Southeast Asia

Malaysia: Year of surprises and hardships
By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - The year draws to a close for Malaysia in much the same way it began: more arrests under the feared Internal Security Act (ISA) amid still uncertain economic prospects. The added ingredients during the year: Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's unexpected resignation and the effects of the Bali bomb blast.

Twelve ISA arrests this month - 10 detained for allegedly spreading e-mail "rumors" warning of a terror attack in Kuala Lumpur and another two in Sabah for alleged links with Jemaah Islamiah - have added to the prevailing climate of uncertainty. Unlike in the past, the authorities have not revealed the identities of the recent detainees.

Critics say the arrests of the e-mail users - most, if not all, have been released on bail - were unwarranted, as the government could have easily countered such rumors with its own statements. The arrests are likely to lead to increased fear among Internet users while still allowing the government to claim no Internet censorship.

But it was the premier's tearful quit decision in June that was the watershed event of the year, leaving the political landscape looking as hazy as the skies in August when smog shrouded large parts of the country.

Though Mahathir was "persuaded" to stay on until the Organization of Islamic Conferences meeting in Kuala Lumpur next year, supposedly to provide for a smooth transfer of power, the succession issue looks far from settled.

When the 77-year-old premier later announced a few new cabinet appointments, analysts pointed out that these were people closer to Defense Minister Najib Razak than to heir designate Abdullah Badawi, the deputy premier.

Abdullah has not yet revealed his choice for the No 2 post when he takes over as prime minister, preferring to keep his cards close to his chest. But Mahathir has hinted that he may want Najib to move up to No 2. And with dark horses such as Tengku Razaleigh - Mahathir's onetime arch rival-turned-ally - still lurking in the shadows, the stage appears set for some factional infighting within the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant partner in the ruling coalition, when the premier steps down.

Next year's UMNO elections are therefore likely to be postponed until after the general election (due by late 2004 but expected to be held earlier).

Then there is ailing jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, the icon of the suppressed - and now subdued - reformasi movement, whose requests for overseas treatment for his back injury have been denied. Though serving jail sentences totaling 15 years, Anwar can never be written off, pricking as he does the public conscience. Though he was once part of the system, he remains an icon especially among Malay-Muslims and others disillusioned with authoritarianism, corruption and lopsided development.

Abdullah, Anwar's successor and political rival, has yet to emerge from the shadow of the premier who has ruled Malaysia for more than 22 years. Though some analysts refer to Abdullah as "Mr Nice Guy", he is also the powerful home minister, whose signature is required for detentions without trial under the feared ISA.

More than 120 people are now being held without trial; a couple of court rulings in their favor have been ignored. Press freedom is dismal, with Malaysia ranked a lowly 110th out of 139 countries surveyed by Reporters Without Borders. Malaysia has still not yet ratified key United Nations human-rights covenants and conventions, the latest being its abstention last Wednesday during the vote on the Optional Protocol on Torture, which allows for international scrutiny of places of detention.

If Mahathir does step down next year as planned - some are still not convinced that he is quitting - whoever succeeds him will inherit a ruling coalition that is not as cohesive as it once was. Relations among the Barisan Nasional (BN, or National Front) component parties have taken a slight turn for the worse.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the second-largest BN party after UMNO.

On December 16, the MCA presidential council suspended indefinitely the party membership of two of its Penang state assembly members, Lim Boo Chang and Tan Cheng Liang, for abstaining on - instead of voting against - an opposition-sponsored motion to defer a controversial 17-kilometer highway project on the congested northern island.

Their suspensions prompted debate as to whether conscience and loyalty to the people's needs should override partisan considerations. Others said their abstentions represented nothing more than MCA-Gerakan rivalry. Gerakan, a Chinese-based, multi-ethnic party, leads the BN coalition government in Penang and it had counted on MCA support for the Penang Outer Ring Road (PORR) project, which is strongly backed by UMNO.

What began as a regional controversy - on a per-kilometer basis, the MR1 billion (US$263 million) PORR would be the most expensive highway in the country - soon exploded into a national issue. With both UMNO and Gerakan calling for action to be taken against the two MCA dissidents, the issue threatened to undermine coalition unity. The "heat" forced the MCA to take action against the duo; some saw their "indefinite suspension" as an interim compromise measure until things cooled.

Within the MCA, a factional feud has been simmering between those allied to party president Ling Liong Sik (dubbed Team A) and his opponents (Team B). Such intra-party and intra-coalition feuding may jeopardize the ruling coalition more than the best efforts of the opposition parties, still divided along ideological lines - a far cry from the united opposition alliance that was quickly forged after Anwar's ouster and jailing.

But Anwar's National Justice Party (Keadilan), led by his wife Wan Azizah, is merging with the tiny but progressive Malaysian People's Party (PRM) to form the multi-ethnic People's Justice Party. The merged entity could provide a credible alternative to UMNO and the conservative opposition Islamic Party (PAS). Keadilan also wants to work closely with the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party to avoid splitting the opposition votes.

South of the border, prickly outstanding issues especially over water pricing have plagued Malaysia-Singapore relations - but, as one analyst pointed out, such disputes have not affected the two countries' almost symbiotic, seamless cooperation over security issues.

After the meeting with the Thai cabinet over the weekend, there is likely to be closer cooperation with Thailand too, including on security issues. Mahathir and Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra may have found they have much in common in their understanding (or lack thereof) of a democracy - including peaceful demonstrations and freedom of the press - and their tolerance of an unhealthy business-political nexus.

And, as usual, another tiff with Australia - this time over Prime Minister John Howard's ill-conceived threat to launch preemptive counter-terrorist strikes in the region.

Economically, Malaysia's greatest challenge is how to make up for the slack in foreign direct investment to sustain modest economic growth. For the first nine months of 2002, only $1.5 billion worth of foreign projects was approved compared with $5.0 billion for the whole of 2001. There is some hope that increased applications for new domestic investment would ease some of the strain.

Growth for 2002 is expected to reach 4 percent - better than some had expected in the face of mixed signals from the US economy and its high unemployment. A Malaysian economic think-tank said increased intra-Asian exports to such countries as China, Japan and South Korea had compensated somewhat for the sluggish exports to Europe and the United States. It predicted that economic growth could rise to 5.7 percent in 2003 on the back of higher electrical and electronics exports and high palm-oil prices. But that looks a bit optimistic given the uncertain global outlook, a possible war in Iraq, and the slump in tourism after the Bali bombing.

Faced with uncertainty on so many fronts and denied much space for dissent, the Malaysian public appears to have turned inwards, focusing more on bread-and-butter issues - though there have been sporadic residents' protests on local issues such as PORR. Despite the quieter political scene, significant pockets of resentment, especially among Muslim-Malays, remain and will pose the biggest challenge to Mahathir's successor.

(©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Dec 25, 2002

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(Dec 3, '02)

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(Nov 14, '02)

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Malaysia tightens security screws
(Apr 20, '02)


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