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NZ: Mahathir's Firm Grip on Power
By Manfred Rist

4/7/2001 8:17 pm Wed 2001/07/03_malaysia.html

Mahathir's Firm Grip on Power

Tough Times for the Opposition in Malaysia

Manfred Rist

After twenty years as head of the governing coalition, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir shows neither signs of wear nor any intention of stepping down. At a recent party congress, he emphasized his leadership role. His grip on internal power within his party is combined with harsh action against opposition voices.

There has been no lack of rumors recently to the effect that the power base of Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir has been seriously depleted. What one repeatedly hears is that, after 20 years as chief of the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) and two decades as his country's head of government, the time has come for Mahathir to step down. As proof that the optimal moment for Asia's oldest serving government chief to retire has already passed, critics point to the not very sparkling performance of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in the last parliamentary elections, in which the UMNO garnered fewer than half the votes of the Malay majority and Mahathir found himself more dependent than ever before on political support from the ranks of ethnic Chinese and East Indian voters.

Harbingers of Change?

Further signs of a weakening of power are racial unrest, a more self-confident attitude on the part of Chinese interest groups, the strengthening of the fundamentalist Islamic opposition PAS, street demonstrations on behalf of imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim, and the mysterious resignation of Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin. Malaysian judges have twice lately had the audacity to issue rulings against the justice system, the independence of which is by no means beyond all doubt. And finally, massive declines in exports have hurt the nation's economy, making the 75-year-old ruler's performance seem not as impressive as it has looked in the past.

Are all these factors harbingers of a change in power and a generational shift, such as other Southeast Asian countries have already experienced? Appearances are deceptive. At the UMNO's recent general assembly, which is regarded as the yardstick for the political mood within the strongest political force in the country, Mahathir played such an uncontested leadership role as to make all speculation about an internal changing of the guard in the party seem premature. According to the reaction after the party congress, only Mahathir could address his compatriots so openly and aggressively, raise racial problems and religious challenges, stir up fears and anxieties, and then immediately turn around and speak in conciliatory tones like the benevolent father of his country.

In rhetorically masterful speeches, Mahathir first launched a philippic against his fellow Malays, whom he accused of making too little intellectual and economic effort and allowing themselves to be pampered by the state, which grants them special privileges. The government guarantees Malays a high percentage of university study slots, for example, in keeping with the Malay majority of the country's population. But Mahathir maintained that, on the basis of actual performance, only 25 percent of those Malay students really qualify for university admission.

Carrot and Stick

On the first day of the party congress, at times accompanying his rhetoric with tears, Mahathir decried the ingratitude and laziness of his own ethnic group and branded his political opponents several times as "idiots." But on the second day the prime minister adopted a more conciliatory tone, saying that the Malays are after all no worse than others and that the important thing now was to close ranks and insure political stability in the country.

"Foreign forces," including the international media, he said, are the chief sources for the distorted view that the outside world has of Malaysia. As usual, on this occasion he also took potshots at other countries, such as Australia, from which - he said - Malaysia could learn nothing worthwhile. In view of the divisions in the Malay electorate (the causes of which are the case of Anwar on the one hand and the fundamentalist Islamic movement PAS on the other), Mahathir said that it was important to set the stage now for an election victory in 2004. No one rose to contradict the prime minister's prescription of greater discipline for his party and his fellow Muslims, and no mention was made of the names of those players who have fallen into open or veiled disfavor, such as Anwar or Daim.

Thus Mahathir grip on the levers of party power seems firm and determined at present. The erstwhile country doctor appears to be in sound health, and there is no talk of resignation by the man who has created a monument to himself by building Putrajaya, a new, smart government city a little way outside the capital of Kuala Lumpur. By ordering his eldest son to withdraw from key positions in the Malaysian economy, he has also shielded himself in a timely fashion from possible accusations of nepotism. No one in the UMNO - which claims credit for having led Malaysia out of the colonial era and securing the dominance of Malays in the present (and for the future) - has the stature, or the courage, to try to step into Mahathir's shoes.

Harsh Steps Against the Opposition

The prime minister's power within his party has its counterpart in the iron fist with which Mahathir moves against nascent opposition movements. Street protests are nipped in the bud. Just a few days before a planned demonstration in April to commemorate Anwar's arrest, the police moved in and, on the basis of the "Internal Security Act" (ISA), arrested 10 key individuals. With the aid of the ISA, suspects can be imprisoned for two months without judicial procedures. On a judge's subsequent order, and a decision of Interior Minister Abdullah Badawi (Mahathir's deputy prime minister), six of those arrested in April have since been transferred to higher-security prisons and will probably be detained for months or even years.

The government, and the pro-government press, reacted subtly to the resignation of Finance Minister Daim, a longtime comrade-in-arms of Mahathir. No, the news reports said, contrary to currently circulating rumors Daim had not been arrested; there was no reason to arrest him - at least not at the moment, though no one could say what the future might bring. This was a denial of a rumor deliberately started by the Mahathir forces themselves, and a thinly veiled warning to Daim and his entourage - strongly reminiscent of the fate of Daim's predecessor, Anwar, who after a humiliating trial is now serving a 15-year sentence for assorted infractions.

Media policy is being carefully orchestrated as well. The takeover of a publishing house which publishes two previously independent newspapers, China Press and Nanyang Siang Pau, with a combined circulation of about 400,000, can only be regarded as an early measure to position the governing coalition for the coming election campaign. Chinese publications in Malaysia have so far enjoyed greater journalistic freedom than other media products. The majority holdings in the two newspapers just mentioned, which had been repeatedly critical of the regime and, among other things, had called into question the Malays' precedence in Malaysia, were acquired in early June by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) after approval of the takeover at its party congress. It is feared that this will degrade the journals into little more than party organs of the MCA, which is an important partner in the ruling coalition. Some editorial heads have already rolled.

3 July 2001 / First published in German, 29 June 2001