The Far East: Asian Journal

Scenes from a debate between Lee Kuan Yew and William Safire, and a look at the racial troubles of Malaysia

I SOMETIMES WONDER what it was like to be an American in Asia in the decade after the Second World War, when Douglas MacArthur was emperor. It must have been different from the way it feels now.

On a cold night this winter I was having dinner in a little shabu-shabu place in the Ginza with three Japanese friends. They were paying for the meal, of course. Before dinner I’d treated them to a round of beers in a hotel lobby, and then discovered that beers were $7.90 apiece. The previous day, when I’d changed money at the airport, my dollar had bought 126-point-something yen, half as many as in the fall of 1985. That morning the Japan Times reported that university students were collecting old clothing for relief donations to foreigners living in Japan.

When dinner was over, we stepped out of the restaurant into a twisting alleyway and were engulfed by a sea of prosperous-looking Japanese businessmen. They were red-faced from whiskey and sake, but they surged purposefully forward, breath steaming in the frosty air. As we turned a corner, I saw a bedraggled-looking vendor, with matted black hair, standing on the sidewalk, wearing a grimy ski jacket. He was selling cheap puppets, dogs and monkeys that did funny dances when you pulled the strings. This looks familiar, I thought—he was like the pathetic characters who come into American restaurants and try to shame you into buying flowers while you dine. He had been looking down while he worked the puppets, but as I passed by he happened to look up at me. I glanced back, and then stopped dead in my tracks. “Hi,” he said. He was an American. Then he said, or maybe I just thought he did, “Buddy, you’re next.”

No doubt I’m taking this all too personally and irrationally. When my Japanese friends saw how (and why) the blood had drained from my face, they started laughing so hard they had to lean on one another to keep from toppling over into the gutter. I know perfectly well that having a strong currency is not the same thing as having a successful society, that the yen’s stupendous rise is largely speculative and therefore not really a verdict of doom on America, and that even now there are places (Korea) where the dollar remains so mighty that the stores seem to be giving everything away free. There are other places (the Philippines) where the United States still seems too influential and all-competent, as it must have seemed everywhere forty years ago.

Still, in the twenty-one months I’ve spent so far in Asia, which have coincided with the dollar’s collapse against the yen, I’ve often felt as if I were living through a dramatic shift in international power—or, more precisely, through what people on this side of the Pacific view as such a change. I’ve taken on enough of this attitude myself that sometimes I’m afraid to come home, for fear that I’ll start lecturing strangers about the Japanese and the Koreans, or walking around in sackcloth with a placard saying, THE END IS NIGH.

THESE FEARS WERE reawakened by a conference late last year, sponsored by the International Herald Tribune and held in Singapore. The Tribune had planned it long in advance, as part of the paper’s worldwide hundredth-anniversary celebration, but it ended up taking place a few weeks after the Black Monday stock-market crash. The official conference theme was stupefying—“Pacific 2000: Prospects and Challenges,” or something of the sort—but the conference itself was engrossing, because most of the talks focused, seemingly without plan, on the theme of the historic shift of power from America to Japan.

The Thais and the Indonesians talked about how they would get their new investment capital from Tokyo, not New York. Economists from Hong Kong discussed whether or not it was “too soon” to start talking about the “post-American" era. The Japanese speakers shuffled their feet and talked about what they might do with their huge piles of money. Every other phrase out of the Asian speakers’ mouths seemed to be “American decline.”

The most polished of these performances was by the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. He talked about what Britain’s 150 years of technical-financial-military world leadership had in common with America’s thirtyodd years. Its technical advances allowed Britain to build up trade and investment surpluses around the world; the surpluses financed its military and diplomatic presence; eventually the surpluses went away and the empire had to be scaled back; and so now with America. For a while after the Second World War the United States enjoyed a lead on the rest of the world in its commercial technology, Lee said; but that lead had been lost and would never be regained. American politicians might smash up Japanese radios with sledgehammers (the photograph of congressmen pulverizing Toshibas was published in every newspaper in Japan, and it instantly eliminated the public embarrasstnent about Toshiba’s sales to the Russians, leaving bitter resentment instead), but “the skills, the knowledge, the capacity to dream up the next [product]—that cannot be broken with a sledgehammer.” Japan, at least on paper, already had a higher per capita income than America, and the Japanese “will grow richer because they are more productive, because they have concentrated all their energies, all their R&D on where it would score on the marketplace,” Lee said. “America is not the surplus country, it’s Japan and Germany. It is New York with the expertise but Tokyo and Bonn with the actual cash.” The greatest problem for Americans, he said, was facing up to this shift—accepting, in our guts, that “this is a permanent change in competitive position.”

