The Real Threat To Malaysia's Stability

By Khoo Boo Teik

(Editor's Note: This is an opinion piece from Friday's Asian Wall Street Journal. Khoo is a visiting fellow at the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. He is author of "Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad.")

PERTH -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will soon begin campaigning to ensure his ruling National Front government preserves its two-thirds parliamentary majority in the general election scheduled for Nov. 29. But even if he succeeds, this victory will not be enough to restore political stability to Malaysia.

That's because for the last 25 years the real source of political instability in Malaysia has not been the established opposition parties, the Islamic Party and the Democratic Action Party. Rather factional strife within Dr. Mahathir's own party, the United Malays National Organization, continues to threaten the ruling coalition. This has been especially true since Dr. Mahathir's dismissal, arrest and prosecution of his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, plunged the political system into deep crisis last year.

This crisis resulted in the formation of a second coalition, the Barisan Alternatif, or Alternative Front. Comprising the Islam Party, DAP, the Malaysian People's Party and the National Justice Party led by Mr. Anwar's wife, this grouping is not unified by any shared ideology. But it is surprising how successful it has been so far.

True, no coalition could induce the Islam Party to drop its "Islamic state" commitment or the DAP its "Malaysian Malaysia" platform. However, the coalition has been able to hang together against long odds to produce a collective leadership, unified manifesto, alternative budget and an electoral power-sharing plan. The Alternative Front is planning to field a candidate in almost every constituency in the Malay heartland, the first time Dr. Mahathir has faced such a challenge.

This is a symptom rather than a cause of UMNO's weakness. Since Mr. Anwar's downfall, the growing danger of UMNO imploding has undermined the party's self-proclaimed role of providing "hegemonic stability." For that reason, the present crisis cannot be resolved if Dr. Mahathir wins big and gets on with "business as usual." The truth is, his UMNO party no longer has a "politics as usual." Beyond the accumulated problems of chronic factionalism - policy differences, personality clashes and power struggles - UMNO is breaking down irrevocably.

This statement might seem alarmist at first, since party infighting is nothing new for UMNO, and yet the party has always soldiered on. In the mid-1970s, Prime Minister Hussein Onn prosecuted rival Harun Idris only to provoke an ill-disguised communist witch-hunt that targeted party leaders like Dr. Mahathir. The next decade saw bitter battles between Musa Hitam and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in 1981 and 1984, and an all-out war between Dr. Mahathir's "Team A" and Mr. Razaleigh's "Team B" which split UMNO and led to its deregistration in 1988. Subsequently, the factionalism continued as the Spirit of `46/New UMNO conflict of 1990-95, while an Anwar-led "vision team" ousted Ghafar Baba and Abdullah Badawi, among others, from the party's top ranks in 1993.

The difference today, however, is that UMNO can no longer credibly return to the idealistic "Malay nationalism" that gave it a sense of historical mission in earlier periods. The public has grown cynical about such appeals, so that the party's support now rests on providing rising standards of living and a level economic playing field. Yet it can't advance on this front because it can't cleanse itself of the corruption and cronyism built into its "corporate mission" of fostering Malay capitalism. As a result, loyalty to the party is declining.

It's fitting in light of Dr. Mahathir's own "look East" policy of copying Japan that Malaysia should now be suffering the same political breakdown Japan experienced six years ago. UMNO now resembles Japan's Liberal Democratic Party before it broke apart in 1993 as a result of warring factions. The parallel extends to the economic crisis that put pressure on the LDP then and UMNO today. The gridlocked ruling party is politically unable to undertake the necessary reforms to treat the inseparable economic and political problems of Japan Inc. and Malaysia Inc.

And as in Japan, Malaysia now has a second coalition emerging to challenge UMNO for power. DAP Secretary-General Lim Kit Siang claims that a "two coalition system" is required to institutionalize growing demands for pluralism, more evenly matched competition and the conduct of politics on a level playing field.

The critical factor, however, has always been luring enough defectors away from UMNO to make it possible for such a coalition to take power. This has twice been a possibility since the late 1980s. Dr. Mahathir's UMNO has thrown off two breakaway factions - the first led by Mr. Razaleigh in 1988, and the second thrust upon Mr. Anwar in 1998.

On the previous occasion Dr. Mahathir was successful in preventing a coalition from coalescing around his rival. And no one should underrate the difficulties today. The Alternative Front's effort to institutionalize a two-coalition system must contend first with National Front machinations. The Election Commission has excluded 680,000 new voters, registered before May, from the Nov. 29 electoral roll. In an eight-day campaign period, the opposition must confront police restrictions on rallies, bureaucratic denial of public meeting places, a media blackout, nontransparent deployment of postal ballots and all-out money politics.

However, the Alternative Front does enjoy some advantages challenging Dr. Mahathir now when a still tentative economic recovery and popular dissent both cry out for prudent management, good governance, vibrant civil society and independent public institutions. If it fails, less benign conditions will impede real debate on these issues.

Campaigners for the National Front will try to emphasize the fragility of Malaysia's ethnic harmony, and present the ruling coalition as the only guarantor of continued peace. But the truth is that there is no risk of ethnic violence or religious extremism in today's Malaysia. The real risks to harmony lie in a continuation of the machine politics of the old coalition.

It is not secular government but constitutional, democratic government that is at stake. Malaysia has the opportunity to commence a process of meaningful economic, political and institutional reform which the recent economic and political crises demanded - but which another two-thirds majority for the National Front will surely abort. Ultimately that is the real threat to stability.


Source: AWSJ, 18 November 1999

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