Laman Webantu   KM2A1: 2140 File Size: 24.6 Kb *

AsiaWeek cmt
By web aNtu

7/12/1999 8:03 am Tue


The Great Divide
For the first time, a Malay government faces a Malay

Muslim voters line up to cast their ballots. The Nov. 29 polls pitted a
well-organized government against a unified opposition

Edwin Tuyay for Asiaweek

At first glance, it looks like a clear-cut victory for Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad. His ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition won 148
seats in the 193-member Parliament. The opposition Barisan Alternatif
(BA) managed just 42, far fewer than the 65 needed to break BN's
two-thirds majority. As the numbers came in on the night of the vote,
the mood at Mahathir's election headquarters in Kuala Lumpur quickly
became celebratory. The jubilant PM told his cheering supporters:
"Clearly, Barisan Nasional is the party of choice for the people of

Except that it is not so simple. From the outset, the Nov. 29 polls -
Malaysia's 10th general elections - were eagerly watched and analyzed.
Compared with 1995, when BN romped home by a landslide, there were a few
more factors to consider this time, including Asia's financial crisis
and the political fallout from the ouster and jailing of former deputy
PM Anwar Ibrahim. The added complexity of the equation is apparent when
one digs deeper into the results. It's not just that BN saw its majority
trimmed or that the opposition took the state of Trengganu or that a
number of prominent BN candidates lost their races. What is really
significant about the various outcomes of the elections is that they
collectively mark a major shift in the country's political landscape.

But first, the raw facts and figures. BN reaffirmed its grip on power
with its 148-seat haul - a smaller figure than the 166 it held before
Parliament was dissolved but still enough to retain the two-thirds
majority necessary for amending the Constitution. In terms of actual
votes, BN won 57%, down from 65% in 1995. The coalition's key component,
Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), saw its share of
seats fall from 94 to 72. Its Chinese partners, the Malaysian Chinese
a#sociation (MCA) and Gerakan, delivered a healthy portion of the
Chinese vote, with the former winning 27 out of the 35 seats it
contested. BN's biggest success came in the East Malaysian states of
Sabah and Sarawak, where it won 45 out of 48 seats.

On the BA side, the biggest winner was Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas),
which accounted for 27 of the 42 seats won by the alliance and is now
the leading opposition party. The former holder of the title, the
Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), won 10 seats, while
Parti Keadilan Nasional grabbed five. Pas was also successful in the
state elections, which were held simultaneously in 11 states in
peninsular Malaysia. It not only retained control of Kelantan,
previously the only state under opposition rule, but wrested Trengganu
from BN hands.

Mahathir was easily re-elected to his Kubang Pasu seat in Kedah, though
his winning margin shrunk from 17,226 in the 1995 elections to 10,138.
Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of Anwar and leader of Keadilan, won in her
husband's constituency of Permatang Pauh, Penang. But DAP
secretary-general Lim Kit Siang and his deputy Karpal Singh both lost
their races. On the government side, the big casualties were four
cabinet members, including Domestic Trade Minister Megat Junid Megat
Ayob, plus Trengganu chief minister Wan Mokhtar Ahmad. Potential future
PM Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who was charged with winning Kelantan back
for BN, failed to deliver and was the only BN candidate to win his seat
in that state. Najib Tun Razak, another possible successor to Mahathir,
came through in his Pekan constituency in Pahang - but only barely, with
a razor-thin majority of 241.

What do all these results mean? One interpretation might be that they
represent a "win some, lose some" outcome for both sides, but with BN
coming off better. Indeed, while BN supporters were celebrating,
opposition members - with perhaps the exception of Pas - were hardly in
a jubilant mood, even though they had doubled their share of
parliamentary seats. "With a united opposition, for Mahathir to win
two-thirds is a feat," says Ramon Navaratnam, director of the Asia
Strategy and Leadership Institute. "This will give him the mandate to
carry on with his economic program and debunks the theories of many
foreign observers who said that Mahathir was bad for the country."

