Malaysia: Two Years after "Reformasi," Mahathir Clearly
PENANG, Malaysia, (Sep. 18) IPS - Two years after the "reformasi" or reform
movement in Malaysia emerged, there are few signs that Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad is ready to relinquish the reins of power.
This despite the fact that the 74-year-old Mahathir, prime minister since 1981,
recently said he was passing some of his duties to his deputy, Abdullah Badawi.
In fact, analysts say the prime minister's redeployment of duties will allow him
spend more time with his political party, the United Malays National
Organization (UMNO), in a bid to check opposition inroads into Malaysian
politics in recent years.
"Among the majority of Muslims, he has lost the kind of respect he used to enjoy
since the sacking of Anwar (Ibrahim, former deputy premier). I am very sure of
that," Zaid Kamaruddin, deputy president of Jama'ah Islah Malaysia, a Muslim
reform group, said in an interview.
Those inroads were best reflected in the setbacks suffered by Mahathir's
coalition in the November 1999 election, including the loss of the east coast
of Terengganu. The ruling coalition's popular vote has fallen from 65 percent in
1995 to 56 percent in 1999.
But the roots of the erosion of the coalition's standing among the ethnic Malay
community lies in the disenchantment stemming from the arrest of former deputy
premier Anwar Ibrahim on Sept. 20, 1998.
The government arrested him on charges of corruption and sodomy, but Anwar
says they are part of political conspiracy stemming the rivalry and feud between
him and Mahathir.
On that day, Anwar, who had been fired by Mahathir, called for the prime
minister's resignation and drew a crowd of more than 50,000 in Independence
Square in the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Later, Anwar was arrested at his home and detained him under the Internal
Security Act. In a police cell, Malaysia's then top police officer assaulted
triggering widespread outrage.
Two years after those events, Zaid added, Mahathir has lots of work to do to
try to rebuild support among the ethnic Malays, who make up most of
Malaysia's citizens and on whom his coalition has traditionally counted on for
"If they are trying to win back Malay support, they are not getting it," Zaid
"Generally the people, especially among the Malays, tend not to readily accept
the government's version of events."
"The collective impact of the authoritarianism of the Mahathir regime and the
series of scandals with which it has been associated, has created in our society
widespread atmosphere of frustration, unease and ultimately loss of faith in the
government," added D.J. Muzaffar Tate, a political writer.
"The effect has been to convert us into a nation of cynics," he said.
To mark the second anniversary of Anwar's arrest and the rise of the strongest
political opposition in decades, anti-government critics and activists plan on
Sept. 20 to hold a huge discussion and dinner at a restaurant beneath
Independence Square in the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Organizers shifted to this plan after government authorities scuttled earlier
of hiring the National Stadium to draw a 100,000-strong crowd. Their
application to use the stadium was turned down within 15 minutes, with no
reason given.
Saari Sungib, chairman of the Reformasi Month Committee, in a statement
posted on the Internet said that committee plans to hold a press conference at a
hotel on Sept. 20. Then, a delegation will go to the stadium complex
management's office to symbolically resubmit the application for the use of the
"We will request that the management allow us to use the stadium any time in
October," Tian Chua, vice president of Anwar's keADILan (National Justice
Party), said.
Critics say Mahathir may also want to devote more time to deal with cracks that
have emerged in UMNO as factional infighting surfaces.
He is also likely to be concerned about the opposition Barisan Alternatif
(Alternatif Front) coalition -- especially keADILan and the oppositionist
Party PAS -- which has been eating into UMNO's support.
"Mahathir wants to strengthen the influence of UMNO which is now waning, in
order to be able to face the next election more effectively," said Syed Husin
president of Parti Rakyat Malaysia (Malaysian People's Party), another Barisan
Alternatif front member.
"This move is no more than a tactical ploy by Dr. Mahathir to strengthen his own
position and his hold on UMNO," he added.
Up till now, Malaysia's ruling coalition is hoping that the reformasi movement
fade away with time -- and Anwar behind bars.
Anwar is bound to be in prison until 2009, and many wonder whether his
political career has in fact been ended by his recent second conviction, this
for sodomy. The first conviction, which came with a six-year prison sentence,
was for corruption.
Despite drawing strong support from the ethnic Malays, the reformasi movement
faces its biggest test in attracting non-Malay interest.
In the November general election, with the ethnic Malays evenly split, the
coalition drew from a solid core of non-Malay support to romp home to victory.
But recent events, especially the premier's criticism of a group of Chinese
Malaysian associations for asking for too many concessions and likening them to
the demands made by the communists in the past, have irked the ethnic Chinese,
says Tian Chua.
"Generally, a large group of them regret voting for the ruling coalition after
prime minister lashed out at the Chinese associations," he said. "A lot of them
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