LUMPURThe tempo of Malaysian politics has picked up. Some see
developments as the beginning of the end of Mahathir bin Mohamad's 20-year
dominance. There have been suggestions that he is preparing his exit.
More likely is that he has taken the
initiative to confuse allies and enemies alike, aiming to rekindle his
popularity and obstruct the emergence of a successor. He may hope that by 2003,
year of the party elections, or 2004, when a general election is due, the
fortunes of the economy and of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO)
will have revived.
This is bad news for those who believe
that Malaysia must have new leadership if institutions undermined by years of
personal rule and political patronage are to be revived. But no one has
prospered by underestimating Mr. Mahathir's will to dominate.
The most striking development has been an
apparent split between the prime minister and his friend and finance minister,
Tun Daim Zainuddin, whose mastery of corporate maneuvers has been the key to the
prosperity, or otherwise, of most major UMNO-linked Malay entrepreneurs.
Denunciations of "money politics" have
been emanating from Mr. Mahathir and other ministers. Stories abound of
investigations into the sources of wealth of certain entrepreneurs once
associated with Tun Daim. Whether this gets beyond rhetoric remains to be seen,
but it makes political sense. If there is one person more unpopular in many
quarters of UMNO than Mr. Mahathir it is Tun Daim. The prime minister knows that
the wider public wants to see action against money politics. He must present
himself as leading the revitalization of the party, however difficult that may
be given the extensive web of patronage over which he and Tun Daim have
The dropping of additional corruption and
sodomy charges against Anwar Ibrahim is significant. Here is the more
accommodating Mr. Mahathir, anxious not to deepen Malay divisions. The decision
will help keep Mr. Anwar, whose supporters have proved more resilient and
persistent than might have been expected, out of the limelight.
Mr. Mahathir continues to use the big
stick of Internal Security Act detention without trial against hard-core
supporters of Mr. Anwar. Persuading Malays to swing back behind UMNO is his big
challenge. He failed to entice Parti Islam or Keadilan, the party headed by Mr.
Anwar's wife, into talks on "Malay unity." But the highly emotive issue of
preferential university entrance quotas for Malays is now back on the front
pages. This is a none too veiled reminder that there can be no preferences
without Malay political dominance, and no dominance if the Malay vote is split
three ways. Malay resentments against Mr. Mahathir range from money politics to
the treatment of Mr. Anwar. Some Muslims denounce his essentially secular
agenda, which appeals to Chinese and to foreigners. But Mr. Mahathir may be
right in thinking that at the end of the day Malays will see UMNO as their
protector. And most non-Malays see UMNO as their protector against more militant
Islam. So, while bringing the ethnic quota issues back into prominence, he has
moved to shore up his Chinese support by announcing the appointment of special
advisers on Chinese issues.
For those in UMNO who think that his
departure is what the party needs above all else, new doubts have been sown
about the suitability or readiness to succeed of his deputy, the mild-mannered
Abdullah Badawi, a man untainted either by sleaze or by overambition.
Even the name of Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah,
the ambitious former finance minister who was once Mr. Mahathir's greatest foe,
is being bandied around. If he returned to the cabinet, where would that leave
Mr. Badawi? The Razaleigh rumor may well be a ruse, but nothing is impossible
when Mr. Mahathir sets his sights on his own survival.
Nor one can anyone be sure that even a
change of leadership would restore UMNO's fortunes while Mr. Anwar remains in
jail, Keadilan still exists and the opposition front maintains sufficient unity
to threaten UMNO dominance.
There may well come a time when UMNO
activists feel so desperate that a dump Mahathir movement gains momentum and the
issue of who succeeds him becomes secondary. But for now he appears to have
taken back the initiative.