It might be, however, a little simplistic to view the results as a
resounding endorsement of Mahathir's policies. While BN's solid track
record in promoting economic development no doubt played a role, the
government had another card up its sleeve: its huge propaganda machine.
In the run-up to the polls, Malaysians were treated to all sorts of
pro-BN, anti-BA messages in the state-controlled media, including
newspaper ads equating Anwar supporters with violence and instability
and a TV commercial saying that Wan Azizah herself did not trust her
husband. There were even videotapes in circulation that made Anwar out
as having multiple bisexual affairs. The tapes showed "confessions" by
several men with whom Anwar allegedly had sex. (BN wasn't the only one
slinging mud, of course. Oppositionists likened Mahathir to, among
others, Satan, and Anwar hinted that the PM had a mistress hidden in
Singapore. But BA had no answer to the sheer omnipresence of BN's
messages.) "This sort of personal attack has been used before," comments
media analyst Zaharom Nain. "However, the level of the attacks, the
saturation of the media and the language used have never been so base."

The polls may have been dirty in more ways than one. Pemantau, a
gra#sroots election watchdog, has reported receiving complaints from the
public regarding the electoral roll. Some complainants claimed to have
found names of long-dead relatives on the list, while others reported
seeing their ID numbers with another person's name. Bangkok-based Asian
Network for Free Election also reported evidence of "phantom voters,"
though it refrained from rejecting the results outright. "What we can
infer is, there was a systematic attempt to organize the voter
registration in a way it will favor the victory of certain parties,"
said group member Sunai Phasuk. Wan Ahmad Wan Omar of the Election
Commission admits there were problems with the electoral roll but denies
any dark motives: "Most of the mistakes that appear are data entry

Oppositionists have complained about the irregularities, but Lim, for
one, refuses to blame his party's relatively poor showing solely on
alleged electoral fraud. "While phantom voters were one cause, they were
not the single most important reason for the result," he says.
"Throughout the country, we failed to convince the Chinese population
that the DAP's involvement with BA was not to bring about an Islamic
state but to further the cause of justice and to deny BN its two-thirds
majority, the basis for its political hegemony."

It is a point well made, for it brings up a crucial element in BN's
victory: the Chinese vote. In the past, the Chinese - Malaysia's
second-largest ethnic group - have tended toward the opposition. But
this time many were clearly spooked by the DAP's alliance with Pas,
whose conservative Muslim agenda, which includes introducing Islamic
hudud laws, are a turn-off for non-Muslims. Coupled with dire government
warnings on opposition-inspired unrest, this steered the majority of
Chinese voters toward BN's message of political and economic and racial

Which is just as well for the government. Had it not been for the huge
Chinese swing, which exceeded BN's most optimistic forecasts, the ruling
coalition's goose would have been truly cooked. The Anwar saga had
divided the majority Malay community, and this manifested itself in the
elections. Traditionally the bedrock of UMNO support, Malay Muslims went
over to the opposition in droves, as seen in Pas's takeover of Trengganu
and its inroads in other northern Malay-belt states. In areas around
Kuala Lumpur, where pro-Anwar sentiments are strong, political analyst
Charles Santiago estimates that up to 70% of Malays voted for the

Keadilan was another beneficiary of the Malay split. It may have won
just five seats, but it received 11% of the total vote and came close to
defeating BN in a number of seats. In constituencies near the capital,
"they lost to BN on a margin that is less than 5%," says political
scientist A.B. Shamsul. UMNO leaders now predict Pas will dump Keadilan
- "Pas used Keadilan only to gain seats," says Deputy PM Abdullah Ahmad
Badawi - but Pas officials insist they will not break up the alliance.
Despite Pas's success, Shamsul thinks that Keadilan will emerge as the
more credible rival to UMNO: "Pas is not a long-term credible
alternative for the Malays, because they need a secular party to vote

BN may have won for now, but it is not out of the woods just yet.
Mahathir's reliance on the Chinese will change the political equation
within the coalition. The MCA and Gerakan, given their role in
attracting the Chinese vote, are likely to demand a bigger say in the
way the government is run. "It is clear that the MCA has delivered the
votes and the Chinese have voted this government into power," says Ng
Yen Yen, head of the MCA's women's wing. "I hope this is considered and
given political expression when the government is formed." Mahathir thus
faces two choices: give the Chinese more clout in the cabinet (which
means a corresponding loss of UMNO's own influence and a possible
backlash from Malay members) or don't (which will likely anger the
Chinese and give the DAP an issue to exploit).

