(OPINION by Philip Bowring in The New York Times of August 20, 2009)
Malaysia is a lucky country but not at present a happy one, a worrying situation for a Muslim-majority nation that needs to balance democracy and free choice with religious and racial harmony.
Malaysia is lucky because its abundance of resources has enabled the economy to keep growing. It is unhappy because its politics are between a rock and a hard place.
Malaysia badly needs a break from 52 years of sometimes authoritarian and corrupt rule by a coalition of race-based parties headed by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which controls most levers of power and money.
Yet that change may not come any time soon. The opposition coalition, headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, made huge gains in 2008 elections but is finding it difficult to bridge divisions between Malays in the Islamic Party (PAS), ethnically self-conscious Chinese and Indians in the left-leaning Democratic Action Party, and disgruntled moderate Malays and liberals of all races in Anwar’s Keadilan party.
Indeed, the opposition reflects extremes of the racial and religious spectrum while the governing coalition, with all of its problems, still holds much of the middle ground.
The governing coalition had a big opportunity to remake itself after its election setback and with the appointment in April of a new prime minister, Najib Razak, in place of the ineffective Abdullah Badawi. Najib began with a flurry of measures to appeal to the different constituencies.
The Chinese were pleased by a decision to end compulsory 30-percent Malay ownership for some service industries; Malays, by the decision to end the use of English rather than Malay for teaching science and math; Indians, by the release of activists detained without trial for demanding an end to alleged discrimination against Hindus; and foreigners, by moves to liberalize investment in the financial sector.
But hopes that the 2008 election result and a new prime minister would persuade the ruling coalition to address endemic high-level corruption, loosen political influence on the judiciary and end detention without trial have been dashed.
A prominent lawyer appointed last year to reform the judiciary was forced out after only a few weeks. Najib is taking a liberal stance on economic issues and willing to reduce some privileges for Malays, but he shares former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s authoritarian instincts.
Anwar Ibrahim awaits another trial for sodomy, a charge widely viewed as a politically motivated sequel to a previous conviction for which he spent six years in prison after he fell out with Mahathir (that sodomy conviction was quashed after Mahathir stepped down). Another leading opposition parliamentarian, the Indian lawyer Karpal Singh, is now on trial for sedition, and the recent death of an opposition party worker following interrogation has led to allegations that brutality is becoming widespread.
Meanwhile, Najib cannot escape reminders of the murder in 2006 by his security guards of a pregnant mistress of a close associate. The associate was acquitted of complicity in her murder, but the guards were convicted.
Widespread public perceptions of rot within the system do not easily translate into confidence that the opposition provides a viable alternative. Anwar is widely admired for his eloquence but has been unable to shake off the perception that he is an opportunist telling different groups what they want to hear.
Ultimately, the race issue prevents wholehearted cooperation among the opposition parties in Anwar’s coalition. Some of the Islamists hanker to make common cause with UMNO to strengthen Malay unity and defend pro-Malay, pro-Islamic discrimination. This in turn fits well with allegations by senior UMNO figures that Anwar is a traitor to his race by aligning with the Chinese and Indian minorities.
The notion that Malays and Muslims are under threat from minorities is absurd. But it helps keep Malays loyal to UMNO even while the ruling coalition can claim that it is both multiracial and moderate. The coalition, however corrupted, is still seen by many as representing moderation and stability. UMNO may have pandered to Islamist demands, but few would accuse its leaders of piety or puritanism.
Najib’s slogan is “One Malaysia,” an attempt to portray his government as a unifying force. Its actual policies may remain racially skewed in favor of Malays and oppressive of dissent. But given the opposition’s divisions, and the Malay sense of entitlement that makes multiracial politics so difficult, the slogan may work to keep UMNO in power for another decade.