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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.
- Editor


The Far Eastern Economic Review
Issue cover-dated April 5, 2001

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 will.

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 identity.

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 market rate.

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 government."

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.