Now, Lee may have been right and he may have been wrong. Japan’s overall position, relative to America’s, is nowhere near as strong as America’s was relative to Britain’s when New York overtook London as a world financial center, seventy years ago. By that time the U.S. economy was already bigger than Britain’s; the Japanese economy is still only about half the size of America’s. And Japan, of course, has no military power and virtually no diplomatic influence to complement its heaps of cash. What we’re seeing may not be a replacement of American power by Japanese so much as a merger, blend, or balance of the two. Moreover, if Lee wanted to get into a name-calling game about imperfect empires, he would have some foibles of his own to answer for. (Anthropologists love Singapore, because it’s one of the few places on earth where you can see how Chinese society behaves when its members are rich and not subject to some other group’s political control, as they are elsewhere in Southeast Asia.) “What we have here is a traditional Chinese empire,” a non-Chinese Singaporean once told me. “We have our strong leader, whom we view more as emperor than as democratic leader, and we expect that his dynasty will continue as long as he enjoys the mandate of heaven.” The day after Lee Kuan Yew’s speech the conference heard from Lee Hsien Loong, who became Singapore’s youngest brigadier general at age thirtyone and at thirty-six is a Cabinet member and the heir apparent. General Lee gave a speech on the importance of meritocracy. He is Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son. But Lee, like most of the other Asian speakers at the conference, had obviously spent a lot of time thinking about large-scale changes in national power, and he was trying his best to make an important, unsettling point.

The job of defending America’s regenerative powers fell to William Safire, of The New York Times. I’ve always enjoyed Satire’s columns, because of their comparative lack of pomposity, and on the platform he embodied the best of a relaxed, confident American style. The Asian speakers wore identical dark salaryman suits and read word for word from pre-released scripts. Safire showed up in a sports coat and light pants, and ad-libbed his way through a very funny lunchtime speech. But by the end of his talk his optimism didn’t seem so reassuring or contagious. Like Ronald Reagan—and like America as a whole, in the Asians’ view—he sounded confident only because he didn’t understand the facts.

Safire told the Asians they should stop paying so much attention to America’s tedious federal deficit and trade problems. Hey, those issues would scoot right out of the headlines once there was another good confirmation fight or primary election to cover. The stock-market crash? People would stop brooding about it once the Republicans got the normal election-year boom going—this, Safire said, was something the American government understood just how to do. And all this talk about “permanent" changes in competitive position was so much hogwash. Did Lee Kuan Yew think America would never again have a fifteen-year lead over the rest of the world? Just watch! All across America, Safire said, youngsters were tinkering with computers, preparing the way not just for new products but for whole new ways of buying, selling, distributing, living. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union couldn’t possibly permit its people such freedom to experiment, since that would mean instant samizdat. Therefore, computers would make America’s lead grow and grow.

Safire was clearly pleased with this smashing rebuttal to Lee Kuan Yew. But around the room people sat with jaw’s agape. The Soviet economy? Was this going to be America’s new benchmark for competitive success? Everybody else in the room knew that also all across Japan, Korea, Singapore, and other points east youngsters were tinkering wdth computers. America’s looseness, creativity, diversity, and so on may give the country a permanent edge in this field, but other countries have other advantages, beginning with Japan’s limitless supply of capital. I’m a big believer in American resilience, and I keep warning Japanese and Chinese that they should not underestimate what the United States can do. (They are tempted to, because so many things that can mean vitality in America—immigration, rapid political change—look like chaos to them.) But the United States tends to show its resilience only when it suddenly realizes that it is in big trouble—remember Pearl Harbor—and if Safire’s dumb complacency is any guide, the realization is going to take a while to arrive.

WHEN I’M ALL WORN out from carrying America’s burdens on my shoulders, I shuck them off and pick up the woes of Malaysia, my current home.

