Malaysia's Chinese May Hold the Key to Mahathir's Fate

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DAVID LIEBHOLD Kuala LumpurWhenever a Southeast Asian country is shaken by social or political turmoil, it's only a matter of time before the question comes up: What will the Chinese do? Ethnic Chinese may be a minority in the region, but their huge economic clout makes them the focus of attention--and often, anger--in times of trouble. And so it is in Malaysia, where that question is evidently being asked by the Prime Minister himself.On Oct. 28, Mahathir summoned the editors of five Chinese newspapers and chided them for giving excessive coverage to Anwar's supporters and the reformasi movement. According to editors present, Mahathir warned that their actions could harm the social fabric of the country. I worry that the power of UMNO will be weakened and the moderate political parties will be swept away, he said. No other party, he added, was capable of taking overall control to maintain racial harmony.Whether or not disharmony is likely, Mahathir is right to worry. With the Malay community, his traditional vote-bank, sharply divided over the Anwar affair, Mahathir's political survival may depend on the Chinese. Since they make up 27% of the population, the Chinese pack a political wallop. When the Malays are split, they can decide, says UMNO insider Ahmad Syabery. In 1969 Chinese voted en masse for the opposition, almost throwing UMNO out of power and setting the scene for vicious race riots.The bitter memory of that unrest (rekindled recently by events in Indonesia) may explain why Malaysia's Chinese have been keeping a low profile. But UMNO can't take their support for granted. Some Chinese did show up at Anwar's house after his dismissal and at the big street demonstration on the day of his arrest. Besides, Mahathir isn't the only politician eyeing the Chinese vote. The opposition Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) also seems keen to draw the Chinese into a rainbow coalition against the government. PAS is open to cooperation with other parties and groups in contesting the election, says pas president Fadzil Noor, who stresses that non-Muslims have nothing to fear from his party's program.Which way will the Chinese turn? Lim Kit Siang, leader of the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, says: There is a fear that the [anti-government] movement could lead to ethnic violence as seen in Indonesia. But he dismisses the stereotype of the Chinese as apolitical. It's not fair to say that the Malaysian Chinese are not concerned about justice and democracy, he says. Every Malaysian would like to have a greater say in the decision-making process. Well might Mahathir worry.With reporting by David Yong/Kuala Lumpur