Malaysia: No More Dr Nice Guy


Dr William Case

Mahathir operates Malaysia today in a context of seeming ambiguity. In last year’s general elections, he retained his grip on state power, but lost nearly half of the Malay electorate. At the UMNO assembly earlier this year, he retained the party presidency, but was saddled with unwanted vice-presidents and Supreme Council members. In August, he secured a second court judgement against Anwar Ibrahim, thereby barring his former deputy from political life for decade-and-a-half. But this has helped to resuscitate the reformasi movement, with thousands of supporters gathering on 5 November on the Kesas highway near Klang. Recently, Malaysia’s economy has shown new signs of life, benefiting from high petroleum prices and electronics exports. But it has attracted no new foreign investment, while domestic demand remains flat. And finally, social peace persists in the country, with ethnic relations generally well managed. They have lately been sullied, however, with new disputes over Malay special rights and integrated “vision” schools.

Amid these pressures, Mahathir appeared for a time to show new flexibility. First, in an attempt to energize support among young Malays, he acquiesced in a campaign through which better to explain the UMNO’s mission and relevance. The party was also to be remade in more democratic ways, enabling branch members directly to elect the top leadership. And Mahathir pledged to focus more closely on party work, ceding some policy making to Abdullah Badawi, his apparently more benign deputy. Moreover, Mahathir experimented with new appeals meant to win back disillusioned Muslims, especially in the northern “Malay states.” Put simply, in trying to “out-Islam” the opposition, the UMNO would demonstrate greater Islamic stringency.

But today, Mahathir is rethinking his concessions. Despite last November’s electoral setback, his government now displays an ever more dismissive attitude toward parliament. Government ministers and their deputies decline usually to attend, leaving parliamentary sectaries to deal inadequately with questions. Accordingly, in a much publicized episode in November, even an UMNO backbencher threatened to walk out, having been frustrated by the government’s perfunctory response to his questioning the value of smart schools in his rural constituency. Further, the UMNO scrapped its plan to elect top leaders directly. Abdullah Badawi warned that “government haters” would be forced from the civil service. Protesters were harshly suppressed on the Kesas highway, with police roughly interrogating detainees. In its national budget, released in late October, the government refused to fully remove the capital controls that antagonize foreign investors or to cut the taxes that hamper domestic consumption. And it continued to test the Chinese community, canvassing the vision schools that favour deep integration over pluralist tolerance.

Many analysts see in Mahathir’s backtracking on concessions a return to rigidity, evoking his growing isolation. He is depicted as ringed by sycophants, too intimidated to correct his flawed judgements. In this view, Mahathir will be unable to revitalize the UMNO with new Malay blood. Rather, he will further alienate reformists and Islamicists, while driving off more Malay villagers and perhaps even the Chinese. To be sure, Mahathir may succeed in postponing the day of reckoning. But the pressures for change are inexorably mounting.

However, the scholarly literature on democratisation tells a different story. In brief, it suggests that more than steady repression, an authoritarian government’s consenting to bargain is a surer indicator of a regime on its last legs. In making concessions, such a government is attempting to use what strength remains to it as a means by which to improve the terms of its withdrawal. By contrast, a national leader who thinks better of concessions, while retaining the loyalties of his security forces, may resort to coercion in order indefinitely to persist. As events on the Kesas highway have demonstrated once more, Mahathir retains such loyalties. They show too that he is fully prepared to exploit them.

WATCHPOINT: The pressures for change in Malaysia are inexorably mounting.


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