Malaysia: Between Two Worlds


Professor Clive S. Kessler

The political restlessness in Kuala Lumpur these days is palpable. Things cannot stay as they are, most political observers agree, but interested citizens seem gripped by a paralysis that will last until future directions are clearly signalled. Issues and problems now causing worry are:

  • the lack of clarity and unresolved tensions at senior levels within the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) over the national leadership succession;
  • similar tensions within the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) over the retirement of its long-serving leader and the accession of his increasingly impatient understudy;
  • Malay-Chinese tensions within the National Front over political issues and also educational questions: the future of Chinese-language secondary schools and non-Malay access to universities;
  • an emerging crisis in relations between many in the Indian community and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), following Malay-Indian clashes in the poorer areas of Kuala Lumpur in March that pointed up mass urban Indian impoverishment and social marginalization;
  • intensifying government pressure on the ‘Anwarist’ Parti Keadilan, including a new round of judicially unsupervised and arbitrary arrests under the Internal Security Act (ISA);
  • growing public and international disquiet over Anwar Ibrahim’s rapidly deteriorating medical condition and the question whether he should be allowed the most sophisticated and appropriate treatment in Munich; government circles fear the ‘politicisation’ of his condition, itself aggravated if not caused by being beaten in custody; a government minister attracted uproarious backbench approval when he referred to the Dutch surgeon Dr. Hoogland as ‘Dr. Hooligan’;
  • attempts by supporters of the most recent ISA detainees to invoke habeas corpus, in the face of the established practice of non-appealable ministerial discretion in such cases;
  • mounting tension between the recently created Human Rights Commission and the government over the right of peaceful public assembly, of access by Commissioners to ISA detainees, and the very need for the ISA itself; Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad asserted the need for the ISA to prevent ‘bad people’ disrupting public order;

  • the jailing for perjury of Anwar’s former private secretary Azimin Ali who testified about police treatment of Anwar and who was elected to the Selangor State Assembly in 1999 on a surge of public revulsion against UMNO’s sustained ‘character assassination’ against Anwar;
  • the coming trial in October for sedition of the veteran defence lawyer and former long-serving opposition member of parliament Karpal Singh who, as one of Anwar’s defence lawyers, claimed in court that Anwar was being poisoned; the preliminary hearing of this case was held before Judge Augustine Paul who presided over the first of Anwar’s two trials;
  • the elevation to a senior judicial position of Mokhtar Abdullah, who as Attorney-General directed and led the prosecutions of Anwar Ibrahim;

  • continuing public disquiet over the rescue at public expense of leading Malay corporate entrepreneurs close to the government; growing tensions between Dr Mahathir and their patron, the Finance Minister and UMNO treasurer Tun Daim Zainuddin over the political cost caused to Dr. Mahathir by the financial embarrassments of Tun Daim’s protégés; Tun Daim has been stood aside as Minister and, it is speculated, may no longer support Dr. Mahathir.

    Malaysia is politically stranded between two worlds, one dying, the other powerless to be born. In the next few months the UMNO General Assembly meeting may indicate whether the distance between Mahathir and Daim is permanent; if so, whether the next Finance Minister will be another old warrior or a new-generation politician; whether Dr. Mahathir’s protracted political end-game, played out since the 1999 elections, is about to reach checkmate; and if so, which pieces will be left standing.

    WATCHPOINT: Developments leading up to, and at, the forthcoming UMNO General Assembly meeting warrant close attention.


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