Then there is the uncertainty over who will succeed Mahathir. Abdullah,
Razaleigh and Najib were seen as possible heirs apparent. But
Razaleigh's failure to deliver Kelantan and Najib's own close-call
re-election have weakened their positions. Abdullah has fared best,
successfully holding off the DAP in Penang. Shamsul thinks the PM might
appoint two deputies as he slowly relinquishes his duties: "Abdullah to
handle the social issues and Razaleigh to take over matters close to his
heart - that is, financial management and the entrepreneurial side of
the government." That, however, could open the door to a bruising
succession battle once Mahathir retires.

The ramifications of the Malay split go beyond BN and UMNO's internal
politicking. Previously, the government-opposition divide was one
between Malay-dominated UMNO and the Chinese-dominated DAP. But now
that Pas is the main opposition party, "we have a situation where for
the first time we have a Malay-dominated government and a
Malay-dominated opposition," notes political columnist James Wong Wing
On. Says Abdul Azim Zabidi, a member of UMNO Youth's executive council:
"We now see a strong emergence of Islamic fundamentalism," which could
rattle investors.

A day after the vote, The Sun newspaper, which is owned by Chinese
business interests, editorialized: "Pas's comprehensive victory in
Kelantan and Trengganu and the significant inroads it has made in Kedah
and elsewhere are signs of a dissatisfied, protesting Malay multitude."
It added: "A divided Malay community is a confused community, and a
confused community cannot be a confident community. Therein lies the
threat to our national unity." The point of the editorial might have
been to simply point to the potential dangers lying ahead. Or it might
have been to castigate those who voted opposition for bringing about a
destabilizing situation. It might even have been to use the specter of
divided Malays to give BN's Chinese components more bargaining clout
when the new government is being formed.

Whatever its purpose, the editorial underlined a new reality: the Malay
divide has changed - perhaps irrevocably - the political landscape. And
with both the government and the opposition laying claim to the
allegiance of the same majority, the fight for Malaysia's future looks
to become more intense in the days ahead.


Behind The Smile . . .
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad faces a startling
change in his country's political landscape. It gives
cause for concern - but also for hope

This picture of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was taken when
the results of the general elections were announced. It shows him
elated, giving supporters the thumbs-up. Mahathir has been there, done
that. To his credit, the polls marked another victory for his ruling
Barisan Nasional coalition, another two-thirds majority in Parliament,
another stint as his country's hard-driving, hard-nosed, undisputed

Business as usual, right? Wrong. The facts barely camouflage serious
setbacks for the establishment. Mahathir's own party, the United Malays
National Organization (UMNO), lost unprecedented ground, mainly to the
opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pas). At least half of the country's
ethnic-Malay population voted for the opposition, denied a shot at power
only by the Chinese and other minority communities. They did so partly
because they were drawn to Pas's stern brand of morality, partly because
of the bitter personality clash between Mahathir and his ousted deputy,
Anwar Ibrahim. The upshot is that the Malays are divided as never
before. For the first time in his 18 years as chief executive, the prime
minister will face a fellow Malay, from Pas, as leader of the opposition
in Parliament.

The Nov. 29 ballot has caused a sharp reconfiguration in Malaysia's
political landscape which gives much cause for reflection, perhaps even
concern - yet promises hope for the future. The danger is that
opposition-minded Malays will resent the Chinese who voted the
government back in. The Malays are the country's biggest and strongest
ethnic group. To have them badly split does not augur well for
stability, an essential precondition for economic as well as political
progress. Such a divide is a price that neither side - government nor
opposition - should want to pay for victory. Yet if the divide means
that Malaysia will eventually move toward a multi-ethnic two-party
system, then that would be the best option for a long-term democratic -
and stable - polity.

