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Mahathir And Umno In Transition
By Analysis Malaysia

10/8/2001 5:20 pm Fri
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Analysis Malaysia Issue No.1 25th June - 1th July

Mahathir and an Umno in transition

Challenges and the status quo

The United Malay National Organisation (Umno), the ruling party, is going through a period of noisy self-examination as it recovers from the last general election.

Regardless of how polite the delegates were during the recently concluded annual general assembly, they were actually sending signals to the Umno president Dr Mahathir Mohamad -now 76 and in his 20th year in power - that change is inevitable.

While the delegates were hailed for their "strong sense of being masters in their own land" by Mahathir during his speech at the general assembly, that does not stop them from expressing openly their critical views before the pursed lips of Mahathir and the Umno supreme council members. Their message to Mahathir was this: Go ahead with your reforms but be careful about going your own self-serving way.

Although he has the green light to pursue political reforms, Mahathir was reminded by party delegates to be careful about politicising the effect or targeting his political enemies. Obviously, the exercise in 'semi-openness' in the party left a bad taste in the mouths of certain groups in Umno.

Mahathir's miscalculation

This is because of the outcome of the last general elections when PAS managed to wrest Terengganu from BN, this in addition to retaining Kelantan. The party also almost captured Kedah and Perlis, and made significant inroads into Pahang and Selangor.

The outcome of the elections clearly shows that Mahathir miscalculated his plans. It's clear that the delegates, which represented state Umno liaison committees, and Mahathir disagree on this issue.This has now raised questions on Umno's political future and Mahathir's ability to wage campaigns for the party top post next year. Life isn't easy for the Umno's current leaders. In the old days, all the party president had to do was issue an instruction and rarely was there any opposition.

These days, however, Malaysian politics has become more pluralistic. True, Umno is still dominant, but it is not monolithic. The party branches and divisions often have different ideas from that of the party central leadership. The consequence is that on the national level, the old pattern of party politics has almost broken down.

Like elsewhere, in northern peninsular Malaysia the party is losing the loyalty of voters such as a farmer who took time off from the paddy harvest to attend an Opposition rally and plans to vote for PAS in the next elections. Why? Because, he says, the BN incumbent for his area "didn't help the poor ... only his own relatives".

New leadership

The fact is, a new Umno leadership line-up seems inevitable in the wake of the electoral defeat. For the moment, however, Mahathir is likely to lick his wounds but keep firing in his role as party president. Given his dominant role in the party, he's unlikely to give up his intentions to run in the next Umno presidential election.

Obviously Mahathir isn't leaving anything to chance. His strategy has a historical basis and he used behind-the-scene moves to consolidate his power base. If Mahathir's moves to tighten the bolts on the party system are successful, the party's next elections may be less eventful.

This could well be only the beginning of the party's new problems. How else to explain why the weight of the blame for Umno's poor performance in the last general elections has settled on Mahathir?


Amid the rising tide of youth, the Opposition leaders have strengthened their standing as leaders of a new generation of technocrat politicians. Their repeated call for a new class of politicians with expertise and integrity struck a chord with voters sick of old time politicos and scandals.

As a result, the Opposition engineered a stunning upset in the east-coast state of Terengganu with their focus on reforms, competence and fighting corruption.

In fact, there were obvious signs that the Opposition is increasingly able to present voters with a credible reform platform and a fresh, youthful image. As in the last general elections, ballots were cast along regional lines, with each of the four largest parties running well in their own areas.

PAS, DAP and Keadilan

PAS swept the east-coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu. DAP swept through a number of Chinese-dominated constituencies. Keadilan had its own regional success, attacking Mahathir for imprisoning his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim while snatching several seats in the northern state of Penang, Kelantan and Selangor.

Anwar hails from Penang. Anwar's wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who won the Permatang Pauh constituency in Penang, is a leading light of the Keadilan party.

Barisan Nasional (BN) took all but several seats in a few states. Apparently Malaysian voters, worried by uncertainty and religious extremism, endorsed stability under the incumbent Prime Minister. Malaysians are apprehensive to changes in political leadership and one good reason to discount future leaders somewhat is uncertainty. This is because they know less about future leaders than they do about the past and present leaders.

'A bird in the hand' is worth two in the bush because if you give up the certain one for the uncertain two, you may end up with none.

But according to a poll, at least 30 percent said Mahathir's prosecution of his former deputy, Anwar influenced their choice of candidates. Mahathir's inability to counter allegations that Anwar was framed seemed to make a BN win unlikely until help arrived from Sarawak, Johor and Sabah, which contributed a large number of parliamentary seats.

The Opposition actively advocated a parliamentary system of government which would provide checks and balances against what they called "an irresponsible Prime Minister like Mahathir".

However, the ruling party's performance was no small feat, given the fact that a few of Mahathir's own close aides had been implicated in sensational bribery scandals. Mahathir had also been hurt by complaints that his leadership style is authoritarian and arbitrary.

For the opposition parties, the elections send mixed signals. It was a significant setback for the BN which pulled disappointing tallies in most Malay-dominated constituencies. But the basic trend is clear. The primacy of the religion factor in the last two general elections is evident among the people of the states of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu.

PAS is spreading its influence to the states of Kedah, Perlis, Selangor and Pahang with a cauldron of religious politics. It vividly courts voters among Malaysia's 10 million Muslims.

2004 general elections

The opposition front Barisan Alternatif (BA) hopes to beat Prime Minister Mahathir's BN in the 2004 general elections. Looking at the diminishing Umno strength and the ever increasing support for the Opposition, pollsters predict the elections may yield an inconclusive three-way split.

