Old tigers tend to be the most dangerous -- grumpy, defensive, resentful of younger rivals, liable to strike out without warning. With the arrests of five of his political opponents last week, Mahathir Mohamad is increasingly looking like an aging and foul-tempered tiger -- and his attempted show of strength is being seen by many as a sign of the advancing insecurities of age. The arrests came as Malaysia's 74-year-old Prime Minister left the country for a two-week vacation in Argentina and the Caribbean. His designated successor, Minister of Home Affairs Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, stayed behind to insist that the government, despite losing ground in last November's elections, wasn't engaging in a vindictive crackdown. Many Malaysians were skeptical, however, seeing the arrests as an attempt by Mahathir to settle scores and scare off opponents in the run-up to the May convention of the ruling United Malays National Organization. With growing dissatisfaction in UMNO ranks over Mahathir's heavy-handed rule, the Prime Minister and Badawi may face a challenge to their leadership positions at the party meeting.
Last Wednesday, police arrested Karpal Singh, deputy chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the main lawyer for Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister jailed last year for corruption and still on trial for sodomy. Singh was charged with sedition for statements made in defense of his client during a court hearing. Police also hauled in Marina Yusoff, vice president of the opposition National Justice Party, for suggesting that Mahathir's party played a role in race riots three decades ago. The third target was Zulkifli Sulong, editor of the popular opposition newspaper Harakah, for an article alleging a government conspiracy in the case against Anwar. Harakah's printer, Chea Lim Thye, was also charged. The following day the noose tightened further when Mohamed Ezam Nor, a close aide of Anwar's and head of the youth wing of Yusoff's party, was arrested under the Official Secrets Act for distributing classified documents.
The arrests were denounced by opposition politicians in Malaysia and by human rights and press-freedom organizations around the world. This is the biggest mistake Mahathir has ever made, said Yusoff, who noted that the anti-Mahathir movement had been waning before the arrests. He should have let sleeping dogs lie. Lim Kit Siang, chairman of the DAP, said Mahathir is trying to scare everyone out of their wits, but he may create greater outrage instead. Observed Robert Varenik, director of the New York City-based Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights: Malaysia has again resorted to strong-arm tactics to silence its critics. This type of action illustrates the government's unwillingness to play by the rules of free speech.
Defending the government's actions, Home Minister Badawi insisted the round-up was prompted not by politics but by legitimate police investigations into apparent infractions of the law. All five suspects were released on bail, but Badawi threatened additional arrests if more people commit offenses.
Aside from the opposition's denunciations and the government's demurrals, there appear to be several reasons for the crackdown. Singh has long been a thorn in Mahathir's side, and the Prime Minister may want to force him off Anwar's defense team. Yusoff thinks she was targeted for her investigation of alleged vote-buying in the recent elections and for the respect she enjoys within the Malay community. And the arrests of Zulkifli and Chea seem aimed at weakening Harakah, whose circulation has shot from 75,000 to 369,000 during the Anwar saga. They are trying to take revenge because of the election, says Zulkifli. They lost a lot of seats in the Malay areas. They are harassing us because we have become influential among the Malay people.
This is Mahathir's primary problem: the longtime champion of the country's Malay majority is losing support in that community. His ruling coalition had to rely on strong backing from Chinese voters to hold onto the two-thirds majority in parliament that gives UMNO a stranglehold over legislation. Political scientist and National Justice Party deputy president Chandra Muzaffar says dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister is building even within UMNO: It is not just about the Anwar crisis itself, but what it revealed about the institutions of governance.
Mahathir now risks suffering the fate of other long-serving Asian leaders -- the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos, Indonesia's Suharto, Burma's Ne Win -- who ended up destroying themselves and much of what they had built for their countries during their careers. The UMNO convention in May could be a showdown for Mahathir, as there are other tigers waiting in the long grass for their turn at power. Potential rivals include Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who was narrowly defeated by Mahathir in a 1987 leadership challenge, and former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam, who supported Razaleigh's attempt. The Prime Minister may know that his enemies are getting closer -- but the louder he growls, the more he makes himself a target.
With reporting by Rusdi Mustapha/Kuala Lumpur