Why Malaysia, and Sarawak, Matter

Budget showdowns in DC, battles with government unions in the Midwest, tragedy in Japan, war in the Near East, unemployment frustratingly high and gas prices disturbingly so. There is much to worry about and debate these days. One suspects, however, that there aren’t many Americans who are worried about the upcoming Sarawak elections in Malaysia. And yet, even amongst all the headlines above, they should. Why? I will try to explain below.

First, in a period of upheaval in the Middle East–upheaval that may eventually lead to an increase in the strength of radical Islamist groups–opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s close and enduring identification with the Muslim Brotherhood should be a source of concern for Americans.

Right now, Sarawak is on a path of openness to the outside world, and the government there is eager and enthusiastic to engage the international community at large on development and economic issues. No one wants to see Sarawak turn into an closed society, cut off from the international community and potentially used a base for Anwar Ibrahim’s opposition alliance to plot the takeover of a prosperous democracy.

Of course, Islamists don’t have to just blow things up and kill people in order to be disruptive and dangerously so. They can wreak havoc on the international community by preventing Malaysia from assisting in the War on Terror and preventing Malaysia from working to help create a stable, democratic Afghanistan–one free from terrorist elements like al Qaeda, or fundamentalist groups like the Taliban. They can wreak havoc by upsetting the operations of a stable economy such as the one found in Sarawak, an economy that has pulled millions out of poverty, dramatically increased both GDP and the general quality of life, and is now providing millions of jobs in cutting edge industries.

Islamists can also wreak havoc by disrupting the operations of a successful education system that has effectively wiped out illiteracy in Sarawak, despite the fact that illiteracy was rampant back when Chief Minister Abdul Taib first assumed his duties. We have seen them do so before, in countries like Afghanistan where women were denied the ability to get an education. We don’t want the same thing to happen in Sarawak, and in Malaysia.

Related to all of this is the fact that elections in Sarawak could be a harbinger for elections in Malaysia generally. Just as elections in individual American states could portend larger implications for national elections in the United States, elections in individual regions like Sarawak could indicate where the rest of Malaysia is going politically. Do Americans want to see Islamists prevail in Sarawak, thereby setting the stage for significant Islamist political gains throughout Malaysia?

Or do Americans want the recent focus on educational opportunities, economic growth, and positive engagement between Malaysia and the rest of the international community to continue? Opposition parties are often a great deal more exciting in theory – they seem on the surface to validate democracy and idealism in Western eyes. But change for the sake of change can have serious unintended consequences.

Sarawak, and Malaysia are at a political crossroads. They can continue to build on their success and continue to grow their economy, and thereby improving the lives of their citizens, or they can take a chance that emotional rhetoric and calls for revolutionary change will substitute for hard work.

Anwar Ibrahim, and his Islamist coalition partners, want to compare Malaysia to Egypt and other examples of despotism and tyranny throw off by the people. But this is not despotism versus democracy but politics within a parliamentarian democracy – not perfect by any means but one moving toward openness and where political competition is real.

Most everyone wants change in one way or another. Families want better lives for their children and citizens want honest and accountable government (don’t you?). But the pace and nature of change is important.  In Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib and his political allies are focused on development and progress that is real and sustainable. Anwar wants simply to exchange heated rhetoric, albeit seemingly idealistic, for power.

Malaysia is an important country in an important region. For economic and foreign policy reasons Americans should care about what happens there. Progress and growth in Sarawak will mean good things for Malaysia and Americans. Islamist coalitions coming to power would be a step backward.