17 August, 2008

Desperate and tainted: Malaysia's leadership crisis

Martin Jacques
The Age


A FEVERISH atmosphere now grips Malaysia. The country is awash with rumours. Until the resignation in 2003 of prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, politics were entirely predictable. Now they are becoming highly unpredictable.


Malaysia is a great Asian success story. It has enjoyed a growth rate of up to 8% for much of the past 20 years, and the fruits of prosperity are everywhere. Malaysia is the economic star of the Muslim world. The architect of this economic transformation was Mahathir, but since he stepped down, the country has been engulfed by growing doubts about his legacy and new priorities.

The turning point was the election last March. Ever since independence from Britain in 1957 the country has been ruled by the Barisan Nasional, a coalition of three racially based parties led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), leaving the opposition permanently enfeebled. In March, however, the Government gained only 51% of the popular vote compared with 64% at the 2004 election.

The Government still enjoys a healthy majority, but the election has undermined its self-confidence, hugely enhanced that of the opposition and transformed the mood of the nation; suddenly, change is in the air.

The Government has become defensive and fearful, symbolised by the weak leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. Its defensiveness is illustrated by its latest legal assault on Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition coalition's leader and a former deputy prime minister.

In 1998 he was charged with sodomy and imprisoned for 15 years, but released in 2004 after the appeal court overthrew his conviction. Fearful of his return to politics, the Government has again charged him with sodomy. In a recent poll, two-thirds believed the charges were politically motivated. Even the UMNO-run New Straits Times displayed a transparent lack of conviction in the charges. The sodomy charge is designed to discredit Anwar in the eyes of Malays and keep him from parliament. It is the unimaginative act of a Government running scared.

The Government, meanwhile, finds itself mired in another scandal - the murder of a young Mongolian translator in 2006. A political adviser of Najib Tun Razak, the ambitious Deputy Prime Minister, is standing trial, together with two bodyguards. The fact that an attempt was made to remove all traces of the body with special explosives, the use of which can be sanctioned only by the highest authorities, has encouraged widespread speculation that Najib and his wife were involved.

The Government has only itself to blame. The media is closely controlled and widely disbelieved. The vacuum of information and opinion has been filled by two websites - malaysiakini.com and malaysiatoday.com - which have become highly influential, outspoken and merciless towards the Government.

The growing lack of confidence in the Government is fuelled by systemic corruption, especially in UMNO, and a widely held view that the benefits of economic growth have not been shared equitably, with poorer Malays and the Indian minority losing out badly. Corruption is rife in UMNO, which has become a vehicle for personal enrichment.

But the old order will mount a desperate fight to ensure its own survival. Too many people have got too much to lose. The greatest fear must be that as it weakens, underlying racial tensions will be exacerbated and exploited. Malaysia is multiracial in a way true of few societies outside Africa: with Malays accounting for about 60% of the population, the Chinese for some 25% and Indians 8%, this is a country that depends on a racial consensus for its stability.

Such racially diverse societies are extremely difficult to govern, and it is to Malaysia's credit that it has combined economic growth with relative racial harmony. Undoubtedly the system of positive discrimination in favour of Malays has outlived its usefulness, but any reforms will be difficult and potentially fraught. Hopefully the kind of change that Malaysia now requires can, in time, be achieved without losing its most precious achievement. But there can be no guarantees.

Martin Jacques is a visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics Asia research centre.

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