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Damage Control - AsiaWeek
By web aNtu
12/12/1999 11:13 pm Sun
In the wake of their election losses, "shell-shocked" UMNO leaders consider
the fallout - and the direction their party should take.
By SANGWON SUH and ARJUNA RANAWANA Kuala Lumpur
Perhaps more crucially, in the Malay-belt states of the rural north, UMNO
either lost or scraped by with severely reduced majorities. The opposition
Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) not only retained control of Kelantan but
wrested Trengganu from BN hands. In Kedah, Mahathir's home state, Pas made
significant inroads, winning more parliamentary seats than BN. UMNO has
traditionally claimed the mantle of the party for Malay Muslims. But now the
rise of Pas is putting that claim, if not under threat, then certainly under
pressure. These worries will affect the struggles for top leadership
positions next year, when UMNO posts will come up for election. Already,
internal campaigning has begun that will change the shape of the party in
the coming years.
"UMNO is shell-shocked at the moment," says Abdul Razak Baginda, executive
director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center. "It has lost the trust
and confidence of the Malays. It needs a total reformation and perhaps even
restructuring." UMNO's election performance reflects not only on the party
but on Mahathir himself. UMNO officials in Trengganu say that the cause of
the party's defeat in the state was "federal issues" - a codeword for the
"Anwar factor." The sacking and jailing of populist leader Anwar Ibrahim is
widely seen as causing the split in the Malay vote. Malay anger was directed
at Mahathir over the treatment of his erstwhile deputy - which Pas exploited
by targeting the PM in its campaigns. Says Pas vice president Mustafa Ali:
"To reject Mahathir was to reject UMNO and BN."
Now the pressure is on Mahathir. On the outside is the opposition alliance -
including Pas, the pro-Anwar Parti Keadilan Nasional and the Democratic
Action Party (DAP) - which continues to call for reform and change. On the
inside are UMNO's Chinese coalition partners, to whom Mahathir is beholden
as they delivered the Chinese vote that proved vital to BN's victory. The PM
also has to deal with a variety of voices within his own party, including
those disgruntled by UMNO's loss of influence and those who feel the party
urgently needs to "rejuvenate" and "reinvent" itself. The pressure, says
political scientist A.B. Shamsul, is for UMNO to "change substantially,
actually reform." Yet there have been few suggestions on how exactly this
should happen, and Shamsul doubts UMNO is capable of changing: "They don't
Given the difficulty of balancing all the competing interests, it is perhaps
not surprising that, as of Dec. 8, the PM still had not named his cabinet.
Mahathir's position is clearly not as secure as before, but few observers
foresee a direct challenge against his leadership in the party. One reason
is that Mahathir is, well, Mahathir. An inside source notes: "We cannot
replace Mahathir because he is the only one who can bring change. He has the
moral courage and stature to make the changes. He has also won the election
and has been vindicated and can be magnanimous in victory."
Another reason is that there is no other leader with enough backing in the
party to go for the top post. "There is no one in sight at the moment," says
the source. Some say the reason for Anwar's sacking was that he was planning
to make a move for Mahathir's post. What subsequently happened to the former
deputy PM will certainly act as a deterrent to any potential challenger.
There will be plenty of action, however, in the second and third tiers of
leadership. The post of UMNO deputy president has been vacant ever since
Anwar was expelled. Most observers see the current deputy prime minister,
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, as the likely sole candidate for the position.
Abdullah headed the BN election machinery in Anwar's home state of Penang,
which the coalition retained despite a huge wave of sympathy for Anwar.
Abdullah is seen as a moderate, conciliatory figure who appeals to both
non-Malays and conservative Muslims.
The only person with the stature to challenge Abdullah for the No.2 spot is
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. The flamboyant former finance minister, however,
failed in his task to reclaim his home state Kelantan from Pas, and many in
UMNO consider him more-or-less out of the race. Still, there remains the
possibility that the well-connected, well-funded prince will organize a
challenge in the next six months.
In the race for the three vice presidents' posts, the main contender is
Education Minister Najib Tun Razak, already one of the VPs. He was once
considered a candidate for the deputy presidency, but his
less-than-convincing election result - he won his seat by just 241 votes -
means that he will settle for keeping his present post. The other
challengers are Abdul Ghani Othman, chief minister of Johor state, which was
swept clean by BN; Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar; and former Perak chief
minister Ramli Ngah Talib.
Besides the internal politicking, Mahathir must address a more fundamental
concern: which direction UMNO should take. If the party is to woo back the
Malay-Muslim voters it lost to Pas, it clearly needs to present itself as an
advocate of simple Islamic values, while shedding its image as an elitist
party a#sociated with big business, money politics and vested interests. An
UMNO worker's remarks on the election campaign in Trengganu are telling:
"These Pas leaders, they come to every kampung [village]. They talk to
everyone and have tea or meals with the people. Our UMNO leaders arrive in a
Mercedes, tell everyone what they should do, eat by themselves in a special
airconditioned room and drive off." Says political columnist James Wong Wing
On: "It has been known for some time that the cla#s struggle - the lower
cla#ses versus the upper cla#ses - is expressed through religious forms."
But there are forces pulling the party in the other direction. The
increasingly a#sertive Chinese have expressed concern over UMNO "going
Islamic." Gerakan, one of BN's Chinese components, recently said that it had
clarified this point with Deputy PM Abdullah, who gave a#surances that UMNO
would remain secular.
While it sorts out its future, UMNO is also looking for ways to stem the
rise of Pas. It has been active with its negative campaigning, painting Pas
as an anti-business party bent on imposing its conservative Islamic agenda
on the country. The state-controlled press has played up statements from Pas
leaders suggesting they might ban alcohol and gambling and impose an Islamic
tax on non-Muslims.
