Dr. M Does It Again

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It's a moonless night in Malacca's Klebang Besar, and the village square is packed with Muslims out in force for a political rally, two weeks before the election just called by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The women wear headscarves; the men sport white skull caps indicating they have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Between speeches, organizers lead the crowd in Islamic songs and prayers. It's a traditional rally, with one important difference: the main speaker is neither Muslim nor Malay, but a skinny, ethnic Chinese politician with silver-rimmed spectacles. Parliament has been dissolved and, according to the law, Mahathir is no longer in power, Lim Guan Eng, a former opposition legislator, says to laughter and applause. Tonight the people are in power!By his very presence at this rally of the Islamic Party, Lim is announcing the birth of a new Malaysia. True, Mahathir's ruling coalition is almost certain to win the Nov. 29 election. But the double shock of the Asian financial collapse and the political crisis sparked by the arrest and trial of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has changed the country forever. Opposition members from vastly different backgrounds are finding common cause. Even members of Mahathir's party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), concede that political reform is inevitable. A high standard of living has been provided, admirably, by the government, says former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam. But quality of life--like being able to say what you think--is still a way off. That's what Malaysia is about now.
After midnight, as his car speeds away from the rally, Lim reflects on what's transpired. This was my constituency for 13 years, he says. But until now, I could never come into these Malay villages. If I showed up they would close the gates. Lim was released from jail on Aug. 25, after serving a year for sedition and maliciously printing a pamphlet critical of authorities' handling of an alleged rape case. As a former convict, he is barred from running for office in this election. But as deputy secretary- general of the Democratic Action Party, he has been addressing crowds every night since he regained his liberty. Victory is highly unlikely, he concedes. But for the first time since independence, Malaysia's opposition has a solid chance of denying the ruling coalition the two-thirds majority in parliament that has given the executive branch virtually unchecked power. Our objective is not power, says Lim. We are seeking justice for all Malaysians.

Prime Minister Mahathir sees things differently. He is betting that, when it comes to the vote, Malaysians will put stability and prosperity above other concerns. After a sharp contraction last year, the economy is now headed for growth of more than 4%, easily outperforming the pace of most of its neighbors. That, by itself, is a powerful election platform for any government. For good measure, Mahathir and his party have been warning that any significant reduction in the government's majority will mean economic ruin and an Indonesian-style descent into racial unrest. Until recently, many towns had giant government-sponsored billboards, showing pro-Anwar demonstrators clashing with riot police. Although everyone in the photo appears to be Malaysian, a large-print warning hints darkly at a conspiracy: foreign interference threatens national stability. But Malaysians are not as easy to frighten as they once were. It's all government propaganda, says Zam, 49, a driver in the northern city of Alor Star. Over the past 12 months Malaysians have changed. We've become a lot more aware.

For now, at least, the Prime Minister is still master of the game. All signs suggest that the 73-year-old Mahathir is thriving on the pressure. Consider how the election was announced. After months of speculation that a vote was imminent, many Malaysians had resigned themselves to the likelihood that the polls would take place next year (they have to be held before June 2000). Mahathir was scheduled to travel to South Africa last Wednesday for a Commonwealth leaders' meeting, and it seemed unlikely that an election would be called during the Muslim fasting month, which falls in December. Just as everyone relaxed, however, Mahathir struck. With his press secretary already in Johannesburg awaiting his arrival, the Prime Minister canceled the trip and called a press conference in Kuala Lumpur to announce that parliament would be dissoved the following day, pending a national plebiscite.

The visibly shaken opposition is trying hard to appear confident and collected. At the makeshift Kuala Lumpur headquarters of the new National Justice Party--led by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Ismail--volunteers struggled last week to keep up with journalists' demands for press material. Earlier, police had summoned for questioning the party's youth chief, Ezam Nor, over his dissemination of documents allegedly showing corruption on the part of a senior government minister. From his spartan office upstairs, Ezam refers to the likelihood that he will be arrested, but he would rather talk about the election. The time has come for change, says Ezam, 32. The people are sick of Mahathir.

Perhaps. Having won an unprecedented five-sixths majority in the previous vote, in 1995, Mahathir's National Front coalition--of which umno is the leading member--is sure to slip somewhat. But even if the Anwar affair has cost the Prime Minister some of his support in the Malay community, he is likely to receive solid backing from Chinese voters. That could help the coalition get more than the 129 seats it needs to retain its dominance. There is a great deal of optimism that the two-thirds majority will be retained, says UMNO vice president Najib Razak. A lot of people may complain, but at the end of the day if you ask them, they are more and more at peace if umno is in power. There's no viable alternative.

