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FEER: Shaking the Party Grip on Power
By Lorien Holland
23/2/2001 12:03 pm Fri
[Bukan mudah untuk menggoncangkan Mahathir walaupun banyak peluru
sudah ditabur kerana rakyat Malaysia mudah ditipu di saat-saat akhir
pilihanraya oleh media. Mahathir mungkin akan kekal berkuasa tetapi
dia semakin lemah kerana berkonfrontasi dengan sesiapa sahaja yang
menegur tindak-tanduknya walaupun kritik itu benar semata. Budaya
takut menjadi dendam tersimpan dalam Umno dan minda rakyat jelata.
Tampaknya pilihanraya atau rapat raksaksa sahajalah kuasa untuk
menumbangkannya kerana tidak ada pendekar sanggup berhadapan dengannya
untuk berakhir dengan lebam dan terperonyok di dalam penjara dengan
dakwaan yang tidak berpijak di alam nyata.
Tetapi keangkuhan seseorang itu kadang-kadang menjerat dirinya sendiri
juga. Sokongan orang melayu sudah terpudar dengan teruknya, sehingga
rakyat Kubang Pasu sendiri sudah menolaknya sedangkan mereka itu dulu
penyokong kuat Umno yang teramat setia. Jika rakyat Indonesia dan Filipina
boleh melakukannya, mengapa rakyat Malaysia masih terlena? Pihak BA perlu
mencari jawapannya segera kerana pidato sahaja belum memadai untuk mendidik
rakyat yang ada. Sakti itu sentiasa ada, hanya kita yang tidak mencarinya...
sedangkan ia tidak jauh berada dari kita.
Shaking the Party Grip on Power
A Malay rally unexpectedly turns on Umno; fears grow that paralysis
within the party leadership may even lead to its half-century of
political dominance ending with the next general election
By Lorien Holland/KUALA LUMPUR
ACCUSING PRIME MINISTER Mahathir Mohamad of cronyism and
authoritarianism is the bread and butter of Malaysia's opposition
parties. But on February 4, it was card-carrying members of his own
ruling coalition who broke ranks to do that very same thing. Their
attack at a 3,000-strong rally in the heart of Kuala Lumpur made
politicians across the spectrum sit up sharply.
"What happened was very significant," says Mohamad Ezam Nor, head of
the youth wing of the opposition National Justice Party, known as
Keadilan in Malay. "It is very rare to see people from his own party
coming out against him."
For sure, Mahathir has come under threat in the past. Senior
colleagues in the United Malays National Organization, which leads the
ruling coalition government, came close to ousting him in 1987. Eleven
years later, he faced street protests, a divided party and a barrage
of international criticism for his sacking of Deputy Prime Minister
In both those cases, he fought back and won. But this time is
different. The threat to Mahathir, 75, is not from a physical rival,
but from a creeping fear that the opposition just might break the
ruling coalition's monopoly on power, held since 1957, and win the
next general election in 2004. He faces a snowballing of
whispers--spread in part by several senior Umno officials--saying he
is playing into the hands of the opposition and is no longer up to the
"Power has never been so challenged as it is now," says Patricia
Martinez, a senior research fellow on religion and culture at the
University of Malaya. "Umno has been used to having a population that
supports them. And now there are divergent voices, they appear to have
little idea where they are heading."
Ibrahim Ali, the organizer of the February 4 rally at the Putra World
Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur, tapped into this groundswell of Umno
unease with his calls to defend the party and win back Malay voters
from an increasingly powerful opposition. Despite a reputation as a
rabble-rousing politician (who sided with Mahathir's challengers in
1987), Ibrahim won Mahathir's prior consent for the event--billed to
champion Malay rights under the umbrella of the newly-formed Malay
Action Front, or MAF.
But only two of the dozen speakers took the established route to shore
up Malay support by focusing on the "threat" of the ethnic-Chinese
population. To the delight of the crowd and the horror of Mahathir's
supporters, other speakers--who were largely sidelined Umno
politicians--went straight for the jugular: Malay support was falling
off because Umno was out of touch. Umno had to listen to its
electorate and wipe out corruption and cronyism. Mahathir needed to
clean up his cabinet. In particular, the government's decision to buy
back a controlling share in Malaysia Airlines, or MAS, from a
politically connected businessman was criticized. The cost of the
buyback--over twice the current market price of MAS's shares--is an
opposition rallying cry, but the government has kept a stony silence
about the deal.
After the rally, Ibrahim insisted his efforts were aimed at supporting
the party leadership, not undermining it. He told the REVIEW: "Our
group is like a chilli. We taste very hot, but without us food is
bland. The opposition is capitalizing on the blandness, so we want the
government to speak up and publicly address these issues. They may
have a good explanation [for deals like MAS], but they have yet to
give it and stop the opposition capitalizing on their silence."
But many analysts wondered whether a hidden agenda to weaken Mahathir
was starting to play out from inside his own party. "If the speeches
had been uttered at an opposition meeting, the speakers would have
found themselves charged with sedition and worse," said Harakah, the
newspaper of the Islamic Party, or Pas, which is the lead opposition
party. "What [MAF] aims to do is nothing as serious as what it did. It
openly challenged the legitimacy of Dr. Mahathir to remain in office."