Between the polarized halves stand Malaysians of all races seeking a
middle ground, looking beyond Mahathir and Anwar and Pas. In a
democracy, elections are not just a way of voting in a new government,
or reaffirming an old one. The ballot box is also a way of debating and
settling national issues. In Malaysia the debate of the day is this:
Does the current system, which keeps the peace and provides development
but is riddled with corruption and autocratic practices, need to be
reformed? The polls did not answer that question comprehensively -
overall, the status quo prevailed. But in many seats that UMNO or its
coalition partners contested against, say, the reformist banner of the
fledgling, multiracial Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party),
the margins of victory were perilously thin. This despite Barisan
fielding seasoned campaigners against Keadilan's neophytes, including
party chief Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar's wife and proxy. The
underlying message is that there is wide support for positive change,
and that the young people who stood on street corners yelling
"reformasi" cannot be dismissed as a fringe group. Ignoring them may
force them to seek redress perhaps not through the vote but through
public protests that may well turn violent.

Both government and opposition need to sustain the sentiment that at
times surfaced during the otherwise heated campaign period: that ties
from common interests and goals are stronger and healthier than those
along communal lines. Said opposition worker Stephanie Bastian at one
point during the elections: "Everyone seems blind to race." In that
spirit lies Malaysia's future.


'UMNO Is Known To Change'
Abdullah Badawi on the elections

The day after polling, Deputy PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, 60, met with
Asiaweek's a#sif Shameen and two other foreign correspondents to give
his spin on the elections. UMNO and many of Abdullah's fellow ministers
and party stalwarts did not do well at all. But Abdullah himself won in
his Penang state constituency (though with a much smaller margin than in
the last elections in 1995), consolidating his position as No. 2 behind
PM Mahathir Mohamad. Excerpts:

Ethnic Malays appear more divided than ever.

I don't think so. No doubt Pas has captured two states and has more than
half the MPs in Kedah. It's true we lost a lot of seats in those states.
Of course that's not commendable, but Pas has captured those seats
before and we'll get them back next time. I do see a stronger demand by
Muslims and younger Muslims in the north that more should be done for

On the issue of Islam, we have been misunderstood. Pas talks about
Islamic society and shariah law. Our emphasis has been on improving the
lot of the Muslim through development. Some voters perhaps want a
balance between pursuit of material wealth and spiritual wealth. Some of
the people have been criticizing the government's megaprojects. There is
a lack of understanding of the true long-term benefits of the
megaprojects. We are not borrowing a lot of money to pay for these
projects or placing the economy under any strain. The message is clear:
[the people] still want us. The other message you could read is: What
about justice?

And how do you read Pas's gains at both parliamentary and state levels?

One thing is clear: Pas remains the main strong opposition party in the
country. Keadilan helped Pas because they picked up issues like
reformasi, justice, etc., and Pas picked them up quickly and used them
to its own advantage. The Anwar issue was linked to all that. Pas gained
far more in this election than did Keadilan. Who suffered in this
election? Keadilan. They did not make it even in the Kuala Lumpur area,
which is their heartland.

The government returned to power because of overwhelming support from
ethnic Chinese voters. Will this mean additional clout for the Chinese
parties within Barisan Nasional?

The Chinese in Malaysia now only support the government. In this
election Barisan has emerged with broad-based support. Before our
support was predominantly Malay. Now we have very strong support from
the Chinese. The arrangement between Barisan partners will remain

Are we going to see a kinder, gentler UMNO in the wake of the elections,
one that is committed to changing the old ways?

You are a#suming that UMNO doesn't make any changes. UMNO is a party
that has been known to change with the times. UMNO has been committed to
development and to the need for change. The one thing that UMNO has done
for the Malays is that it has made them more confident of themselves.
UMNO is the most gentle party of all - very kind, very responsive.

