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FEER: Under Siege in A Phoney War
By Lorien Holland
30/3/2001 8:53 am Fri
[Mahathir nampaknya begitu menggelabah walaupun dia mungkin masih boleh
menang. Ezam, laman web, dan akhbar luar kini menjadi sasaran kerana ia
semakin mengikis kekuatannya dan menumpulkan serangannya. Anwar masih
'hidup' dan 'bebas' di dalam Ezam, laman web dan akhbar luar. Mutakhir ini
Mahathir menyerang Anwar lagi dengan menuduh ingin melarikan diri kerana
memilih rawatan luar. Dulu dia jugalah yang menuduh Anwar memukul diri
sendiri. Nampaknya sewelnya masih degil mahu berhenti.
Sebenarnya Umno sudah kepupusan sokongan orang melayu. BN menang dulu kerana
sokongan kaum Cina. Kali ini kaum India mungkin berpatah arah kerana isu
Kg Medan. Kaum Cina sudah berpaling di Lunas dan mungkin akan berpaling
lagi - itu bergantung kepada ekonomi, kemelut dalaman MCA dan isu SRJKC.
Masalah ekonomi dan skandal koporat pula akan menyebabkan golongan koporat
dan setinggan meminggiri Umno dan BN. Begitu juga kaum pekerja dan warga tua.
Tidak ketinggalan kaum peladang kelapa sawit juga. Daim mungkin disisihkan
sekali lagi sebagai injap untuk membuang kemarahan itu tetapi semua orang
tahu PM juga yang memberi restu.
Pendeknya langit sudah semakin runtuh menghempap Umno di mana-mana. Kuasa
maklumat adalah senjata yang memautkan Umno. Ezam menggegarkan desa dan anak
muda. Laman web memastikan semangat masih berbara di mana-mana. Dan akhbar luar
mendedahkan kenapa dan mengapa. Dalam semua kes, Umno sudahpun mengirim polisnya
sehingga komputer pun diberkas sama.
Under Siege in A Phoney War
The ruling Umno party is lashing out at opponents and rallying support
as if under siege. What's all the fuss about?
By Michael Vatikiotis and Lorien Holland/KUALA LUMPUR
RALLIES TO WHIP UP UNITY? Sedition charges against opposition
politicians? Senior officials in Malaysia are anxious. They have even
taken to making accusations against the foreign media, which, in the
view of Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, "is acting as if it is
actively taking part in bringing down the government."
Why should the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad feel so
threatened? After all, he retained a two-thirds majority after last
year's difficult election, economic growth will be down this year but
is still expected to hit 4%, and the opposition is, as ever, divided.
Under new rules governing party posts and elections, his party
presidency is secure and the next general election doesn't have to be
held until 2004.
But Mahathir, who has often acted as if under siege, may now have good
reason to do so. Those who work closely with the 75-year-old premier,
now Asia's longest-serving elected leader, say that he is impatient
and frustrated. He wants to regain the considerable support his party
lost in the Malay community after the sacking and arrest of his former
deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998. "He still sees Anwar as a political
problem that needs to be addressed," says a senior member of
Mahathir's United Malays National Organization.
Thwarting his efforts are a string of costly corporate bailouts that
seem beyond his control, rumblings within the party ranks about
corruption and abuse of power, and signs that his once-solid Malay
support base has already turned to the country's Islamic party for an
alternative vision of Malaysia's future.
Sensing vulnerability, an aggressive but ragtag opposition led by
former Anwar colleagues is stirring the pot. "We want to maintain the
momentum. We have to make sure that Mahathir is not in control," says
Mohamad Ezam Mohamad Nor, youth chief of the opposition Keadilan party
and former political aide to Anwar.
That won't be easy. In 20 years in power, Mahathir has fought and won
many political battles--mostly against ambitious lieutenants jostling
for power. The economy, though vulnerable, came through the economic
crisis without the need for crutches supplied by the IMF. Foreign debt
levels are manageable and Malaysia is considered a responsible
creditor in the region. Domestic consumption and investment, economic
officials say, is a useful bulwark against the sputtering United
States economy. Moreover, Mahathir shows no sign of flagging energy or
But party insiders are worried. Aides dispatched to monitor sentiment
say they find festering anger towards the leadership. Support is
growing for the conservative Islamic party, Pas, and pockets of
economic malaise could stoke unrest.
