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
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
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
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
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