Malaysia: A Poisoned Chalice?

1999

Professor Clive S. Kessler

For almost a month Malaysia was stalled by the question whether former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was being slowly poisoned, while imprisoned, with arsenic.

Now that exhaustive medical tests have provided a negative answer, two questions now present themselves: if not arsenic, then what is the cause of the evident decline in Anwar's health; and how soon can Anwar's second trial (this one for sodomy, not official corruption as was the first) now resume and be completed and when, therefore, will Malaysia's long anticipated general election be called? (An election is unlikely to be called while the trial is still running.)

Provided the trial can be speedily resumed and completed, which seems probable, the election could well be called in mid-November, so long as opposition forces do not once more wrong-foot Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed and his Barisan Nasional government with any further awkward surprises; otherwise, a date in the second half of January, between the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, and Chinese New Year, seems likely.

Whenever it is held, this promises to be a significant election. All indications are that, while Dr. Mahathir's Barisan Nasional government will be returned to power, it will be with a reduced majority. He has solid Chinese, Indian and East Malaysian support but lacks strong, perhaps even majority, support among the Malays of the peninsular states, who are the national political system's core component and the backbone of the governing coalition. For Dr. Mahathir, who rose to political prominence as a Malay nationalist or 'ultra', this would be a truly remarkable reversal.

Amplified by disquiet over the entire Anwar episode and how it was handled, disaffection from Dr. Mahathir and his government is strongest among the nation's Malays, especially those in the electorally advantaged rural areas where the Barisan's central party, the UMNO, faces a strong challenge from the Islamic party PAS. The impact of this challenge, one which has been mounted against UMNO by PAS from the Malay heartlands ever since 1959, is now likely to be increased by the united opposition front to Dr. Mahathir, the UMNO and Barisan Nasional which has coalesced around support for Anwar personally and a reform agenda of the kind which he is held to espouse. (The main government tactic will be to fracture the unity and to destroy the public credibility of that improbable coalition of youthful Anwarists, secularists and civil libertarians, social democrats, non-Malay oppositionists and the committed Islamists from PAS.)

While the public face of that opposition front is Anwar's courageous but politically inexperienced wife Dr. Wan Azizah Ismail, Dr. Mahathir was surely right when he recently argued, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, that the real beneficiary of any successful opposition electoral campaign will be not Dr. Wan Azizah's Parti Keadilan [Justice Party] but PAS, which provides the front with its organizational and numerical strength. So the real choice is between the often less than edifying Barisan regimen of statist authoritarianism grounded upon horse-trading among party-ethnic elites and PAS's quiet but increasingly confident and assertive neo-traditionalist Islamism. Moderation, compromise and anti-obscurantism are very imperfectly served in Malaysia by the political vehicle on which they ride.

This prospect contains real dangers, not simply those of a so-called "fundamentalist" resurgence. The entire Malaysian political system revolves around the Barisan Nasional; its national political dominance in turn centres upon the UMNO's presumed dominance of the Malay vote. When the UMNO's ability to dominate, or even command a majority, of the Malay vote is electorally thrown into doubt, the entire structure and logic of the Barisan Nasional's political ascendancy is threatened.

One year ago the common wisdom was that Dr Mahathir and his party's political survival would depend upon whether Malaysia could recover economically from the regional economic crisis of 1997. Political developments in Malaysia since 1997 now suggest a different and less encouraging conclusion.

While Malaysia has experienced some significant economic rebound, this by itself now seems insufficient to ensure the UMNO's political recovery. Popular, especially Malay, disaffection is increasing, the fragmented opposition is managing pragmatically to unite around Anwar and a common electoral manifesto, and many UMNO members themselves now confess an unprecedented lack of confidence in the party, its practices, and its future leadership prospects. The yearning within some key business circles for the leadership succession to go to the former party rebel, Kelantan prince Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, seems both realistic and at the same time a forlorn wish to turn the clock back: belatedly to seize opportunities and to venture down paths forsaken in the early to mid-1980s. This somewhat desperate preference evidences neither a keen sense of the present predicament not any compelling future vision.

Politically, the UMNO and Malaysia generally seem stranded between two eras: one dying, the other having a difficult birth. To borrow the title of Dr. Mahathir's most famous visionary statement, there now seems no obvious "Way Forward". Whether it goes to current Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, to Tengku Razaleigh or some other aspirant, what Dr. Mahathir will be leaving to his successor may well be a poisoned chalice.

WATCHPOINT: Expect an imminent election, but don't expect it to resolve many of the basic questions now facing Malaysia.

 

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