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Mahathir And Umno In Transition
By Analysis Malaysia
10/8/2001 5:20 pm Fri
Analysis Malaysia Issue No.1 25th June - 1th July
Mahathir and an Umno in transition
Challenges and the status quo
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
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.
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".
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
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 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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.