DAP parliamentarian Tan Seng Giaw counters: "All the laws that prohibit
Muslims from drinking and gambling, as well as the establishment of the
International Islamic University, have been initiated by UMNO." Still, it is
apparent the DAP is not entirely comfortable with Pas and its policies. Lim
Kit Siang, who stepped down as DAP secretary-general on Dec. 2 to take
responsibility for the party's poor performance in the elections, said in
his resignation letter that the new political equation effected by the rise
of Pas would pose a threat to a "democratic secular Malaysia."
Pas rejects such suggestions. Mustafa insists: "Islam is not here to take
away the rights of the Chinese or other minorities. What has been provided
for by the Constitution will be respected." The DAP has announced that it
would monitor whether Pas really abides by its promise.
BN leaders point to such differences as evidence that the opposition will
break up, but Pas maintains that it will not abandon its alliance partners.
For his part, Tan thinks that Pas should temper its radical image: "If Pas
can moderate the statements that are anathema to non-Muslims, then the
opposition alliance can hold." And not only that. If, indeed, Pas is able to
present itself under a more moderate light, it would give UMNO one more
thing to worry about as it goes about its soul-searching.
"Do you think they will close the pubs?" asks the young Chinese woman
tending bar in a Kuala Trengganu watering hole. They are the Parti Islam
SeMalaysia (Pas). Since winning control of the Trengganu state government in
the Nov. 30 elections, the Islamist party has vowed to "eradicate vice." The
cozy pub does not look like a den of iniquity. Most of the customers are
Chinese regulars here to have a beer, watch football on the satellite TV and
play some darts. Women and kids are present as well, listening to the
Canto-pop on the sound system. Pas insists that it does not want to shutter
all pubs and places of entertainment, but wariness remains. "This is
certainly the talk of the town," one drinker says.
Trengganu is where the future course of Malaysia will be set. Pas has
governed neighboring Kelantan for 10 years, but that state is a quiet,
resource-poor backwater. In Trengganu, Pas will run a state with 64% of
Malaysia's proven oil reserves, substantial heavy and tourist industries,
and controlling stakes in several listed companies. "We are sitting on a
gold mine," says Syed Azman Syed Ahmad, a Pas member of Parliament. A
political as well as an economic gold mine, because this is where Pas will
be able to prove that it can manage a modern economy, balance the interests
of various ethnic and religious communities, and become a credible
alternative to Mahathir Mohamad's United Malays National Organization (UMNO)
at the national level. Or this is the place where Pas will show that it
ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
The state could be an ideal proving ground. About 95% of the population is
Malay Muslim. It is a conservative region likely to be comfortable with
Pas's puritanism - head scarves are common and short skirts are rare in the
capital of Kuala Trengganu. The state's 5% cut of the estimated $3 billion
in annual oil and gas production provides a steady stream of cash for
investment. "If they do well, spend wisely, then we will find it very hard
to recapture the state," says Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh, an UMNO Youth
leader in Trengganu. Pas has already carried through on campaign promises to
abolish bridge tolls and residential property taxes.
And there is plenty to reform. Despite oil revenues, the state is Malaysia's
second-poorest after Kelantan, and many of its oil and tourist industry
facilities are in the hands of investors regarded as cronies of UMNO
leaders. "Resources have not been managed properly, and money does not go
into the right hands," says Pas vice president Mustafa Ali. Many of the
state government's holdings are lackluster at best - what is believed to be
its biggest investment, the Kuala Lumpur-owned steel maker Perwaja, is
hemorrhaging money. Cleaning house, fighting for a greater share of oil
revenues - the new state government is demanding 20% - and putting more
contracts and business licenses into local hands will win Pas support.
But Pas stumbled slightly at the kick-off. The new state government said it
plans to levy a tax on non-Muslims called kharaj. In Pas's eyes, it will
simply balance a tithe, zakat, that Muslims pay. But zakat is a religious
obligation that goes toward maintaining mosques and helping the poor, so
non-Muslims, including the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP),
Pas's allies in the recent polls, are crying foul. "Pas should seriously
weigh the political costs of imposing kharaj at the expense of alienating
the sensitivities of non-Muslim Malaysians," DAP national chairman Lim Kit
Siang says. Pas's Syed Azman promises that any tax on non-Muslims will be
imposed only with the approval of their community leaders, but that hasn't
eliminated non-Malay suspicions.
Those suspicions will be difficult to ease. Pas has always made the
imposition of strict Islamic law a core policy, and Trengganu's new chief
minister, Abdul Hadi Awang, has a reputation as an ideologue - as a
parliamentarian, he repeatedly tried to table a bill penalizing apostates
with death. Stock-market investors are playing things safe by selling off
shares in gaming and liquor companies. But the president of the Trengganu
Chinese Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Low Kian Chuan, is keeping an open
mind. "What we want is a progressive, efficient and transparent government,"
he says. "Pas must continue policies that will attract investment from other
parts of the country as well as from overseas. If this is done, they will
have no problems."
In Kuala Trengganu's small but bustling Chinatown, cans of beer still stand
next to the soft drinks in grocery stores. But one shopowner says he plans
to clear his beer stocks as soon as possible. "We don't want to get stuck
with something we can't sell," he says. If that becomes the attitude of too
many businesses, Pas could be in trouble. But if the new state government
learns how to balance its Islamist ambitions with the needs of business,
investors and non-Muslims, then it could be Mahathir and UMNO that is in