When Malaysia's prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamed, recently announced that he intended to resign, Malaysians of Chinese descent joined Mahathir's Malay party loyalists in demanding that he reconsider. When Mahathir agreed to stay on, if only for another 16 months, the sighs of relief from these Chinese Malaysians were the loudest of all.
That ethnic Chinese Malaysians rallied to Dr. Mahathir's side marks a quiet revolution in Malaysian politics, one that demonstrates how much Mahathir's nationalist image has softened during his 22 years in power. It also shows how much Malaysia's ethnic Chinese have changed in their views about the nationalist movement that once seemed so antagonistic to them.
When Southeast Asia's colonial rulers were overthrown four decades ago, ethnic Chinese often shunned the nationalist movements that fought for independence. Some movements saw the local Chinese as outsiders or as intrinsically disloyal for seeming to have benefited disproportionately during the years of imperial rule. Across the region, anti-Chinese communal violence was widespread. In the decades since, many Chinese remained suspicious of political parties with ties to the former national liberation movements.
In Malaysia, that fear is dissipating. Malaysia's Chinese citizens now view Premier Mahathir as a bastion against a new form of violent extremism: the threat posed by Muslim fundamentalism. Such a bulwark is something members of the vast Chinese diaspora across Southeast Asia need, not only in Malaysia, where Islamic extremism remains a small threat, but in Indonesia, where thousands of Chinese have been killed and injured in rioting in recent years, and where thousands more have seen their property damaged or lost.