Decolonising New Malaysia

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
My View - The Sun Daily
October 10, 2018

PRIME Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, interviewed on BBC's HARDtalk last week following his speech at the UN, as expected raised a number of pertinent issues. One which I found compelling was the subject on colonialism that seems to be making a comeback recently. When asked, Mahathir was quoted: "I merely said that there are other forms of colonialism and one of them is neocolonialism, which was coined by (former Indonesian) president Sukarno."

He made this remark in reference to what is now known as "debt diplomacy" that casts a long shadow as a result of mega infrastructure investments made by certain foreign companies, strongly backed by the respective governments. This could be termed as a "new" form of colonialism not seen before, spreading its tentacles unsuspectingly. The prime minister, however, denied that he was directing this at any one country.

Elaborating further, Mahathir was categorical in what drew his concern, including the selling of "big pieces of land" to some foreign interest "to build a city, which is very, very luxurious meant for their people to come and live there (in Malaysia)" – to the tune of several hundreds of thousands as a result of the so-called "foreign direct investment (FDI)". Whereas, according to him, FDI is "about bringing money, bringing investment, setting up plants in Malaysia, employing Malaysians", not otherwise.

After all, of late, no country wants other people to come en masse to their country and settle there, citing Europe as a living example (ironically, after doing just the opposite for themselves and benefiting tremendously from it). As for the US, President Donald Trump is insistent on building a "wall" along its southern border and somehow not in the north.

In his most recent trip to China, Mahathir spoke his mind when he made reference to the different levels of development with respect to richer counterparts making the "poor countries unable to compete". Therefore fair trade, not just free trade, is imperative, as he highlighted to the Chinese.

Similar happenings can be witnessed in the African continent, bringing back vivid memories of what took place with Congo as a case in point some 140 years ago.

In 1878, Congo came under the focus of European colonial powers in the same way. In particular, Belgium hatched out a plot by forming the so-called International Congo Society with "more economic goals" that later turned "imperialistic".

Prior to that King Leopold II of Belgium was said to have created an International African Society in 1896, which then served primarily as a "philanthropic front" to the imperialistic ambition.

One Henry Morgan Stanley was sent to research and "civilise" the continent for this purpose. He was in Congo, from 1878 to 1885, as an envoy with a "secret mission to organise what would become known as the Congo Free State".

As an outpost for Belgium, the so-called "state" was later confirmed as the "private property of the Congo Society" (read Leopold), which was opened to "all European investment" and would have "free" (not "fair"?) trade throughout the Congo Basin (think Bandar Malaysia, in our case).

Such development quickly stirred up the French to expand its own "colonial exploration". By 1881, the French flag was raised over the newly formed "Brazzaville" in Congo, named after the "founder" Pierre de Brazza, a French naval officer who was dispatched to the region to counter the influence of imperialistic Belgium. Brazzaville is now reportedly considered as the (Democratic) Republic of Congo.

Next, Portugal joined in the foray through its "proxy state" – Kongo Empire, by renewing its interest based on old treaties with Spain and the Roman Catholic Church.

Later, together with Great Britain and Ireland, Congo Society's access to the Atlantic was effectively blocked in the competition for presence and interest. In short, Africa in general was conveniently carved up by European foreign powers, which eventually led to the removal of the word "terra incognita from European maps of the continent" and replaced by claims coming from the Belgians, French, Portuguese and British – largely what remains today (in addition, to several others) – exercising their own version of the "diplomacy".

Bearing in mind, by the early 1880s diplomatic posturing and manipulation had already set in to exploit Africa's natural resources that enriched the colonial powers at the expense of the locals.

At once, the heightened and ruthless colonial activities by the Europeans set aside the forms of African autonomy as well as self-governance. The situation is no different from what is experienced today albeit through another form of diplomacy by another name. Is history repeating itself, perhaps with different and ambitious actors this time around?

Here is where Mahathir is spot-on in alerting us of the precarious future ahead if we are not vigilant and continue to be gullible. Instead, the struggle against the legacy of (neo)colonialism must not stop.

It is time to begin in earnest the decolonising process across the board for New Malaysia, whereby softpower seems to be the most "effective" point of entry.