Malaysia: Mahathir’s Last Stand?


Alison Broinowski

Who would want to be in Dr Mahathir’s shoes? No leader of vision - and he has been that - who has held centre stage for over thirty years, likes to face the final curtain.

Malaysians, in economic terms, should be praising Mahathir, not seeking to bury him. Imports have picked up, along with consumer demand, and with export figures remaining strong, the economy is expected to grow healthily by 7.8 per cent in 2000. The budget for 2001, to be presented in October, is expected to revive pre-crisis emphasis on value-added export manufacturing.

Internationally, Mahathir has assumed the mantle of grand old man of ASEAN. With President Abdurrahman Wahid’s support, he presented himself as a leader of the whole of Asia at the recent G77 meeting in Havana. Current Malaysian Airlines advertisements echo this theme, promoting Malaysia as ‘the real Asia’. Mahathir’s pronouncements on what is and is not acceptable to all Asians are not publicly challenged by other leaders.

But Mahathir faces a sea of troubles at home. Disparate though the elements are, they are sufficient to restrict his freedom to move, and may even combine to lead to his downfall. There are at least five of them.

First, the guilty verdict handed down against Anwar Ibrahim on 8 August, his jailing until at least 2010, and his effective disqualification from the next three general elections have given the opposition parties a cause around which to rally. Talk of reform has revived within the ruling United Malays National Organisation itself.

Second, the New Economic Policy that has favoured indigenous Malays for thirty years is under threat. Chinese groups came together before the November 1999 election to call for an end to anti-Chinese discrimination in business, government, and the media. Now, Chinese who voted for Mahathir expect their reward in the form of merit-based liberalisation to be written into Malaysia’s next 10-year plan, to begin in 2001.

Third, the kidnapping of two Malaysians by fellow Muslims in Jolo, who held them and others for ransom for three months, has combined with the increasing stridency of Islamic statements by leaders of PAS, the Islamic party of Malaysia, to complicate even further the religious challenge facing the government.

Fourth, the Nipah virus has returned to peninsular Malaysia, possibly by way of smuggled pigs from Sarawak, or carried by fruit bats driven out of burning forests in Sumatra. It led to the deaths of 100 people in 1999 and caused one million pigs out of Malaysia’s total of 1.4 million to be slaughtered. Singapore and Thailand have maintained their import bans on Malaysian pigs and pork. But the government has been slow to identify the virus, claiming earlier that it was Japanese encephalitis.

Fifth, FDI in Malaysia shrank by 71 per cent in the first half of 2000 compared to the same period in 1999. With Japan’s economy stagnant, the fundamentals underpinning Mahathir’s Look East policy now look questionable. If his aim for a single Malaysian ‘race’ in a cohesive, modern state is to be achieved by 2020, Mahathir is unlikely to be Prime Minister to see it, or to be accountable if it is not.

Groups seeking reform are linking these issues, and may seek political solutions to them. Bureaucratic inertia and an inability to mobilise expertise are blamed for the slow official responses to threat posed by the Nipah virus, as well as for the stalling of the Multimedia Super-Corridor. Anwar’s treatment is seen as revealing manipulation of the judiciary. Lawlessness and pollution on Malaysia’s borders are symptomatic of wider problems in the region.

WATCHPOINT: : The National Economic Consultative Council’s recommendations may lead to changes to the New Economic Policy in 2001.


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