The New Malay Dilemma
Why some Malaysians are uneasy with "the boss"

It's not easy to describe Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad
without resorting to superlatives. In his country's official circles, he
is widely - and appropriately - known as "the boss," a term that, in
Malay, also means "big man." Lately, some Malaysians have been calling
him maha firaun, or "great pharaoh." Outsiders would be forgiven for
drawing parallels between the biblical pharaoh Nimrod, a builder of
great cities, and Mahathir, the visionary creator of such architectural
wonders as the Petronas Towers. Dr. M, however, is not the least

Pharaohs were generally absolute despots, not to mention godless, and
Mahathir, 73, finds the comparison odious. The parallel could threaten
the nation's stability, he warned in a Nov. 16 interview to the private
television station TV3. "Feelings of hate against me will arise and
whatever I say will not be accepted," he said. Mahathir had mentioned in
other forums earlier that the campaign against him is the handiwork of
certain opposition parties and university lecturers on Islamic studies.

What is it about Mahathir that inspires talk of maha firaun and maha
zalim ("most cruel") - words frequently sighted on Internet chat rooms
about Malaysia? The answer lies in a "Mahathirian" paradox: While he
has earned the respect of Malaysians for vastly improving the quality of
their lives in his 18 years as PM, Mahathir is at the same time widely
feared and sometimes reviled. But the mixed feelings that many
Malaysians have toward their PM says a lot about them - and about
Mahathir himself.

"He has been in power for so long that Malays have matured enough to
become more democratic, educated and willing to express themselves,"
says former deputy PM Musa Hitam. Indeed, the biggest issue in Malaysia
today is the political division among Malays as a result of the
imprisonment last year of Mahathir's once-designated heir Anwar Ibrahim.
For the first time in the nation's history, Malaysians took to the
streets demanding reformasi (reforms). But paradoxically, the rallies
only proved how successful Mahathir's track record has been. For, as
Musa puts it, "unlike the old days, [the protests] are now non-racial
and issue-based."

Those new issues show just how far Malaysians have come thanks to the
principal objective of Mahathir's political life: special treatment for
Malays. In 1969, he was temporarily expelled from the dominant United
Malays National Organization for violating the party's policy against
airing racial issues. The following year, Mahathir wrote The Malay
Dilemma, a book denouncing Malays for their cultural shortcomings and
demanding that the government pay urgent attention to their plight.

If race were once the most formidable problem for Malaysia, religious
extremism is one of the challenges of today. And Mahathir, a long-time
opponent of Muslims who portray Islam as anti-modern, is worried. He
was asked in the TV3 interview if he thought that the young generation
of Malaysians were capable of maintaining the directions in which he had
set the nation moving. Mahathir replied that while he had faith in the
ability of young people, they could fall victim to Islamic hardliners
who stress that good Muslims should "put aside the hasanah [benefits] in
this world" and think only of the world hereafter.

One reason why religious extremists thrive in parts of Malaysia is
because there are still plenty of disappointments and unfulfilled
expectations. Such as the lack of a transparent government. Mahathir may
have rescued Malaysia from the Asian financial crisis but he has yet to
implement the institutional reform necessary for the economy's long-term
health. Over the years, he has steadily increased his authority by
strengthening the power of the executive, which has also made it easier
for him to extend state patronage to his favorites. It is no wonder many
people feel what political scientist P. Ramasamy calls "reluctant
admiration" for their PM.

None of this is to deny or belittle Mahathir's immense and wide-ranging
contributions. Thanks to him, Malaysia has changed from an Asian
backwater to a progressive and pluralistic nation that enjoys a high
status in the developing world. But at the same time, it is impossible
to ignore that politics, as symbolized by the Anwar Ibrahim case, has
taken a dramatic turn for the worse. "Fear and tear gas," as one
commentator put it, were not a normal part of Malaysian politics. "They
are now." Malaysians got a hint of Mahathir's response to their
disillusionment when he dissolved Parliament on Nov. 10 ahead of general
elections. He told reporters with typical brusqueness:"I don't care
whether I am popular or not, whether I go down in history as a bad guy
or a good guy." His legacy will probably be neither one or the other,
but a bit of both.