps one of the reasons that Malaysia was able to do so then was that it was economically in a better position, thanks in part to the inflow of foreign direct investment FDI that made it an attractive destination for countries that sought new pastures to invest in after the global recession of the early 1980s. Malaysia, like the other countries of ASEAN then, benefitted from this global climate and was able to chart double-digit growth like its neighbours Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. Looking back at that period it can be seen that the governments of ASEAN were somewhat more bullish about their ambitions and standing internationally, and argued from a position of relative leverage and confidence.
But what has happened since then? The lingering impact of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997/98 and the global economic slowdown since then has meant that the region has begun to lose out to other, newer markets and cheaper economies. All the countries of the region have been affected, and the past decade has witnessed some of the countries of ASEAN trying their darnest to win back the support and confidence of the international business community in order to kick-start their economies and to cater to the basic needs of their respective political constituencies.
Perhaps we in the ASEAN region had it too good for too long; and perhaps we cannot get over the fact that the good old days of the boom decades of the 1980s and 1990s may never return with the same force and vigour that we might hope. Across the ASEAN region now we can see that almost all of the governments of ASEAN are busying themselves with the task of structural adjustment - that comes in the form of privatisation policies and the withdrawal of the state, leaving society to the forces of the free market. In the meantime many economic reformers in the region are now chanting the same universal mantra of privatisation, liberalisation and free market economics, which is none other than the mantra of what we call the Washington consensus.
As an Malaysian academic who views the developments in his country from afar, I sometimes fear for the future of our nation. I find myself particularly worried when some of our leaders and/or prospective leaders make their way to Washington and repeat the same mantra of the Washington consensus in the Western press. I find myself worried when I see Malaysian politicians echoing sentiments that conform to the geo-strategic consensus that has become hegemonic in the corridors of Washington too. I find myself worried when Malaysian politicians seem inclined to dress themselves in the garb of moderates in order to win the affection and support of their lobbyists in Washington as well.
What has happened to the ethos of the 1980s and 1990s, when Malaysia - admittedly a small and modest country without military might or ambitions - still had the principle to condemn Apartheid for what it was? What has happened to the political leadership of this country - and here I refer to all parties - when in the recent past we stood for things like South-South co-operation and other subaltern interests? Cynics may note that many of these initiatives did not take Malaysia very far - but at least this country's leadership had some principles, however unrealistic they were. At least Malaysia meant something.
Over the past decade I feel as if I have aged half a century. When I look to the future, I am gripped with the fear of what Malaysia might become: An open market that serves as a conduit for capital, but with no identity and/or principles? Yes, we are a small nation, a modest nation. And yes, we have never posed an existential threat to anyone, nor have we imposed our model on anyone. But a nation, no matter how young or small, is still entitled to some sense of collective dignity and sovereignty. No matter how small, even the smallest nations have the right to a voice, and to speak its mind.
As I look to the future, my heart sinks at times. Our politics has grown mundane, parochial and introverted; and we ignore the shifting geo-political realities around us at our peril. Worse of all some of our politicians who seem so inclined to be the darlings of the Western press seem to forget that the readers of the Washington Post or Wall Street Journal are not going to be the ones who vote for them; but their fellow Malaysians. So this is my plea to all the politicians and aspiring leaders of this country: As we face what may well be the most difficult decade of our country's history, turn to the Malaysian nation and think of the national interest. There is no point in becoming the darling of CNN, BBC, WSJ or WP if in the process you end up abandoning the nation that is, after all, your home.