Malaysia: A Political Turning Point?


Dr Harold Crouch

The Anwar Ibrahim affair has stirred much debate in the Malay community and raises the question of whether the events of 1998-99 will mark some kind of turning point in Malay, and Malaysian, politics. The dismissal and arrest of the former Deputy Prime Minister, the beating he suffered at the hands of the Inspector General of Police while under detention, the dubious nature of much of his trial, and the severity of his sentence for what many regard as a technical offence have all raised questions which go far beyond the incidents themselves. Since before independence, the Malaysian government has rested on the foundation of the Malay community's solid support for UMNO (the United Malays National Organisation), but now Malay opinion is sharply divided over the Anwar case.

Although UMNO leaders - including those previously associated with Anwar - have virtually unanimously declared their support for Dr Mahathir, the feeling has been spreading within the party that the time is approaching when the Prime Minister should step down. The postponement of party elections - originally scheduled for June this year - until after the national election is one indication of uncertainty within UMNO. Another is the apparent defection of UMNO members in the northern Malay-majority states to PAS which claims that over 80,000 new members have joined since Anwar's arrest last September. In the central and southern states of the peninsula, there have been no mass defections but it is widely claimed that anti-Mahathir feeling is strong.

The Prime Minister, however, retains his confidence and will probably call an election - which must be held by next April - during the second half of this year. Despite the unease that has spread within the Malay community about his leadership, it seems impossible for the opposition to defeat the government. The two main opposition parties, the Malay-based PAS and the non-Malay-based DAP, are moving toward some form of co-operative arrangement but few Malaysians seem to have much hope that a workable government could be based on a PAS-DAP alliance. The new Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party), led by Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, aspires to act as a kind of link between PAS and the DAP. But, while the new party will probably succeed in mobilising young, better-educated voters, it so far lacks the organisational network through which UMNO - and its partners in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition - so effectively distribute the patronage that ties most voters to the government.

WATCHPOINT: Mahathir and UMNO will remain ahead on points until late 1999 at least.


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