Mahathir's revival: a silver lining?

SCMP May 20

The fortunes of Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad have reversed remarkably over the past year. The question is no longer: how long can he stay in power? It is: how long does he want to stay and how does he intend to use his renewed prestige?

Revival of the stock of Dr Mahathir abroad was reflected last week by his warm reception by President George W. Bush at the White House. The scourge of the IMF and George Soros, defender of Palestinians, the sometimes vitriolic advocate of the Third World, critic of US policy towards Muslims, jailer of his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim and frequent user of detention without trial of some opponents has transformed himself into the voice of the modern, moderate Islam, admirer of American technology and entrepreneurship and seeker after US trade and investment.

At home, there has been a rapid resurgence in the fortunes of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and corresponding decline in that of the main Malay opposition, the Islamist Parti Islam (PAS). The cause of Anwar has faded too and with it the appeal of Keadilan the nominally multi-racial, centrist party headed by his wife. The alliance of opposition parties has, predictably, collapsed in the face of the incompatibility of Pas with the predominantly Chinese and secular Democratic Action Party.

If there were an election today, UMNO would probably regain most of the ground lost in the November 1999 election. Now UMNO can look forward not only to a bigger majority but to ending Pas control of the state assembly of Trengganu and perhaps even that of Kelantan. As it is, Dr Mahathir is expected to go for an early election but more likely in 2003 than this year.The recovery in the economy look likely to continue at least through this year, meanwhile the government needs time to engage in manipulation of electoral boundaries to minimise the impact of opposition votes.

The reversal of Dr Mahathir's fortunes has been the result of good luck, his own good judgement and the opportunism of many of his erstwhile critics. He began to reinvent himself a year ago, by appearing as a convert to the cause of corporate reform. Out went Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, long the second most powerful man in Malaysia whose corporate favourites, originally enriched by privatisation, had continued to be shielded from the realities of the Asian crisis. Daim's ill-repute rubbed off on the Prime Minister, who may also have suspected that Daim's wealth could perhaps be used to support a challenge to him.

Whatever the motives, the past year has seen a much greater effort to clean up the corporate mess, improve transparency and appoint competent people to key institutions. This coincided with the beginnings of an economic recovery as higher prices for key commodities, big injections of public spending and continuing low interest rates offset the electronics slump and post-September 11 downturn. The return of confidence was reflected in the stockmarket and in foreign exchange reserves.

But it was September 11 which showed Dr Mahathir at his most skilful. Here was an event which appeared to many to justify the government's use of the Internal Security Act for jailing without trial people it deemed dangerous to society - mostly religious zealots who may or may not have been linked to Pas. Meanwhile the statements of Pas itself sent many moderate urban Malays, who had deserted UMNO out of frustration with Mahathir, scurrying back to UMNO.

Internationally, he was found talking softly to western audiences about how he had led the way in fighting extremism by arresting Muslim militants long before September 11, and continuing to do so in its aftermath. He got plaudits for authoritarian behaviour while Indonesia was being criticised for not arresting fundamentalists. He in turn could reasonably argue that the ISA was more open and less arbitrary than US detentions without trial of non-citizens. His condemnation of Palestinian suicide bombers went down particularly well in Washington which quietly ignored his bracketing of them with the collective punishments meted out to west bank civilian population by Israel.

None of this should be surprising to followers of Mahathir, a complex man who combines a sense of personal mission, a vision of what he wants Malaysia to be with chips on his shoulder about a number of issues - perhaps due to his only partly Malay ancestry and his lack of links to the Malay aristocratic elite. He is a consummate politician who gives no quarter to opponents.

He is different things to different people, hence he can combine the rhetoric of third world leader with the salesmanship needed to attract Silicon Valley to his Multimedia Corridor, talk about the poor while building the world's tallest buildings in one of its smallest capitals, seeking to be spokesman for modern Islamic nations while attempting to turn the Islamic tide in his own country, be the leader of Malays yet frequently express exasperation at their failings. He is a natural autocrat but must live within the democratic and spoils driven context of UMNO, and the Malaysian system of authoritarian democracy.

It remains a much debated point whether he will he want to die in office, or win another election and then hand over to a successor -- not necessarily chosen by him -- a party and country in good shape. No one knows. But what does matter is what he wants to achieve between now and then. Abroad, he clearly wants acknowledgment as a leading Asian and Muslim statesman, one who appreciates the aspirations of the poor and oppressed but wants to alleviate them an east Asian solutions - education, science and trade. He wants his Malaysia to be seen as a role model.

The domestic agenda is more difficult. He needs to reverse two trends for which he himself bears much responsibility. The first is to reverse a decline in the quality of education, which almost certainly implies the reintroduction of English as the medium for some subjects. This will meet strong Malay opposition and test to the limit his ability to force through what he and the vast majority of non-Malays view as necessary. He also needs to move towards a more meritocratic system reducing the privileges which give Malays education and positions over more qualified non-Malays.

The second is to reverse the increased role of formal religion in social and political life. Mahathir came to power when the Islamic ferment produced by the Iranian revolution was at its height. Though himself a man of secular attitudes, political expediency in the face of Pas has over the years led to surrenders to pressures to appear more Islamic whether by building huge mosques or allowing sharia law to encroach on the civil jurisdiction.

Twenty years ago, only perhaps 10% of urban Malay women wore the head scarf. Now probably 90% do so due to social pressures even though many elite Malays such as the central bank governor. A senior Malay recently visiting Iran was astonished to find that women there are less covered up than many in Malaysia. This degree of cover-up is contrary to Malay dress traditions. It, like very strict interpretation of dietary rules, also adds to the social divide between Malays and non-Malays.

The rise in the influence of religious schools and teachers has paralleled the decline - partly thanks to Mahathir's attacks on their privileges -- in that of the Malay feudal class, the Sultans and lesser aristocrats who traditionally took a relaxed attitude to outward forms of religion. For them, tolerance and gentlemanly behaviour was more important than dogmas or minute rules. That is still Malaysia's underlying ethos but Malaysia's rapid march to modernity has clearly overwhelmed some influential sections of the population who have sought refuge in religious formalism.

Religion has also been a reaction against the corruption and materialism which is endemic in a system in which the political process plays the key role in the racial redistribution of wealth. Despite these problems, Malaysia has made remarkable progress during Mahathir's tenure, effectively exploiting its natural resources, attracting a huge amount of foreign investment in manufacturing, building an generally excellent infrastructure.

But Mahathir himself is more aware than most of the need now to bolster the forces of modernity, of meritocracy and pragmatism to create a predominantly Malay multiracial society in which Islam is not a contentious issue but a fact of life which can (as in Indonesia) be interpreted in different ways by different people. Will he use his final years and re-found prestige to challenge the vested interests of obscurantism and excessive racial privilege and keep Malaysia moving up the curve of prosperity and pluralism? ends


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