Malaysia: Mahathir On Top


Dr William Case

In Malaysia, one of the great strengths of the United Malays Nattional Organisation (UMNO) has been that the party has staked out the ethnic middle ground, thus leaving the outliers - the Islamicist PAS on one side, the proletarian Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) on the other - unable to combine effectively against it. And today, on a scale of 'modernized' attitudes, the UMNO is again claiming the centre, leaving the traditionalist PAS and the liberal Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party, led by Wan Azizah Ismail, Anwar's wife) unable to coalesce smoothly. In addition, relations between the PAS and Keadilan are encumbered by their efforts to include the DAP. Put simply, the broader these parties try to make their opposition front, the more brittle it becomes.

Thus, despite the uproar over Anwar, the new surge in Islam, and the outrage over uncompensated pig slaughters (following a recent disease outbreak), socio-political resentments have not seriously tested the paramountcy of Mahathir. As always, it is instead within the UMNO that any successful challenge to Mahathir must come, whether in the form of an ambitious new rival or some heavily mediated pressures from outside, namely, economic recession. Let us check these internal challenges and external pressures more closely.

Within the UMNO, there are grievances over Mahathir's leadership style, to be sure. But it is perhaps a measure of Mahathir's paramountcy that his troubles are now of his own making. Specifically, while most of those in the party who were once allied to Anwar seem contrite and keen to forget, it is Mahathir who continues to beat the drum. Thus, at the UMNO General Assembly held in June, Mahathir produced yet another list of privatized contracts favoring Anwar's alleged cronies. But it was not so much the list's unconvincing nature that dismayed delegates, but rather that Mahathir had tabled it at all. In their view, he should instead have used the venue to pull the party together in the wake of Anwar's ouster. Put simply, while the UMNO rank-and-file has slowly returned to its customary obeisance, it has been unrequited by any explicit forgiveness from Mahathir. Anwar's one-time followers thus remain on edge, fretting over their electoral candidacies and credit lines.

It is in these circumstances that the UMNO-led government must contemplate general elections, due before April next year. Islamic resentments over Mahathir's leadership have doubtless intensified, to the point where the PAS may even able to form new state governments beyond Kelantan in the north. And the recent statement by the new information minister, Khalil Yaacob, that the opposition will be given no campaign access to the state-run electronic media (because 'the government pays for RTM employees') suggests that Mahathir is taking the challenge seriously. And yet, as mentioned above, the PAS and other opposition parties have failed to reach electoral agreements (which party should contest which districts). or adopt common strategies (should they strive to replace the government or simply wear down its two-thirds majority?). Much less can these opposition parties fashion a joint platform, implacably divided as they are over the merits of an Islamic state, English-language education, women in politics, and the like.

The opposition's electoral prospects seem also to vary inversely with Malaysia's economic fortunes. And lately, the country's economy has begun to brighten. After contracting 7.5% last year, then continuing to slip in this year's first quarter, projections have just been released by Merrill Lynch indicating that the economy could grow overall by 5% for 1999. Thus, while some observers are still mired in debates over the impact of Malaysia's capital controls, others are looking ahead to the revival in global electronics markets and the uptick in Japanese demand-elements that could provide Malaysia with a 'V-shaped' recovery.

In sum, Mahathir faces discontent within the UMNO, but he will not soon be confronted by any leadership challenges. The opposition's 'window of opportunity' was always a narrow one - and economic recovery must narrow it further. Hence, as this observer has contended all along, though Mahathir is not widely loved, his personal tenaciousness, his substantive achievements, the obeisance of UMNO culture, and the weakness of the opposition all suggest that he will not soon be removed from power.

WATCHPOINT: Do not bank on an early departure for Mahathir.


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