Malaysia: Anxious Days in Kuala Lumpur

1998

Professor Clive S. Kessler

One might expect the mood in Kuala Lumpur these days to be modestly upbeat. Although the regional crisis continues, the stressed Malaysian economy has not imploded. Dr Mahathir has not only kept his nerve in the face of international pressure but has consolidated his position domestically by wrong-footing his internal critics at the recent national assembly of the governing United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Since then he has also proudly unveiled some large prestige projects conceived in kinder economic times as centrepieces of Malaysia's "can do" pursuit of international recognition and competitiveness: the futuristic new Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the impressive National Sports Complex to stage next September's 16th Commonwealth Games. Yet the mood among Malaysians, including many amonng the government's key supporters, seems unusually anxious, sullen, apprehensive, even resentful. As the Commonwealth Games approach, the "feel" is restive, not festive. The Prime Minister's domestic critics accuse him of allowing cronyism to breed from close corporate associations with government. The international economic press and the IMF have called for greater transparency in key government-sponsored and UMNO-managed sectors of the national economy. The visit of the Indonesian Islamic leader Amien Rais to Kuala Lumpur in July provided some critics with opportunities to draw parallels between the Malaysian and Indonesian experiences of alleged cronyism. To quell these allegations and reassert his control, Dr Mahathir has had to face down and, in effect, publicly humiliate the leader of the UMNO Youth wing who dared to raise the issue at the recent party assembly. He has also felt impelled to clip the wings of his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, by recalling to Cabinet the former Finance Minister and economic "wizard" Tun Daim Zainuddin, and by resurrecting in UMNO, as party fixer, Anwar's predecessor as Deputy Prime Minister, the veteran Ghaffar Baba. The group editor of the Utusan Malaysia newspaper and magazine group and the editor of Berita Harian, the other main Malay newspaper, both suddenly resigned in July, apparently because of the prominence given by the allegedly Anwar-inclined Malay press to discussion of the 'transparency versus cronyism' issue. In early July, UMNO suffered a serious defeat in a by-election in Arau that was linked to cronyism and to the effects of the economic slowdown. A politically potent level of economic anxiety and even disaffection is now demonstrably shared by a significant part of the UMNO's core rural Malay support-base. This loss occurred in a quarter of the country where Dr Mahathir and his recalled economic supremo Tun Daim Zainuddin are hugely influential. But within key party circles, this loss of popular Malay support will be held against Anwar Ibrahim, who is seen as the bearer of special tasks and talents for campaigning in the Malay heartlands. As Dr Mahathir has done in the past, he will dig in during the Commonwealth Games, hold his nerve and dare his and Malaysia's enemies to take him on.

WATCHPOINT:

  • Expect Dr Mahathir to continue to bring back into play discarded colleagues, and advance some eclipsed players, as a way of ensuring his own position against challenges from 'new generation' forces within the UMNO.
  • Expect Dr Mahathir to seek to influence, and even reshape, the debate about the international economic crisis, possibly via an initiative at this year's APEC meeting of which he will be host.

     

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