In principle Malaysia is paradise, and in practice it can come close. The country is composed of the bottom half of the Malay peninsula—known in colonial times and in the first few years of independence as Malaya—and the top quarter of the island of Borneo, whose incorporation in 1963 turned the country into Malaysia. (Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore was incorporated at about the same time but split off as a tiny independent state two years later.) If you can live with perpetually hot, equatorial-jungle weather, you can think of it as Eden. “It is a place where there are no seasons to speak of, neither winter nor summer; no wet or dry season, and the sun rises and sets at practically the same time all the year round,”a young pre—First World War Colonel Blimp type named Carveth Wells wrote in Six Years in the Malay Jungle.

The mean shade temperature at sea level (about eighty degrees) has not varied more than about three degrees for a hundred years. . . . Rain falls about two hundred and seventy days in the year but there is scarcely ever a wet day. The weather may be perfectly fine all the morning, then rain nine inches between noon and three o’clock, and be fine again for the evening.

“Nine inches” may be stretching it— the annual rainfall is about a hundred inches—but the impression of timeless, placid lushness is correct.

Like Indonesia and the Philippines, Malaysia is packed with natural resources—tin, petroleum, the right terrain for growing rubber and palm-oil trees. Papayas, bananas, and mangosteens drop from trees in our back yard in Kuala Lumpur faster than we can eat them. But unlike Indonesia’s central island, Java, or the Philippines, Malaysia is lightly populated, with only about 16 million people. Early in the 1980s the government was pushing a nationalgrandeur scheme to breed the population up to 70 million by the end of the century, but the plan has not been in evidence in the year or so my family has lived here. The schools are (relatively) well funded; the roads are modern and smooth. The east coast of peninsular Malaysia has some of the world’s most beautiful white-sand beaches, and there are still large unlogged rain-forest stands. Many people live in primitive backwoods kampungs, or villages, but very few seem really destitute or hardpressed. It’s a nice country. The only unavoidable discontents of daily life come from the humidity and the insidethe-house wildlife. Our colonial-era whitewashed house, with unscreened, unglassed windows, teems with bugs and mosquitoes preying on people, lizards eating the bugs, rats eating whatever they can find, and snakes eating the lizards and rats. My children can now visualize the concept of the food chain. In this fecund atmosphere everything grows so fast that I need a haircut once a week and a shave about six times a day. Recently I threw out a hundred computer floppy disks I’d brought from America. Even they had spawned a coating of mold.

“The place isn’t perfect, but all the big things are right,”a man who I belatedly figured out was the CIA station chief told me soon after I arrived. “The military is professional and out of politics. The police too. The courts are independent. People are used to voting in regular, relatively fair elections. This is saying a lot. ”

Carveth Wells, who left the Malay jungle seventy years ago, would still recognize the topography and the climate, but my friend the CIA man, who departed more recently, might not recognize the political landscape anymore. In the past year Malaysia has gone through a depressing decline of its own.

AT ROOT ALL OI Malaysia’s problems are racial. In the middle of the nineteenth century, when tin mining had yet to begin in earnest, the Malay peninsula was even more lightly populated than it is today. Aboriginal tribes lived in the jungle interior, scattered groups of Malays lived in coastal settlements by the mouths of rivers, and traders from China, Portugal, and elsewhere operated out of the few famous seaports, such as Malacca and Penang. Then, within a few decades, British colonialism, the tin boom, and rubber planting created a totally different ethnic lineup. People poured in from all over—Malays from nearby Sumatra and Java, Chinese from Hunan and elsewhere in southern China, blue-black-skinned Indians from the southern Tamil regions. Malay culture is celebrated for its gentleness and languor, which can be either dignified or exasperating depending on whether you are attending a traditional ceremony or trying to get a check cashed in a Malaysian bank. The British colonialists were mainly exasperated and felt they needed to look beyond the Malays for the manpower to work the tin mines and staff the colonial sub-bureaucracy—thus the officially sponsored importation of Indians and Chinese. (“Work is about the last thing a Malay wants,”the irrepressible Carveth Wells announced.) Although the interpretation of past migrations can be an extremely sensitive and politically weighted subject in Malaysia, the low pre-colonial population seems to indicate that most Malaysians are descended from people who came from someplace else during the past hundred years. As the Malays see it, however, only they are the original inhabitants, since their journey was the shortest and since Malay kingdoms had historically held sway over the peninsula. Malays call themselves bumiputera, or “sons of the soil.” Everyone else is pendatang, “immigrant.”

