Malaysia: Interpreting The Election Results

1999

Professor Tony Milner

Mahathir has won another victory. Some of his many critics will take comfort from the loss of the east coast state of Trengganu, and from the loss of a number of Federal Government seats, to the Islamic party, PAS. Just who should take comfort from that particular swing I will consider later.

The governing coalition, Barisan Nasional, has achieved the two-thirds majority for which it fought hard. Mahathir's opponents argued that the loss of that majority would be interpreted as political defeat for the Prime Minister - a signal that it was time for him to resign. Unless we are to move the goal posts now, it must be admitted that Dr Mahathir has had a genuine success.

The basis of Mahathir's success deserves the attention of his detractors in the West. Once the champion of Malay ethnic nationalism, Mahathir appears in this election to have won widespread support in the large non-Malay community of the country. For all his aggressive rhetoric, he has often urged policies that promote social unity, rather than those that might foster one or another form of ethnic or religious extremism. Indeed, had he taken a more extreme stand on behalf of Malay or Islamic interests, he might have been better able to fend off the Islamic Party in this election.

Despite his international reputation as a political and economic radical, many Malaysians have come to see him as a force for economic and political stability. His Malaysia supporters, it should also be kept in mind, are in good company in the international community. It is true that Mahathir - unlike his former and now jailed Deputy, Anwar Ibrahim - rejected the advice of the International Monetary Fund as his country entered the Asian financial crisis; but his economic management has now won not only domestic but international praise, including from the World Bank.

Australians have underestimated Mahathir's international reputation in other areas, also. The recent meeting in Manila of the ASEAN states and the East Asian countries of Japan, China and Korea is a reminder that the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC), which Mahathir has advocated for a decade, is far from dead. Australia tends to see such a community as a rival to APEC, an organisation which, unlike EAEC, welcomes Australia and the United States and other Western countries. But in reacting dismissively toward the EAEC idea, Australians have tended to ignore the fact that Mahathir has won substantial support in East Asia, particularly in Japan. In the recent Manila meeting, the Philippines' President, Joseph Estrada, talked of working harder to fulfil the lofty dream of 'an East Asian common market, one East Asian currency and one East Asian community'.

Turning to the aspect of the election that is most threatening for Dr Mahathir - the rise of the Islamic party, PAS - there is once again food for reflection for Australian and other Western observers. PAS has held the state of Kelantan, won the state of Terengganu and made headway in the north-western state of Kedah. It has not won Terengganu by a slight majority, but by taking 28 seats to the Barisan's four. PAS's success is likely to be connected to the perceived persecution of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. But this does not mean the electoral swing represents success for the forces of liberal reform. It should not be forgotten that Anwar himself started his career as an Islamic activist, and there can be no doubt about the religious seriousness of PAS's leaders. Malaysian newspapers were reporting that. Anyone who knows the reform credentials of the new Chief Minister of Terengganu, Haji Abdul Hadi, will not be surprised to learn that he is already reported to be preparing to introduce the Islamic criminal code into Terengganu and that he is planning to establish an Islamic Advisory Council to ensure that the administration of his state is based firmly on Islamic principles.

The success of PAS is a genuine reversal for Mahathir. Mahathir's own party, almost immediately after the election results were announced, declared that it would 'not embrace the Islamic radicalism to recapture parts of the Malay heartland it lost to the PAS'. By December 4 there were reports that the Government was planning to recruit state religious leaders as Senators and then Cabinet Members.

To the extent that the election results contain reverses for Mahathir, therefore, these have little to do with the progress of liberal reform for Australia. It is true that Wan Azizah was successful in winning the seat once held by her husband, Anwar Ibrahim, but her party, Keadilan, won only four other seats. Mahathir's success against Keadilan suggests that most Malaysians gave a greater priority to stability than to reform. Where Mahathir did lose it was against PAS, and this is a reminder for Australians that we have neglected too long the growing strength of Islamic reform in Southeast Asia.

WATCHPOINT: Despite his two-thirds majority, will Mahathir's loss of support in the Malay community bring about new pressure for him to resign as Leader?

 

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