Jun 11, 2008

Testing times for Malaysia

Between the political brinkmanship of Mahathir, the chicanery of Anwar and the naivete of Abdullah, all eyes will likely turn to the UMNO party caucus in December when party hacks decide the political fate of Abdullah as their party president and leader.

JAPAN TIMES — The man who once gave lectures to the West and its leaders is back again regaling his captive Malaysian audience with his trademark rhetoric.

Those who have crossed swords with former Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohammad and are familiar with his unconventional combative style can attest that those confrontations, as unpleasant as they may have been, also had the unintended consequence of canonizing the man within his nation.

No better understanding of Mahathir and his methods is better enunciated than the insights he gives in a critique he wrote for TIME magazine in 1999 where he extolled the virtues of unorthodoxy.

As interesting and refreshing as the article was, its defense of his globally unpopular decision to impose capital controls to staunch the flow of funds out of Malaysia at the height of the Asian financial crisis in 1998 revealed within its subtext a man unafraid to defy conventions and willing to chart independent courses, even at the expense of being sneered at.

If truth has to first endure ridicule before it is opposed just so that it can become self-evident, Mahathir has clearly passed all of those three hurdles.

Just like in 1970 when he wrote "The Malay Dilemma," which documented the backwardness of the Malays over their habit of diluting their gene pool by intra-kinship marriages, a persona of unorthodoxy has always characterized the one-time Malay nationalist turned politician who exhibits an unusual display of courage in the face of adversity.

For someone who thrives doing the very kind of things politicians seldom commit for fear of being labeled politically incorrect, his recent resignation from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) — the political party he headed for 22 years as president — is turning out to be a tipping point in Malaysian politics.

In urging the rest of the party faithful to break ranks and resign en masse, the move is calculated not only to force the ouster of the government but also to block the return from the political wilderness of another political foe, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar, who was jailed in 1999 for corruption, is now perceived to be gunning for justice over his imprisonment, which he called a conspiracy at the highest levels of government.

Or, it could also be, as some have alleged, yet another "Mahathir way" of trying to deflect attention from a Royal Commission convoked to probe his involvement in a judge-fixing scandal during his stewardship of the country more than 20 years ago.

With most of Malaysia and Singapore, and to a lesser degree Indonesia, transfixed on what is rapidly turning into a political soap opera, there is no musing that all love is conceivably lost between the former premier, his anointed successor and the former deputy premier.

At the heart of Mahathir's grievance is a suspicion of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's plans to erase Mahathir's reputation by scrapping many of his economic projects. Should such an episode come to pass, Mahathir would almost certainly be left without a legacy.

The triumvirate and Caesarean-like court intrigues have no doubt seized imaginations.

Though it has not happened yet, the breakdown in party hierarchy spawned by the elder statesman's resignation and his success at getting some party hacks to heed his call have nevertheless reverberated with eerie echoes of the 1969 Sino-Malay race riots that were triggered a similar election debacle and left scores of people dead in the streets.

"You know the UMNO is in trouble when its party members start abandoning ship," a political scientist who chose to remain anonymous told Asia Times Online.

Acknowledging that he did not keep his promises in an election postmortem has also made Abdullah politically weaker. And those broken promises have included a failure to combat corruption, crime, rising racial tension and cronyism; a failure that the country's unified political opposition capitalized on to such tantalizing effect in the March 8 general elections.

The ruling Barisan Nasional, an omnibus grouping that lumps together the nation's ethnic Chinese and Indians under their respective political banners, not only lost 5 out of 13 states but was returned to office with the slenderest of parliamentary majorities at only 51 percent. For Abdullah such an outcome was a sobering moment because he and his team secured an unprecedented 90 percent of the popular vote in the previous election held in 2004.

Yet nothing could have been worse than in the non-consultative manner in which Abdullah raised fuel prices last week. A 40-percent hike in oil-producing Malaysia was perceived as "too high" and "too soon." The widespread street protests that gathered storm in the wake of the increases have every possibility of playing into the hands of the regime's political opponents. They will almost certainly weaken Abdullah's position.

Between the political brinkmanship of Mahathir, the chicanery of Anwar and the naivete of Abdullah, all eyes will likely turn to the UMNO party caucus in December when party hacks decide the political fate of Abdullah as their party president and leader.

As developments unfold with breakneck speed, the self-effacing emergence of Anwar and the Pakatan Rakyat Party's sterling success in securing 82 seats in the 140 seat Assembly in the March elections has no doubt left the country's chattering classes abuzz.

In 2005, Anwar told Singapore's TODAY paper of a 5-year time frame to becoming Malaysia's next prime minister. And true to form and design, he has assiduously been seeking defections from elected backbenchers to trigger an eventual collapse of the newly-elected government. A collapse that results in calls for fresh elections would be just what Anwar needs. Because he is immensely popular, and he knows it, he can handily translate the disaffection in his country into votes and assume the premiership he is seeking much sooner than the 5-year time frame.

With no one who can match him in charisma, oratory and perhaps in chicanery, there appears to be nothing that can stop Anwar, at least for now.

These are indeed testing times for Malaysia. As the country heads for headier days; political sclerosis of a kind never before seen before will feature prominently as Malaysia turns another page in its history.

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