The mixture of races is potentially the most admirable thing about Malaysia. Officially the country believes in racial coexistence, and in many small ways the amalgamation looks successful. A typical row of shops will have signs in Bahasa Malaysia (“Language of Malaysia,” or Malay), Chinese, English, and, less frequently, Tamil. We have a mosque and a small Chinese shrine near our house; our Indian landlord keeps talking about erecting a Hindu shrine in our yard. Each race’s religious festivals are public holidays, which gives a constant festival feeling to local life. A heavy-handed “unity” campaign is now under way on TV, in which every commercial and public-service announcement is supposed to have the right mixture of Indian, Chinese, and Malay faces in smiling harmony.

Unofficially, and in large ways, things don’t work out so well. No Asian society is truly enthusiastic about the meltingpot ideal, and many Malaysians, especially Malays, feel sorry for themselves because fate (plus the British) has placed other races in their midst. At a dinner last summer I asked the wife of a prominent official whether it might be more graceful for Malaysia to let some other country lead the “non-aligned” bloc’s denunciations of South African apartheid. After all, a large number of Malaysian laws grant people different legal privileges on purely racial grounds. Malaysian discrimination is not remotely as vicious or unfair as South Africa’s, but still, why give the South Africans this debating-point edge? The woman erupted: as a non-Malavsian I could not possibly understand how difficult the country’s problems were, I had no idea what a challenge it was to have people from different cultures living in the same society.

The Indian Malaysians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, are on the sidelines of the main struggle, between the Malays and the Chinese. The “overseas Chinese,” as the émigrés in Southeast Asia are known, make up the world’s most skillful and aggressive merchant culture. (This may seem too sweeping an assertion, but see if you can find anyone who’s lived in Asia who disagrees.) Wherever they’ve settled, they’ve encountered—or created, in the non-Chinese view—resentment from less aggressive local groups. Thailand, whose culture is generally sweet-tempered, seems to have absorbed them more successfully than any of its neighbors. In Indonesia, where there are only a handful of Chinese, they must adapt or be crushed. But in Malaysia the Chinese make up 35 to 40 percent of the population. This is enough to make them unignorable, but in the polarized racial politics of Malaysia it has not been enough to persuade the Malays, who make up about half the population, to give them even a tiny share of political power, which the Malays monopolize.

IT IS DIFFICULT to determine howmuch of Malaysia’s racial problem arises from deep-seated person-to-person hostility and how much has been trumped up by political leaders. There is evidence on both sides. On the one hand, it takes the average Chinese Malaysian about five seconds to begin complaining about anti-Chinese discrimination and the anti-work ethic among Malays. On the other hand, the country’s Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, is a touchy, chip-on-theshoulder character who first came to prominence with a racial-consciousness tract and seems to have a talent for setting groups against one another.

Mahathir’s famous book, The Malay Dilemma, is an absolutely astonishing document. It was published in 1969, shortly after race riots occurred in which several hundred people, mostly Chinese, were slaughtered. It argued that Darwinian selection had made the Chinese fundamentally more capable than the Malays (remember, Mahathir is the Malays’ champion), so in any fair competition between the groups the Chinese would win. Life in China had been hard for thousands of years, with famines and floods, so the Chinese who survived were the hardiest of all. Meanwhile, life in the lush Malayan jungle, with fruit dropping constantly from the trees, had been so easy that “even the weakest and the least diligent were able to live in comparative comfort, to marry and procreate.” When these two groups came into contact, Mahathir said, the results were inevitable. “The Malays, whose own hereditary and environmental influence had been so debilitating, could do nothing but retreat before the onslaught of the Chinese immigrants. Whatever the Malays could do, the Chinese could do better.” As a result of this inherent difference in fitness, Mahathir argued, “fair” competition couldn’t be fair. In office he has resolutely supported the New Economic Policy, a sweeping, decades-long program of pro-bumiputera quotas and affirmative-action requirements. For instance, there are now about 20,000 Malaysians studying at American colleges, making up the second-largest bloc of foreign students in America, after Taiwanese. Those on Malaysian government scholarships are Malay; Chinese or Indians have to pay their own way. I’ve seen newspaper ads offering government-subsidized mortgages at one rate for bumiputeras and a higher rate for non-bumis.

