A Y2K Crackdown

Arrests of critics a sign of nervousness ahead of UMNO polls

Having won Novemberís general election, the Mahathir administration may think it can carry on with "business as usual" - and launch a crackdown or two. The recent arrests of critics, however, reveals official nervousness ahead of the UMNO party polls in May as the ruling coalition tries to come to terms with a more politically conscious post-Reformasi public and a deeply split Malay community

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Gotcha!: The Y2K Crackdown reflects official jitters

By Anil Netto

The recent crackdown on the opposition has shaken off the veneer of normalcy that the Barisan Nasional government had tried to project after last Novemberís general election, which it won with a three quarters parliamentary majority despite a sharp erosion in Malay support. The series of arrests reveals the jitters within UMNO as it prepares for bruising party polls in May.

The crackdown was a blow for Harakah, the popular biweekly bilingual newspaper published by PAS. Among those arrested were editor Zulkifli Sulong and Chea Lim Thye, the owner of the firm that prints Harakah. Both were charged in court under the Sedition Act and pleaded not guilty.

Critics were not spared either. KeADILan vice-president Marina Yusoff and DAP deputy chairman Karpal Singh, who is also Anwar Ibrahimís defence lawyer, were also arrested and hauled to court for sedition.

Karpalís arrest shocked many, probably because the allegedly "seditious" words were uttered in court in the course of his duty as Anwarís counsel. The veteran lawyer had also been due to cross swords with Mahathir in a keenly awaited courtroom duel in Anwarís sodomy trial, which was postponed just before last Novemberís polls. It is still too early to say how Karpalís arrest will affect his involvement in the Anwar trial.

KeADILan youth chief Mohamed Ezam Mohd Noor, meanwhile, was arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act for releasing official reports relating to investigations into high-level corruption. So far, no one has been charged following the police reports lodged alleging high-level ministerial corruption.

A blow to the alternative media

The arrests of Zulkifli and Chea were, in effect, a blow against Harakah, which had seen its circulation soar despite several previous unsuccessful attempts by the government to restrict the paperís sales to PAS members only. The authorities are clearly out to "get" Harakah and it is likely that the paper will suffer more blows in the coming months.

Zulkifli and Chea were hauled up soon after five alternative Malay-language publications had received Home Ministry warnings. Apart from Harakah, those warned are the critical fortnightly Detik, the independent weekly tabloid Eksklusif, and vocal monthly magazines Wasilah (Detikís sister publication) and Tamadun. Detik is in a state of limbo, being unable to publish after its annual publication permit expired last November; it has already fallen four issues behind.

All five publications played a major role in opening the eyes of the Malay community to official excesses and abuse of power in the wake of the reformasi phenomenon. All of them chipped away at Malay support for UMNO, the dominant partner in the Barisan Nasional.

The alternative mediaís role was especially crucial in rural areas, where access to the Internet remains limited. Harakah in particular saw its sales soar from 65,000 before the Anwar crisis to hit a peak during the election period. According to a Harakah source, circulation hit 340,000 just before the 29 Nov elections and then peaked at 360,000 immediately after the polls as the party basked in the success of its triumphs in Terengganu and Kelantan.

By shedding its conservative tone and adopting a more liberal approach with an expanded English language section, Harakah drew a horde of new readers, many of them non-Muslims. The tabloidís freewheeling content also gave many Malaysians their first intoxicating taste of a free press.

But a free press is a big no-no in Mahathirís Malaysia: the clampdown came within weeks of the Barisan Nasionalís win at the 29 Nov polls. Officials even confiscated the paper from several news-stands and warned the Harakah management to stop publicly selling the newspaper in an undemocratic bid to restrict sales to PAS members only.

Sales of Harakah have since slumped to about 250,000. But that is still higher than the circulation of the pro-establishment mainstream Malay dailies, whose own sales had nose-dived much earlier, plunging to the same depths as their falling credibility and plummeting standard of journalism.

Jittery Feeling

Alarmed by Harakahís growing strength and the waning influence of the pro-government Malay dailies, the Mahathir administration must have decided that it was time to act. There was plenty to feel nervous about. Oil-rich Terengganu had fallen to PAS, which now has access to 500 million ringgit in petroleum royalties annually to develop the state. Kelantan continues to defy the odds by remaining solidly in PASí hands, the people there rejecting all the Barisanís promises of material development.

The earth-shaking reality is that UMNO, which for decades had dominated Malaysian politics, no longer commands majority support among the Malays. (And mind you, this does not include the 680,000 new voters who were disenfranchised and denied the right to vote last November.) In some 40 constituencies nation-wide, where ethnic Malays constitute the majority, the Barisan Nasional won fewer than half the votes cast. The other reality: Mahathir, UMNO and the Barisan Nasional donít know how to deal with this erosion in support.

It is said that whenever something unsavoury needs to be done, Mahathir tends to be out of the country, probably to distance himself from the fallout. He left for his holiday in Argentina and the Caribbean at 1.05 am on 12 January. Hours later, the series of arrests began with Marinaís at 10.15 am.

The action against the alternative media and government critics appears designed to put a lid on the disquiet on the ground in the run-up to the UMNO party elections in May. Reports have emerged of rumblings of discontent among the UMNO rank and file following the Supreme Councilís Ďadviceí to leave the elections for the top two party posts uncontested.

