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AWSJ: Support Base For UMNO Shifts In Malaysia

25/4/2001 1:32 am Wed

The Asian Wall Street Journal
24th April 2001

Editorial: Support Base For UMNO Shifts In Malaysia

(Editor's Note: This is an editorial from Tuesday's Asian Wall Street Journal.)

The tectonic plates of Malaysian politics are shifting perceptibly, and the resulting minor tremors are signaling that bigger quakes could lie ahead. The United Malays National Organization, the predominantly Malay party that dominates the ruling coalition, has been losing support and is now looking nervously toward elections in 2004. UMNO still has time to turn the trend line around, but it will have to accommodate increasing demands from an increasingly sophisticate electorate for more transparent and accountable government.

The party continues to be saddled with the ill-feeling generated by the arrest and conviction of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on corruption and s###my charges two years ago. But more relevant to the future, as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has now acknowledged, is a problem of corruption and vote-buying that has infected UMNO and undermined its appeal. Mr. Mahathir vowed Saturday to bar "abundantly rich" members of UMNO from vying for certain party posts in an effort to keep officials from using their positions to obtain lucrative government contracts. Government policies that favor a politically connected elite are also resented by poor Malays, as recent events also show.

It's an established principle of political science that when a population reaches a level of economic development at which a well-educated and economically secure middle class begins to develop its own institutions of civil society, demands for increased democracy will not be far behind. That Malaysia is fast approaching such a juncture was reinforced by the government's own Human Rights Commission, which issued an important report last week. It stated: "For increasingly larger segments of Malaysian society, a full stomach is no longer enough."

The commission, which was created by Parliament and appointed by the prime minister last year, has been hearing evidence of police brutality and other abuses. In its report, it criticized laws like the Internal Security Act that allow for indefinite detention without trial, saying they "restrict or infringe the basic human rights of [Malaysia's] citizens." The ISA was used two weeks ago to arrest seven opposition leaders and activists who were planning an antigovernment rally. The commission has urged that they be released and that restrictions on such rallies be eased. The day after the commission issued its report, the government arrested another opposition leader under the Internal Security Act. Similar arrests in past decades discouraged opposition activity, but today they may be having the opposite effect, increasing dissatisfaction with the government.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Trade Union Congress, formerly a stronghold of UMNO support, has called for pickets to protest government policies. One of its chief complaints is that the national pension fund bought into the initial public offering of Time dotCom, a venture by the UMNO-linked Renong conglomerate. The IPO was not well received by other investors and the pension fund has reported a loss of $25 million on its investment. That has poor Malays crying foul, accusing the government of bailing out cronies at their expense.

The pension fund's investment board is appointed by and accountable to Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin. Mr. Daim, who himself is one of Malaysia's wealthiest men, is already under fire for a deal in which the government bought back a controlling stake in the national airline from politically well-connected entrepreneur Tajudin Ramli for well above the market price. Last week Mr. Mahathir announced that Mr. Daim was taking a two-month leave from office. When asked if this meant one of his most trusted associates and the UMNO treasurer would be leaving his post, Mr. Mahathir said: "That you've got to ask him. If you ask me and I answer, he might get angry."

Mr. Mahathir has felt pressure from attacks within the party for corruption getting out of hand. When senior UMNO official Fauzi Abdul Rahman alleged recently that he had been cheated out of a top job because of vote buying, the prime minister's initial response was to shoot the messenger, calling for Mr. Fauzi to leave the party. Now he has backed an investigation into the charges.

One of UMNO's greatest strengths has always been its ability to provide continuity, stability and an experienced hand at the tiller. It now faces the difficult task of appealing to an electorate that wants a greater say in government, more civil liberties and less of the machine politics of the past. Mr. Mahathir's instinctive response to the challenge has been on display in recent weeks: arrests of opposition leaders, calls for tighter restrictions on the press and appeals to Malay unity. The struggle over UMNO's direction in the months ahead should give us some valuable clues about Malaysia's future.