Several factors other than the straightforward racial tension have contributed to the recent decline that I mentioned, and to the political crackdown, which began last winter, that is the visible evidence of this decline. The most important was a power struggle within Mahathir’s own permanent ruling party, the Lnited Malays National Organization (or UMNO), which left Mahathir imperiled and tempted him to make a preemptive strike against his opponents. The Chinese were alarmed by a schoolsystem change that they thought threatened the future of Mandarin-language education. The continuing slump in tin and rubber prices kept the economy depressed. Politicians from both the Chinese and Malay camps struck combative poses. Everyone started talking about “another May 13,” the date of the antiChinese riots in 1969—especially after an AWOL, Malay soldier went amok and started machine-gunning people in downtown Kuala Lumpur. (Fortunately for everyone except the victims, they were all Malay.) Then Mahathir lowered the boom.

By the standards of, say, East Germany or Uganda, what has happened here is nothing to get worked up about. Mahathir threw about a hundred people in jail without trial, including most of the Chinese political leadership, a few nettlesome opponents from the Malay side, and several respected private and religious activists. By Christmastime he’d released fifty-five detainees but announced that thirty-three others, including most of the Chinese opposition leadership, would be held for a further two years, without trial. International human-rights groups began agitating about the conditions of their confinement— some of the detainees were allegedly being held alone and in the dark, without medicines or anything to read, isolated from their families. Little was heard of this dispute inside Malaysia, because the only newspapers still allowed to operate were the lickspittle publications controlled by UMNO. Mahathir described his new policy as “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” and he quickly rammed through a new press law to show what he meant. The new law gives him unlimited and arbitrary powers to ban any publication and arrest any writer or public figure for making “untrue” remarks. More significant, it says that such decisions cannot be reviewed or challenged by anyone else, including the courts. To Americans who can barely tell Malaysia from Mongolia, this might seem par for the course in the tyrannical Third World. But only a year ago Malaysia prided itself on its honest, intelligent, independent judiciary. (In 1986 the government expelled two Wall Street Journal reporters who’d been investigating highlevel corruption; the courts overturned the riding and let them back in.) Malaysia’s most revered figure, the eightyfive-year-old Tunku Abdul Rahman, who led the country to independence and was its first Prime Minister, said in December that “Malaysia has been made a police state.” His words were carried in foreign papers but censored in Malaysia itself.

I suppose Mahathir’s clampdown must be judged a success, at least tor now. A few months after the arrests began, the atmosphere does seem calmer than it was immediately before he acted. A few people talk about the detainees, but more seem relieved that someone, somehow, broke the momentum that seemed to be leading to outright racial conflict. The foreign experts I’ve spoken with are divided: a few predict that five years from now Malaysia will be a full-fledged tyranny, but most say that this is a temporary rough spot on the road to happier times.

When I’m in my age-of-decline mood, I Find myself agreeing with the pessimists. I feel lobotomized each morning when I pick up the remaining Englishlanguage paper, the UMNO mouthpiece New Straits Times, and see headlines like “DR. M’S COURAGE PRAISED” and “STOP THE COMPLAINING.” No, this is not Russia or the domain of the thought police, but the government’s treatment of the people, through the managed news it serves up, reveals a deep contempt for their intelligence and judgment. A case can be made—and has been, both by Mahathir and by Lee Kuan Yew—that complaints about the muffled press reflect an effete, exclusively Western sensibility. Asian societies, they say, do not like the turmoil of a truly free, “American-style” (usually said with curled lip) press, and developing countries can’t afford anything that might undercut national unity. It’s true that most Asian cultures disdain the unbridled argument that many Westerners enjoy. Still, I think too highly of my Malaysian friends to believe that they appreciate the pap that now constitutes their news. Koreans, after all, are Asians too, and they have rejoiced during the past year at their first chance to read a more-or-less free press.

The value of free debate, for everyone, is one of the things that the United States can stand for. Upholding that value is one more reason to regain our strength.

James Fallows