The opposition might dispute that assertion, but there is little doubt that umno, the party of the Malays, is embedded in the national psyche. It predated independence by 11 years and played a crucial role in building Malaysia into what it is today. When the British left in 1957, the Malays, constituting barely half of the population, were marginalized in their own country. In terms of both wealth and education, they lagged far behind the communities of ethnic Chinese and urban Indians. Through umno, however, this downtrodden group managed to seize the reins of the state. The Malays have jealously guarded their political supremacy ever since, using it to implement affirmative action policies in business, the civil service and the military, housing and health. Some Chinese still complain about this official discrimination, and there are even Malays who say it has been counterproductive. But most Malaysians believe that the policy has worked. Younger Malays no longer suffer from the inferiority feelings of their parents. And with a lower birthrate ensuring the steady decline of the ethnic Chinese as a proportion of the population, the Malays are fast losing the defensive, even paranoid attitude of Mahathir's generation. What I hope to see over the next 15 or 20 years is the development of the Malaysian mindset, says Azim Zabidi, executive committee member of umno Youth. Once that happens, nothing's going to stop us.

If the Nov. 29 election represents a referendum on Mahathir, he isn't likely to be humbled. Although many criticize him for his attacks against Anwar, he has managed to lead Malaysia to economic recovery without recourse to the International Monetary Fund. Beyond that, he is widely admired for fostering racial harmony and economic development during his 18 years as Prime Minister. A lot of people feel grateful for what we have now: the standard of living, the lifestyle, says a senior journalist in Kuala Lumpur. My office boy drives a Proton. You don't see that in Indonesia or Thailand. A Western diplomat in the capital puts it this way: Mahathir really pushed Malaysia--probably more than the Malays themselves wanted.

But the widespread appreciation of Mahathir's accomplishments seems to be giving way to a sense that the country could be even better. A lot of people of my generation have learned how to think for themselves, says Azmi Anshar, Penang regional editor of the New Straits Times. This government is a victim of its own success. Like parents, they have to let their children go their own way. For many young Malaysians in particular, Mahathir's crackdown on his former deputy last year was an eye-opener. After disagreeing publicly with Mahathir over economic policy, Anwar was fired. He was later jailed, beaten, convicted of corruption and sentenced to six years in prison. Currently he is on trial again, this time on sex-related charges. Anwar insists that he is the victim of a high-level political conspiracy. Younger people are starting to realize that the real issue is not 'Malay unity,' says Amir Muhammad, a prominent writer who believes it is time for a change, but the maintenance of a certain group in power.

Anwar's second trial is keeping alive the anger over Mahathir's treatment of his former protégé, undermining the optimism about the economy. In cities and villages alike it is common to hear Malays of all ages and backgrounds referring to the Prime Minister with the highly derogatory word zalim, which means cruel. Although Malays have historically acquiesced to whatever their political leaders have done, the local culture is opposed to the kind of humiliation that Anwar has endured. The History of the Malays, an ancient literary classic, puts it this way: If any ruler puts a single one of his subjects to shame, that shall be a sign that his kingdom will be destroyed by Almighty God.

Heavy stuff, but the opposition isn't relying on just that. For now, there's an election to be fought, and the forces challenging the Prime Minister are still debating how to mount an effective challenge. The Alternative Front, a coalition of four opposition parties, is proving to have solid support. The front plans to present the poll as a simple choice between itself and the government by fielding only one candidate in each electorate. That means that some Chinese will be asked to vote for the Islamic Party (or pas, which is committed to making Malaysia an Islamic state), while some Malays will be asked to vote for the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (which opposes an Islamic state). No one can be sure that this unprecedented arrangement will work--or even if it will survive until polling day. The Alternative Front election manifesto, unveiled last month, makes no mention of an Islamic state, even though pas president Fadzil Noor, whose party controls the state of Kelantan, says the policy is the basis of our existence. Still, says Noor, the primary issue is to defeat the National Front and restore justice in this country. It isn't clear, however, whether this tactical alliance will sit comfortably with the rank-and-file of these natural political adversaries.

It won't be an easy campaign period for Mahathir's coalition either. The Prime Minister will need to convince voters that the economic recovery suggested by the latest data is both real and sustainable. There are grounds for skepticism, particularly since the recent growth spurt is being driven largely by exports, meaning that a deterioration of external factors could quickly reverse the trend. (Electrical and electronics goods alone account for two-thirds of manufactured exports.) To listen to some economists, Malaysia's efforts to cushion itself from the impact of the regional crisis could endanger the country's longer-term competitiveness. The domestic economy is driven largely by government fiscal stimulus, says Mohamed Ariff, executive director of the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research, a independent think tank. Private-sector demand is yet to pick up in a strong way.

The ruling coalition also needs to answer charges that the state has offered generous help to politically linked corporations, as in the $500 million in assistance some critics claimed was a bailout of the Renong group, which has strong connections to umno. All of a sudden village people are talking about these companies by name, says Azmi Abdul Hamid, chairman of the Kedah-based Teras, a trust for the advancement of ethnic Malays. They are asking why the government is spending money to save these people.

In an odd twist of politics, Mahathir, the likely victor, is no doubt feeling the greatest pressure. After leading his coalition to landslide wins in four consecutive elections, even a comfortable victory could look like defeat. Especially, says opposition Justice Party vice president Tian Chua, if the coalition loses support in the Malay heartland, drops another state to the pas or falls short of its longstanding two-thirds majority. There's only one way for us to win, says Tian. But there are many ways for Mahathir to lose. Let the contest begin.