The key worry is how all this is affecting Umno's support base in the
Malay community. Of primary concern to senior Umno leaders is the
resurgence of the Islamic party. Not since the 1970s has Pas, which
seeks to establish an Islamic state in Malaysia, been so popular. A
senior Umno official says that Pas, with the claim that a vote for Pas
alone will secure a place in heaven, is gnawing away at Umno's claim
to represent Malays. Umno membership is based on Malay and Muslim
The issue came to a head recently with a debate over whether political
parties could use Islam as a basis of struggle. In the end, Islamic
scholars, working with the Malay rulers--the nine sultans who decide
on senior nonpolitical appointments--decreed that they could. However,
Umno leaders take comfort from an important qualification in the
ruling, which was issued by the Fatwa Committee of the National
Council for Islamic Affairs: The ruling states that an individual can
be deemed Muslim no matter what political organization he supports.
Equally worrying for Umno is that Pas has gained ground among the
educated and the middle class. Here Umno is finding it hard to regain
support it lost after Anwar's sacking, because of a string of recent
corporate manoeuvres that have been perceived as bailouts. Of these,
the most damaging involved the civil service's pension fund, which
underwrote the listing of a well-connected company and has suffered
paper losses of nearly $100 million. In another case, the government
reversed the privatization of the national airline and bought back
shares from another well-connected company at a hefty premium to the
At the centre of the maelstrom is Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin. He
has already delivered to parliament a lengthy but not entirely
convincing defence of the re-purchase of the airline shares. The
government has not yet fully explained the pension-fund purchase or
commented on the propping-up of the stockmarket. Daim did not respond
to an interview request from the REVIEW.
The opposition senses an opportunity here. And despite a concerted
effort by the government to restrict the activities of opposition
leaders like Ezam, the opposition remains defiant. "We have to be
prepared to let people go to the streets if necessary," says Ezam, who
is facing sedition charges that could land in him in jail for three
years and disqualify him from standing for election.
Don't expect the crowds that took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in
late 1998 and 1999 in the wake of Anwar's arrest. The government's
tough security measures have effectively scared off most street
protesters. But isolated outbreaks of spontaneous discontent are
possible. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, Malaysia's recovery from
the economic crisis has been patchy. There are pockets of severe
economic hardship, especially on government land-scheme settlements
dependent on commodity prices for crude palm oil, where monthly
salaries have fallen as low as 100 ringgit ($26).
Economic suffering was also a factor fuelling recent clashes between
Indians and Malays in Kampong Medan, a poor suburb of Kuala Lumpur.
The violence left six dead, and though Mahathir has apologized for his
administration's failure to address urban poverty, many felt his
reaction was too little, too late. "This government has failed in
providing for and taking care of the poor Malaysians," says a lengthy
memorandum on the clash which was presented to the government by 51
Malaysian non-governmental organizations. "This we believe is a
violation of the social contract and trust placed on the elected
For some younger Umno members the only solution is root-and-branch
reform in the party to win back the Malay vote. Next month's
divisional party elections offer an opportunity to change the old
guard, says a younger party member standing for a deputy divisional
position. But party elders worry about the chances of another damaging
split in the party, and many of the posts will remain uncontested,
despite a tradition of using contests to bring in new blood.
Popular concern about corporate bailouts looks to be the government's
more immediate popularity problem. Resolving this would mean having to
lay the blame squarely on Daim, whose name is most closely connected
with the companies concerned. Daim has stepped out of the political
arena before, and managed to retain influence because he is the Umno
treasurer. The question on many lips now is whether Daim will once
again take some of the heat for his old friend Mahathir and, if he
does, whether this will defuse anger sufficiently to allow Umno to
start winning back their one-time loyal supporters.