The Washington Post

March 28, 2001

Malaysia's Slide

FOR A long time in East Asia, fast economic growth smoothed over political discontents and ethnic grievances, conferring upon authoritarian governments the appearance of legitimacy. The first signs of change came in the 1980s, when street riots forced South Korea's military government to allow elections; since then, popular protests have forced some democratic opening in the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia. Until recently, however, Malaysia escaped this kind of pressure, because it combined authoritarianism with elections and a vigorous civil society. That is now changing. The autocratic rule of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad faces growing challenges, and Dr. Mahathir's heavy-handed response is making more instability likelier.

One measure of the decline in the government's legitimacy comes from its own survey of confidence in public institutions that was published earlier this month. The survey found that only two in 10 people were happy with the state of the courts system; the police, the media and the parliament scored only marginally better. These poor showings reflect the wear and tear of authoritarianism. Respect for the courts, for example, has been in decline since three judges were pushed out of office in 1988; respect for the police has suffered partly because of its role in quelling opposition protests. Meanwhile the media have suffered because people know journalists face censorship; respect for parliament has been tarnished by the political upheaval following the sacking, arrest and beating in 1998 of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's deputy prime minister. And the decline of confidence in government is reflected in the business climate. Despite capital controls, an estimated $18 billion fled the country during the past two years. The Economist Intelligence Unit recently surveyed 60 countries' attractiveness to foreign investment. Only two countries -- Malaysia and Chinese-run Hong Kong -- are forecast to be less attractive during the next five years than they were during the past five.

Dr. Mahathir has a two-pronged strategy for dealing with this decline in confidence, and both are troubling. He is appealing to the ethnic nationalism of the Malay majority, a policy that risks fomenting violence between Malays and the Indian and Chinese minorities. This month, six people died in street battles on the outskirts of the capital, the worst ethnic violence since the 1960s.

The prime minister's other response is to crack down on opponents. A state police chief recently hinted he might round up opposition leaders who had questioned the official death toll in the ethnic fighting; and Mr. Anwar's wife, now an opposition leader, was interrogated for three hours on Friday. The police already have raided the home of an opposition Web site editor and removed his computers; they have locked up Mr. Anwar's former political secretary, Ezam Mohamad Noor, under a law that allows for the arrest, without warrant, of any individual in order to prevent a possible future offense from taking place. There is concern that Mr. Ezam, like Mr. Anwar before him, may be beaten while in custody.

Dr. Mahathir has led Malaysia successfully for 20 years and is now nearing the end of his career. A lurch toward authoritarianism at this stage would damage his legacy and represent a misreading of the trends across East Asia. Even in societies that have notched up marvelously fast growth, political legitimacy must be based upon political freedom.

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