However, many commentators doubt the disparate BA will pull together. For now, PAS doesn't see much chance of a rainbow coalition with other opposition parties, especially the Chinese-dominated party DAP.

But even if they don't, they might hold the balance of power. Some could split off to help another party, most likely the BN, form a majority in Malaysia's 193-seat Parliament. PAS and DAP could play a critical role in the event of a hung parliament after the polls.

Since the late 1990s, the emergence of an opposition pact has reshaped Malaysia's politics, giving the poor and disenfranchised a greater voice. And they made a decisive mark in the last two general elections. PAS is a political force, based on race and religion, that has accelerated the decline of Umno as ruling party.

DAP and Keadilan, both using a gauge that a largely poor audience can understand, mock the BN's traditional claim that only it can give Malaysia stability. In the BN as well as the Opposition, race, cultural and religious ties are the basis of unity.

Student politics

The Opposition leaders are cautious of the attempts by the government to neutralise the political inclination of the students, which currently favour the Opposition. They (the Opposition) say these attempts could threaten the colourful diversity at the institutions of higher learning. Student politics, they say, is a dynamic thing, and don't expect to control it.

Despite the setbacks and suspicions, Umno is bent on improving its relationship with students of institutions of higher learning. Umno is making a special effort this year to ensure that more youths will join Umno.

Inspiring the younger generation of Malaysians is Azalina Othman, a lawyer, who heads the newly formed Puteri Umno - an addition to the party's existing youth and women wings - to attract younger women to join Umno. This is because women make up more than 50 percent of the Malaysian population.

Political observers in Malaysia see Umno's new interest in the country's young population as a critical effort to replenish its diminishing source of support. The amazing turnaround has come about after the party realised that it now can no longer depend on its traditional supporters - those born before Independence - who are mostly no longer around.

But not all students organisations have warmed to Umno's overtures. They are suspicious about the party's intention. Response from others are positive but cautious. Student leaders call it a good approach, but they are less concerned about the actual benefits than the political benefits.

The majority of Umno members now fear the erosion effects of the Opposition, particularly PAS, which is seen as getting more powerful with each passing day. And Mahathir and his team are now working overtime to counter this development.

Media control

To achieve these ends, Mahathir has indicated he is prepared to change laws, reorganise the government, control the media and toss out dissenting members. This may include the move to tighten the law on the free flow of information through the Internet by ending its ability to override other laws.

Mahathir feels that the Chinese newspapers, in particular the Nanyang Siang Pau and the China Press, are biased against him and the government.

To avoid confrontation, Mahathir at first wanted to ask the two Chinese newspapers to pare down their criticism of the government. But he apparently changed his mind. He instead agrees to the MCA takeover of the two newspapers through its investing arm - Huaren Holdings - costing the party RM230 million.

Re-tightening the bolts on the party and government system will also apparently involve political vetting of judges. Loyalty in the judiciary may mean tossing out the liberals on the bench. In the latest development, a High Court judged recently declared the election for the Likas constituency in Sabah, null and void, due to phantom voters.

Then another High Court judge freed two detainees under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The Act was once used against pro-communist groups in the country. But it is now used on politicians. The Opposition is worried at the way a broader interpretation is being applied to the law. They say it shouldn't be used as a legal instrument to limit people's political rights.

Party succession

Among the messages of the Umno delegates, Mahathir has learnt, is a call to support party-elected deputy president Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to replace Mahathir (as party president and prime minister) when Mahathir decides to step down. For the administration, that was the easy part. It will be trickier dealing with Mahathir's 'look-and-see' attitude.

If this seemingly reasonable request is denied, party members could accuse Mahathir of obstructionism in the party succession process. The consequences might be even worse after three previous Mahathir deputies - Musa Hitam, Ghafar Baba and Anwar Ibrahim - failed to make it to the top. The majority of Umno members could end up lending indirect support to the replacement of Mahathir as party president.

An obviously disturbed Mahathir was reported to have told his close aides that he would do nothing whatsoever to undermine the existing arrangement. This helps to divert members' attention from further squeezing him to hand over power to Abdullah.

Checks and balances

Mahathir uses 'check and balances' to make sure that holders of government posts are kept aware of the presence of a political rival in the Prime Minister's favour. A classic example occurred when Musa was elected Umno deputy president over Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.

Mahathir, although he favoured Musa, refused his request that Razaleigh be dropped from the Cabinet. Apart from his value as a minister, Razaleigh was also useful to retain as a check in case Musa became too independent-minded.

Later, when Anwar became increasingly likely to succeed Mahathir as Prime Minister, Mahathir made sure that this would not occur inconveniently and too soon by appointing Ghafar as his deputy.

Even in 1996, Razaleigh briefly resumed the role, not exactly of a threat, but rather of a shadow threat, after he disbanded his party, Semangat 46, and, with the majority of his followers, rejoined Umno.

In the more important states, an Umno Menteri Besar is usually checked by another prominent Umno politician from that state. This might be the head of the Umno state liaison committee (if the menteri besar did not hold the position) or a Cabinet minister.

Confusingly, 'checks and balances' in Malaysia have a totally different meaning from what it has in the United States. There, the term indicates the separation of powers between the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. In Malaysia, on the other hand, it is a weapon to ensure the supremacy of the dominant power, the Executive.

In conclusion, so long as Mahathir rules Malaysia, he will remain deeply devoted to his favourite projects, particularly the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC). Several other projects have been hurt by the economic crisis that began in mid-1997.

His determination to vanquish his opponents - whether electorally, by application of the law, or by other means - has not wavered; and his will to remain in office seems to be as strong as ever.