Mahathir came to a similar conclusion. The 47-member Umno Supreme
Council spent two-and-a-half hours of a closed-door session on
February 10 criticizing the group. According to three members present,
no one spoke in favour of the MAF, even though Ibrahim claimed support
from more than 10 members of the council before the meeting.
In later public comments, Mahathir said the MAF effectively created a
rival political party. "I really don't understand them because when
they saw me before, they said they want to hold this thing to foster
Malay unity," he said.
More significantly, the bombshell of the rally failed to galvanize
Umno into an offensive to win back support. Instead, Mahathir resolved
to silence the MAF by cutting all Umno support for the group and
ensuring that permits for further public meetings were refused. Prior
to the Supreme Council meeting, the MAF had received invitations to
speak at 18 locations around Malaysia and planned a roadshow to reach
out to the electorate.
But for mainstream Umno politicians, Ibrahim's foray to win back the
Malay vote only muddied the waters. "Many of the issues raised are
issues that we are also concerned with. But now that Ibrahim Ali has
had a go, it makes them even harder for us to address, as they get
discounted out of hand, along with Ibrahim Ali," says a senior Umno
"There is a feeling of paralysis that no one is brave enough to stand
up and tell him [Mahathir] that it is time to go because the voices of
protest from the grassroots are multiplying," he adds.
In contrast to Umno's failure to act, the opposition--which has never
come even close to winning a general election and appeared unlikely
ever to do so until Mahathir sacked Anwar--is powering ahead. Its high
point so far was a victory in the Lunas by-election in late November,
in a seat that had been a government stronghold since independence.
Since the MAF rally highlighted problems within Umno, the opposition
has held four rallies demanding Mahathir's resignation. One rally in
his own constituency on February 14 drew thousands of people. Riot
police used tear gas and water cannon to subdue the crowds.
Key issues affecting the swing away from Umno are the role of Islam, a
lack of government transparency and a positive discrimination policy
that is meant to aid Malays, but is widely perceived to help rich
Malay businessmen more than others. Mahathir contests charges of
cronyism and lack of transparency and warns that an increasingly
"Islamicized" state will widen divisions between Malaysia's three main
However, according to Umno sources, well over half the all-important
ethnic-Malay vote appears to have already swung toward the opposition.
Of the remaining 40% of the electorate, ethnic Indians remain largely
loyal to the ruling coalition, but the Chinese vote is wavering.
As ethnic Chinese make up 27% of the population, their voting power
could make or break the government--given that the ethnic-Malay vote
is split between Umno and the opposition. But instead of wooing
Malaysian-Chinese, Mahathir has only alienated significant numbers by
floating the idea of a Chinese bogeyman in a bid to win back
"The oldest trick in the book is to attack the Chinese to win the
Malay vote but it was a miscalculation that it would still work," says
Kua Kia Soong, principal of the New Era College near Kuala Lumpur and
a former opposition MP.
Umno meanwhile is trying to recover the Malay vote by coaxing Pas into
"Malay Unity" talks and has raised the idea of Pas even joining the
ruling coalition. But the opposition is hitting back, luring Chinese
with promises of respecting Chinese culture and allowing more Chinese
schools. "We can see the ground is shifting, but we can't address most
of these issues without making him [Mahathir] angry," says a veteran
Malay politician who feels Umno has worked itself into a corner. "If
you stay in power too long, you have to rejuvenate yourself, but any
attempt to improve the party's standing is seen as a move against
Mahathir has stated he will not contest the election in 2004. But that
is three years away, and he remains determinedly vague over any
timetable to hand over power. At a recent meeting with British
businesspeople he discounted rumours of imminent retirement, saying it
was time to calm down "feelings and emotions" and get on with running
On paper, he has an impressive mandate, with his coalition enjoying a
two-thirds majority in parliament. Factional fighting in Umno's
leadership is nowhere near the levels of 1987 when he narrowly won a
leadership contest. The political consensus is that the premier has
the full support of three key players: Deputy Prime Minister and
anointed successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Finance Minister Daim
Zainuddin and Defence Minister Najib Razak. Abdullah, once thought
unable to survive post-Mahathir, has shown himself made of tougher
Mahathir said recently he believes the Umno coalition will win the
next election, albeit with a reduced majority. Still, the allegiance
of the Umno rank-and-file is unclear. There are no political opinion
polls in Malaysia and division elections in April, when Umno's
grassroots organizations elect delegates to the Umno general assembly,
are being watched cautiously by the leadership. According to an Umno
Supreme Council member, almost all incumbent division chiefs face
challengers, and the political leaning of the winners will show just
how accurate Ibrahim and others were in warning that Umno is losing
its grassroots support.
Theoretically, delegates to the Umno general assembly could pass a
vote of no-confidence in the leadership and force Mahathir's
resignation. But the assembly is heavily choreographed, and such a
move seems unlikely. Also unlikely are street protests like those in
the Philippines and Indonesia that toppled Joseph Estrada and have
come close to doing the same to Abdurrahman Wahid.
"I think the tide has turned, but people will just sit it out and wait
for the next election," says the veteran Umno politician, delivering a
warning sure to send a shiver up the spines of Umno stalwarts. "Then
Pas, Keadilan and the DAP [Chinese opposition party] will form the
next government. The second deputy prime minister will be Chinese, Pas
will agree to implement Islamic law only in the Islamic states and
that will be that."