Each country’s path is unique

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 30 Oct 2005

Behind the Headlines by BUNN NAGARA 

A troubled Iraq is being told to compare itself with Malaysia, as its chief Western occupying forces hope to solve their problems there by linking it withMalaysia’s track record. But in a complex world where each country is unique, models of development are seldom if ever transferable. 

MALAYSIA now appears to be the template-of-the-month, as far as Baghdad-informed voices wafting from Washington and London are concerned. 

Since early this year, US and British officials have taken turns to cite Malaysia as a “model Muslim nation” that a devastated Iraq ought to emulate. While Malaysians might be gratified to hear that, such statements are also not problem-free in equating a strife-torn Iraq with Malaysia. 

But first, some perspective: while Iraq and Malaysia may appear to share some similarities, the differences seem even greater. This means it is just not possible to project the experience of one country (Malaysia) on another (Iraq), and assume it should work there too. 

The similarities exist, but are limited in number and scope. Both are multi-ethnic Muslim nations in the developing world, in search of national unity whilst emerging from the clutches of Western imperialism. 

But neither Malaysia nor Malaya was ever in such a chaotic state of bitter and bloody civil war. Nor were our federated states ever sitting on such an enormous oil bounty in a strategic location relative to Israel. 

The differences between Malaysia and Iraq, rather than the similarities, have defined Iraq’s experience and continue to shape its destiny. Emphasising the few similarities while underplaying the differences is unlikely to solve any of Iraq’s many problems. 

If it were only a matter of tickling intellectual fancies by drawing parallels between countries, there are more useful examples to be considered. Vietnam and Afghanistan had been seen as parallels in which superpowers were drawn in, stumbled on and had to withdraw from. 

Either Vietnam or Afghanistan could serve as a useful parallel for Iraq today, although this did not stop the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The perceived self-interests of states tend to override any lessons contained in parallels and parables. 

Nonetheless, Malaysia is now cited as a parallel for Iraq’s reconstructive phase. Given the realities on the ground in Iraq, this seems to be part of an “undeclared coalition exit strategy” than anything of realistic utility for the Iraqi people. 

And so it was that US Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes, visited South-East Asia over the week and repeated the line about how the Malaysian experience of stability and development could be replicated by Iraq. 

If that were true, it would be good for both countries – real gains for Iraq, and kudos for Malaysia. But since the risks of failure in the replication are great, such a close association could prove negative. 

Hughes is also an interesting parallel with Harriet Miers, President Bush’s failed nominee to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Like Miers, Hughes is a fellow Texan so close to Bush as to be called a crony, with little experience in her assigned field. 

But unlike Miers, Hughes’ appointment was approved. This was partly because of the lower profile of the job description, if only because the US Senate is less familiar with her designation than with Miers’. 

Malaysian achievements have no shortage of genuine admirers around the world. For decades now, several countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have sent officials here for public service training, or specifically to learn how they might develop like Malaysia. 

In doing this, no party needed to draw parallels to work from. Among other inconveniences, parallels tend to run both ways. 

On this score, Western tutelage that is now moulding Iraq’s fortunes as based on foreign interests would not be welcome here. 

Already, there has been pressure exerted through a “coalition” of countries to get Malaysia to act more vigorously against the proliferation of nuclear weapons parts. And occasionally, reports on alleged Malaysian links to terrorist groups are circulated to keep officials here on their toes. 

In recent days, the UN report on Iraq’s oil-for-food scandal has implicated Malaysian interests, alongside those of France, Germany and Russia. Many of the private companies mentioned have rejected such insinuations of involvement in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with some saying that the report’s findings were based on false documents. 

This recalls the experience of the false document detailing how Saddam had sought nuclear weapons material from Niger. On the basis of that fake note, Iraq was attacked, invaded and occupied. 

Now disputed documents abound, implicating not just private companies and governments that had opposed the Iraq invasion, but also the vocal war critic, British parliamentarian George Galloway. This latest episode would appear to be another theatrical production for undeclared vested interests. 

The controversial invasion and disturbing occupation of Iraq continue to reverberate on different levels, with no settlement in sight.  

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