Power  Play in Malaysia: Special Report on the dynamics of  Mahathir/Anwar contest. Article in August-September  issue of Prospect

It is right and proper to take the side of jailed former
Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in his so far
unequal struggle with his former mentor, prime Minister Dr
Mahathir bin Mohamad.

As Mahathir prepares to strengthen his grip on power through
an election likely to be held in August, Anwar faces another
set of politically motivated criminal accusations -- this time
for sodomy.

The ruling coalition headed by the United Malays national
Organisation is sure to remain in power. A poor result for
UMNO would undermine Mahathir's position but is unlikely to
topple the man who has moulded Malaysia's race-based system of
democracy into a unique blend of populist authoritarianism.

The martyr's crown seems to lie as easily on Anwar's head and
devilish horns do on that of Mahathir. But assigning good and
evil does not explain how Anwar came to fall so quickly from
heir apparent -- a position he had formally held for five
years and informally for a decade.

Anwar has been in the roughouse of Malaysian politics for long
enough to know how vicious it can be, how often laws are
abused to drive opponents from the field. He has been close
enough to Mahathir for long enough to know that this was a man
who took no prisoners, made up the rules as he went along,
played for high stakes to ensure his own personal dominance
over the state and, more importantly, UMNO. For instance,
Anwar had been at his side when he fought off the biggest
challenge to his rule in 1988, when former Finance Minister
Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah almost ousted him from the leadership.

Razaleigh came within a few UMNO delegate votes of toppling
Mahathir despite Razaleigh's close association with the
biggest of the many banking scandals which have linked
business and politics in Malaysia for past two decades.
Ironically, Mahathir is now using a recently rehabilitated
Razaleigh, back in the UMNO fold, against the Anwar

The answer to the puzzle of Anwar's fall from grace may be
that he came to believe his own propaganda, or at least that
of his young associates eager for power. Mahathir on the other
hand -- perhaps unusually for one who has been in power for 18
years -- appears to have had no illusions about himself.
Propaganda was a tool, not reality. He had never courted
popularity and indeed thrived on being himself, an outsider
willing to take on individuals and institutions. Scruples were
not something for a man with one mission -- to stay in power
and modernise Malaysia on his terms.

Anwar's reasonable ambition was to become prime minister  at a
time of the party's choosing, rather than allow Mahathir to
hang on as long as it suited him -- which many believed was
till he died. He lacked the temperament for retirement.
But Anwar's ambition was not matched either by ruthlessness or

Perhaps that derives from their respective backgrounds. Anwar,
now 51, though not an aristocrat came up through the normal
Malay elite route -- the Malay College at Kuala Kangsar, then
on to the University of Malaya. The elegant, eloquent youth
then founded an idealistic Muslim youth movement, ABIM
(Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, or Islamic Youth Movement of
Malaysia). Anwar was jailed briefly in 1974 for leading a
demonstration of disgruntled rice farmers. This suggested more
youthful commitment to social justice than to religious
extremism. That was an era when the Vietnam war was still in
progress and communist insurgency was still a low level threat
in Malaysia. The government was more worried about social
activism than religious activism, which in those pre-Iranian
revolution days in Malaysia was conservative rather than
aggressively  fundamentalist.

Anwar was in fact closer to young social reformers rather than
the more conservative Malay Islamists represented at the
political level by the Parti Islam. So it was not entirely
surprising that when Anwar decided in 1982 to join the
political mainstream he opted for the one party which both
occupied the central ground of Malay politics and offered the
only realistic avenue for a Malay with national political
ambitions-- UMNO.

He easily made a quick transition from ABIM to UMNO,
parliament and a ministerial job. He was both close to the
pragmatic Mahathir while his ABIM past gave him credentials
which helped ward off challenges from Parti Islam. As a
minister he may not have been especially effective,
preferring, critics said, to talk and read more than act. But
his grass roots support was strengthened by stints at the
agriculture and education ministries, and his appointment as
Finance Minister in 1991 gave him access to the strongest
lever of power in Malaysian politics -- money. Charm and
erudition added to his Muslim and Malay credentials made him a
formidable politician, a seemingly natural leader.

