HONG KONG: Malaysia is in a political cul-de-sac, resulting in an erosion of national institutions and the entrenchment of corruption. Recent events show that awareness of these problems is growing, but Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is politically too feeble to implement his good intentions, increasing the difficulty of reconciling the interests of the Malay/Muslim majority with the non-Muslim Chinese, Indian and indigenous groups that make up 45 percent of the population.
Public disquiet and Abdullah's own weakness were on display in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday when some 40,000 people, headed by the leaders of the three opposition parties and including former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and representatives of a wide range of NGOs, defied a government ban to march to the palace of the king, the titular head of state, to petition for clean and fair elections.
This peaceful multiethnic event followed an equally unprecedented speech two weeks earlier by Sultan Azlan Shah, a respected former chief law officer who is also one of the nation's nine hereditary rulers.
Azlan referred to a loss of confidence in the judiciary as a result of questionable appointments and judgments perceived to be driven by politics and money. He noted that its once high reputation had sunk dramatically, quoting a recent World Bank survey. Azlan is believed to be behind a revolt by the sultans against approving - normally a rubber stamp process - the appointment as chief justice of a legal adviser to the governing party with little experience on the bench.
Among current cases that have raised questions about the legal system is the conduct of the trial of Razak Baginda, a close associate of Defense Minister Najib Abdul Razak, and two of Najib's bodyguards for the murder of Baginda's former mistress. Baginda was closely involved in arms deals with France.
The publicity given to the Azlan speech and the Baginda trial point to the greater openness of Malaysia under Abdullah compared with his authoritarian predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad. But though Mahathir was much-criticized for politicizing the judiciary and institutionalizing money politics, he was able to get things done. Abdullah, on the other hand, is seen to have largely - though not entirely - failed to deliver on his promises of cleaner government.
The fault lies less with his personality than with the structure of politics. Abdullah argues that the ballot box and Parliament are the places for political action, not street demonstrations. However, neither is likely to deliver change while race-based politics ensures continuation of the 50-year rule by the United Malays National Organization, which feeds off the economic privileges that the Malays accord themselves.
To keep the loyalty of Malay voters UMNO has both to outflank the Parti Islam and to divert attention from the enrichment of a small Malay elite at the expense of the Malays. Parti Islam is prone to stomach-churning speeches about Malay dominance and hypocritical displays of Islamic fervor that offend Malaysia's plural reality and its secular Constitution.
Nothing can change as long as most non-Malays continue to grudgingly support UMNO rule for fear that the Parti Islam alternative would be worse, or while the non-Malay capitalist class remains wealthy enough to pay tribute to a Malay elite. In its own behavior this elite is liberal and internationalist, but for political purposes encourages the lower-income Malays to think in communal ways.
Judging by their attendance at the rally on Saturday, lower-income Malays may be becoming disillusioned with policies that mostly benefit the elite. But UMNO's grip is strong.
Abdullah might in principle want to reform UMNO, bring in more of the Malay professional middle classes who rely on their own abilities rather than the patronage system, and give more senior government jobs to non-Malays. But he is proving to be a prisoner of the party, its money politics, its dynastic tendencies and its desire to occupy the higher reaches of the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the many quasi-government businesses.
Meanwhile, for all their ability to join together in a demonstration against the government, the two largest opposition parties - Parti Islam and the mainly Chinese Democratic Action Party - are at either end of the race/religion spectrum. The multiracial middle ground now occupied by Anwar's party has thus far had limited appeal.
None of this may seems to matter too much when the economy is expanding, thanks to record prices for oil, palm oil and other exports. But income inequality is bad and getting worse. Malaysia's political stability may be threatened the next time there is a recession, and there is reason to worry about Malaysia's ability to become a developed country when its institutions are corrupted by a stagnant, race-based political system that may have outlived its time.