These two posts have apparently been reserved for Mahathir and his chosen deputy prime minister, Abdullah Badawi. Abdullah, it has to be noted, is only an UMNO vice-president, the deputy presidentís post being still vacant after Anwarís ouster. But it remains to be seen if the divisions will heed the Ďno-contestí advice when the time comes for them to nominate candidates for the top posts. There could be several surprises in store; hence the jitters.

For sure, all is not what it seems. In some parts of the country, UMNO branches are said to be unable to get a quorum to hold their elections. A state chief ministerís open house to mark the end of Ramadan was said to have drawn only 100 well-wishers. ĎíThe alienation is so real it is not funny,íí said a veteran political reporter.

Reformasi Irreversible

The government may have calculated that the short-term gains from its repressive action would outweigh the long-term damage to its credibility. In its favour are the rising stock market indices (ironically, as a result of speculation; the long term prospects of the economy remain unclear with the drying up of foreign direct investment) and a notoriously apathetic middle-class, for whom self-interest is paramount.

Moreover, the international business community doesnít usually factor in human rights abuses when deciding where to invest and the Barisan has just won a fresh two thirds parliamentary majority. Mahathir himself, now 74, is into his fifth term after 19 years as premier, with the dubious distinction of being Asiaís longest-serving leader. So what could go wrong?

Plenty. The fact is the Malays are split. If Mahathir intends to boost Malay support for UMNO, he is certainly going about it in strange ways. The high-handed action against Harakah and the arrests of Marina, Ezam, and Karpal are not going to endear him and UMNO to the fence-sitters among the Malay community. If anything, such strong-arm tactics are likely to backfire and further alienate many already disillusioned Malays.

If the Malay community - along with other Malaysians - needs compelling evidence of the authoritarian and undemocratic streak of the present administration, they need look no more. They can see for themselves what is happening. The reformasi process - a process of awakening and enlightenment of the ordinary people - which began in September 1997, cannot be so easily rolled back as if nothing had happened in the last 18 months.

Apart from the shift in the Malay ground, there are other reasons why the government cannot do as it pleases anymore. Gone are the days when the government could crack down on its critics and the media without being answerable to concerned individuals and groups, within and outside the country. Thanks to reformasi, the Internet and other alternative media, more and more Malaysians are becoming conscious of their political and civil rights - and they donít like what they see. No longer can the government ride roughshod over public opinion without facing the political consequences.

Mahathir may have realised this - even though he often gives the impression that he doesnít care a hoot about public opinion. Perhaps thatís why the arrests came only after he had jetted away to his vacation - so that he could avoid the flak - leaving poor Badawi to Ďcarry the babyí.

If the Mahathir-led government thinks it can silence the clamour for far-reaching reforms and changes by arresting a group of individuals soon after getting a fresh electoral mandate, it is badly mistaken. For one thing, the electoral mandate it received, dubious postal votes and all, was controversial, not overwhelming - and thatís before factoring in the 680,000 new voters.

Whatís more, the arrests have given a shot in the arm to the Barisan Alternatif, whose flagging morale had threatened to derail its sense of purpose. By arresting personalities from the three main opposition parties, the authorities have unwittingly triggered a new sense of unity in outrage within opposition ranks and given a fresh lease of life to reformasi! For the first time in a long while, for instance, the chants of "reformasi!" reverberated outside the Butterworth sessions court, where Marina was charged.

The Mahathir administration is still using old ways - the ways of the 1960s - to tackle dissent in a new era. Times have changed and the world is a much more open place where news crosses borders in a matter of seconds. Any government displaying an authoritarian streak is quickly shunned and isolated. The Malaysian government itself is partially aware of this; that would explain the reluctance this time to use the harsh and widely condemned Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial.

These days, it looks as if the slightly - only slightly - less obnoxious Sedition Act, a law enacted during the colonial era to suppress indigenous nationalist movements for independence, is fast replacing the ISA as the preferred "catch-all" law. But it has its downside: the Attorney Generalís chambers becomes even more bogged down with all these politically controversial cases, which in turn clog up the courts.

The Barisan Nasional government may still be able to hide its undemocratic face from many Malaysians through its stranglehold over the mass media - but it is a grip that is becoming looser by the day. The recent crackdown shows that the government is still in denial mode, preferring instead to pin the blame on the opposition for its eroding support among the Malay community.

Barisan leaders will do well to remember that the iron-fisted General Suharto lost power in Indonesia soon after he won his countryís election. Today, Indonesia is under a reformist administration, which has released all political prisoners. Mahathir, a close friend of Suhartoís, is trying to turn the clock backwards in Malaysia by ushering in the year 2000 with retrogressive, repressive actions that are cause for much concern.

But he does so at his peril. The more repressive he becomes, the more isolated he gets in the Palace at Putrajaya and the more of a liability he becomes to UMNO and the Barisan.

If at all Mahathir is going to be dislodged from his position as life-long head honcho, the momentum is likely to come from within his own party in much the same way that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was removed as Tory leader despite not having lost a general election. That may not be as remote a possibility as many believe given the upheaval on the Malay ground.

More likely, though, Mahathir will want to stay on for as long as possible. Paradoxically, that will be a bonus for the Barisan Alternatif, which will benefit from the opposition to his leadership from both within and outside UMNO. UMNO, on the other hand, will lose its sense of direction and become increasingly irrelevant, the longer the premier stays on. It may even sink. But the captain, it appears, is determined to go down with his ship.