Mahathir on the other hand started life not as a Malay but a
Malayali -- the people of Kerala in south India, where his
father came from. At university in Singapore, he was listed as
an Indian. This background perhaps explains why he became more
Malay than many Malays all the while pursuing an agenda which
had scant time for Malay instincts for consensus and
compromise. The extreme pro-Malay policies with which he was
associated in the late 60s and was expressed in his long
banned book The Malay Dilemma actually revealed a deep
frustration with traditional Malay ways. Life since has been a
series of battles to force his modernising agenda on the
nation. At the same time he has maintained some visceral anti-
western feelings more familiar in the subcontinent than

Mahathir is full of paradoxes on racial issues. Many of his
policies in office have been to reduce the racial element in
government decisions, watering down some elements of the
agenda to advance Malay interests. As a result he is well
regarded by many in the Chinese business community. Yet
despite his constant trumpetting of Asian identity he appears
ashamed to admit his Indian heritage. In his recently
published book "A New Deal for Asia", he writes about his
father in such a way as to imply that he was a Malay dedicated
to the improvement of his fellow Malays rather than the hard
working Indian immigrant and government servant that he was.

On the other hand, he has been quick to promote himself as 
the embodiment of "Asian" identity and values, with diatribes
against the west which are couched in racial terms. Most
recently has has taken to describing Anwar as a western
stooge. As for the Asian crisis, this he implied was the
product of a western conspiracy which set Asia back a
generation. Thus is history re-written. Anwar the Islamic
teacher is really a western liberal Trojan Horse. Mahathir,
who courted the foreign investment in export manufacturing
which has created so much of Malaysia's prosperity, is now the
Third World scourge of foreign capital.
There has often been a gap between Mahathir's rhetoric and his
mostly pragmatic policies, but never any doubt about his will
to win. Anwar by contrast was more reasoned and sympathetic
but seemed to lack the killer instinct.

From early 1998, Anwar sought to use the regional crisis to
speed the succession by identifying himself with "reformasi"
(Malay for reform). But by gradually building a momentum for
change, he reckoned without either Mahathir's capacity --
despite age and heart problems -- to use the available space
for counterattack. The Prime Minister was egged on by those
around him, notably Daim Zainuddin, who had been finance
minister before Anwar (and is now back in the job). Daim
associates had most to lose from Anwar's new found commitment
to fighting cronyism. Anwar had created some of his own crony
capitalists through government contracts and bank credit but
Daim's boys -- plus at least one Mahathir relative -- were

Ironically, the Asian crisis was indirectly the cause of
Anwar's downfall, not Mahathir's (for now). Back in May 1997,
Mahathir seemed to be indicating that he might fade out by
leaving Anwar in charge while he took a three month break. He
did not seem particularly uncomfortable with the fact that the
charming and erudite Anwar was espousing more liberal
principles and "new generation" ideas.  But the Asian crisis
broke in the middle of it. Mahathir seems to have set his
heart on seeing the crisis through, while Anwar as finance
Minister had the uncomfortable task of pursuing financial
orthodoxies such as raising interest rates and cutting back on
the grandiose projects -- the world's tallest building,
Petronas Towers, a new capital, Putra Jaya etc--  which had
become a hallmark of the latter Mahathir years.

Power struggles and policy disagreements might have been
contained but for the fall of President Suharto last May.
"Reformasi" was on everyone's lips, and so too was KKN (the
Malay initials for corruption, collusion and nepotism). With
his liberal credentials and devout Muslim background Anwar was
well positioned to hitch himself to the reform bandwagon. His
book "Asian Rennaissance" set out his ideas. His speeches
increasingly reflected the need not just for change but for
democracy and accountability. If weaknesses were not
recognised, "then we may face the Indonesian situation where
people demanded changes". Anwar ally, UMNO youth leader Zahid
Hamidi made speeches about KKN.

As recently as last June, foreign magazines such as Time and
the Far Eastern Economic Review were confidently predicting
that Anwar's challenge was gaining momentum and the succession
getting closer.

But Anwar could not have launched a direct challege to
Mahathir till the 1999 UMNO assembly, and Mahathir was not
going to wait till then. He still controlled the party and
government machinery. Anwar's push quickly faded as Mahathir  
supporters revealed how much Anwar's backers too had profited
from government decisions, especially those of the Finance
Minister. A salacious book "Fifty Reasons Why Anwar can't
Become Prime Minister" began to circulate. Pro-Anwar newspaper
editors were purged. It was only a matter of time before Anwar
lost his job.

But was it necessary for Mahathir then to go such lengths to
discredit him with allegations of sodomy and other sexual
misconduct, and corruption? Was it necessary to try to destroy
his character as well as getting him out of the way?
Foreigners would probably think not. But Malay politics is
replete with previous examples of the use both of the Internal
Security Act to imprison mainstream politicians as well as
real radicals without trial for limited periods. There have
been several cases over the years of senior politicians who
have faced corruption charges for reasons which seem more the
result of political power plays than anti-corruption zeal.And
plenty of examples too of using a compliant judicial system to
harrass opponents -- for example deputy opposition leader Lim
Guan Eng is now in jail for sedition and printing "false

Nor can Anwar claim any past credit for trying to keep the
judiciary independent of the politicians. Mahathir's single
most important extension of arbitrary executive action was his
1988 sacking of the Chief Justice (the called Lord President)
and four other judges following decisions which were
politically inconvenient. Malaysia has not been the same
since. Anwar was party too to the erosion of states' rights,
press freedom and the powers of the Malay sultans. In short,
many believe that whatever his personal inclinations, for
years he has been too close to the development of Malaysia's
brand of democratic (for there free if not entirely fair
elections) authoritariamism to lead a reform movement.

So a dismissed and humiliated Anwar might have had a problem
rallying widespread support other than from his faction within
UMNO. However, the attempt to discredit Anwar with the sexual
allegations may well have been a step too far. It seems as
though corruption allegations alone would have been shrugged
off by an electorate which knows that money politics is the

Mahathir himself may not have felt a need to destroy Anwar
with the sodomy charges but those who wanted to try to ensure
that he couldnt make a come-back in the post Mahathir era were
doubtless keen to throw as much mud as possible. However, not
much stuck. The trial became a bedroom farce replete with
allegedly semen-stained mattresses, family feuds and
flamboyant witnesses who seemed to have been borrowed from the
cast of "Dallas." The prosecution case was so riddled with
holes it had to be amended so that it wasn't necessary to
prove sexual misconduct, merely abuse of power in responding
to the sex allegations.

The sodomy charges have now been brought separately. In most
jurisdictions they would have been thrown out at the start.
The prosecution has amended the dates of the alleged offences
three times -- and by a matter of years not days. But few
expect Malaysian judges challenge the state when high politics
is involved.

Anwar's treatment have however brought into focus two things
about Malaysia. Firstly, that there is widespread sense that
reform is needed, to restore the independence of the judiciary
and to reduce the links between business and government.
Cronyism now remains more conspicuous in Malaysia than
anywhere else in the region. Many people never much liked
Anwar, particularly those who feared that he might use his
Muslim credentials for disruptive communalist purposes. Many
Chinese simply view his treatment as the outcome of a power
struggle between Malays which does not concern them. But they
do worry at the erosion of national institutions and the
concentration of power in what was once a federal system with
many checks and balances.

Secondly, it has demonstrated just what an open society
Malaysia is. News, views, scandals have a way of making their
way into print or public perception regardless of the grip
that the government tries to keep on the media, the lawyers,

Where all this leads politically has yet to be seen. The UMNO
and government machinery, a booming stockmarket, some real
economic recovery and Mahathir's successful exploitation of
economic nationalism by attacking the west and closing the
market to "speculators" will keep many UMNO voters loyal. This 
will offset some of the losses UMNO will suffer from the Anwar
case, and the emergence of a new opposition party, Keadilan,
led by Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah. But the opposition is divided
three ways, the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party on one
side, Parti Islam on the other extreme and Keadilan trying to
make space for itself in a multi-racial middle. Even if
opposition parties can agree on tactical pacts to deliver
maximum damage to UMNO -- which is doubtful -- many will vote
for stability and continuity regardless of Mahathir's

But whatever the result of the election, the treatment of
Anwar has changed the way Malaysians think. Whoever eventually
succeeds Mahathir will lack his personal power and will have -
- like President Habibie in Indonesia, bend to demands to
rebuild institutions, share power and distance their family
business interests from the business of government.

Anwar will play an important role in the post Mahathir world.
Forgiveness is as much part of Malay politics as ruthlessness. 
UMNO delegates will tend to go with a winner because that is
where jobs and patronage lie. The martyr may yet trump the
opportunists or the compromise candidates who may emerge in
the post Mahathir world to heal UMNO's wounds from this

But that is for the future. So far this in this drama 
Mahathir is the chief character. He is Iago to Anwar's




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