JANUARY 28, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 3

No More Mr. Nice Guy
A wave of arrests of Malaysian oppositionists puts the pressure on deputy premier Abdullah

On Jan. 12, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad left the country for a well-deserved two-week vacation. Hours later, police arrested two opposition politicians, a senior editor of an opposition newspaper and the newspaper's printer. The charge: Sedition. The message: There's a new deputy sheriff in town, and his name is Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Well, not entirely new. Abdullah was named deputy prime minister in January last year, following the ouster of Anwar Ibrahim the previous Sep-tember. He did not get Anwar's other post, the deputy presidency of Malaysia's dominant party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which usually goes with the deputy premiership and would have confirmed him as Mahathir's heir. There were whispers that Abdullah, UMNO's "Mr. Nice Guy," could not fill Dr. M's big, big shoes. But things have changed. While the opposition Alternative Front gave UMNO a nasty shock in last November's general elections by sharply increasing its parliamentary seats and grabbing a second state government, Abdullah himself did well. With the party due to hold its leadership poll in May and endorse a new deputy president, Mahathir says this may be his last term and has named Abdullah as his preferred heir. And as for any lingering doubts about his shoe size, Abdullah is showing off big feet now, pinning down a vociferous opposition and punting away international protests. Says an Asian diplomat in Kuala Lumpur: "This is a test for Abdullah."

First, the arrests. Marina Yusoff, vice president of Keadilan, the party led by Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. Her crime: In a speech ahead of the November polls, she allegedly said that UMNO was the "source" of the May 1969 race riots that rocked Malaysia. Karpal Singh, deputy chairman of the Demo-cratic Action Party (DAP) and Anwar's defense lawyer. His crime: While claiming in court last September that Anwar had been poisoned in prison, he allegedly said, "I suspect that people in high places are responsible." Zulkifli Sulong, the editor of Harakah, a biweekly published by the Parti Islam SeMa-laysia (Pas), and Chea Lim Thye, the printer. Their crime: Publishing and printing an article which quoted Kea-dilan deputy president Chandra Muzaffar as alleging that there was "a major" conspiracy "by the prime minister and his cohorts." All four were charged with sedition. They pled not guilty and were granted bail. Then on Jan. 13, Mohamed Ezam Mohamed Noor, Keadilan youth chief and Anwar's former political secretary, was arrested under the Official Se-crets Act for revealing to the media Anti-Corruption Agency reports on two senior UMNO politicians. He also pled not guilty.

Predictably, the arrests sparked outrage. "There is no doubt that these arrests are politically motivated," said Syed Husin Ali, president of the Malaysian People's Party, which together with Keadilan, Pas and the DAP formed the Alternative Front. "The fact that only critics are being arrested suggests that the law is being used as a tool to further political ends," says Joe Saunders, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "In the entire Common-wealth, it is unprecedented that a lawyer is charged with sedition in the course of his duty," fumes Bar Council president R.R. Chelvarajah. And U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley said that Wash-ington shared concerns that the arrests were part of a "transparent and cynical attempt to intimidate government opponents and stifle legitimate political discourse." Just as predictably, Abdullah insisted that prosecutors and police were only enforcing the law. "This has nothing to do with political vendetta," he said. The deputy PM also attacked foreign critics, sounding like his boss. "Why are they being smart alecks in questioning our country's laws?" Abdullah asked. "There is no law of the jungle in our country. We have democratic laws."

Could the arrests be unrelated to politics? An Abdullah aide says police and prosecutors simply investigated complaints and found cases to be answered. "There was no intervention by senior ministers," he says. "It is possible because of the political implications that the home minister and possibly the prime minister were in-formed before the arrests, but this would have just been a process of briefing them." Of course the home minister is Abdullah. Many others reckon politics must have been a key factor. "I think the decision was made before the prime minister left," says Zakaria Ahmad, dean of Social Sciences and Humanities at the National University of Malaysia. "They may have been thinking about it even before the general elections and waited until things cooled down." Some imagine Abdullah launched the crackdown to prove his loyalty to Mahathir and display his mettle ahead of the UMNO election. "He is showing his strength," says an UMNO insider allied to party vice president Najib Tun Razak, a possible contender for the deputy presidency. Zakaria thinks that the arrests will have no effect on Abdullah's bid for the deputy presidency. But he adds: "If he showed he was not willing to make the arrests, he would have lost points." But there is really no way of knowing what role politics played .

What is known is that Abdullah faces a tricky task to secure the UMNO No. 2 spot. The "advice" from the UMNO supreme council earlier this month that Mahathir and Abdullah should be nominated unopposed was supposed to have sewn it up for Dr. M's latest heir. Instead it stirred resentment both inside and outside the party, prompting Abdullah to say he would be willing to face a contested vote. The disquiet comes from two fronts. After the general elections, in which the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition kept its two-thirds parliamentary majority but UMNO saw its ethnic-Malay powerbase seriously eroded by the Islamist Pas, UMNO morale plummeted and doubts grew about the party leadership. While no one expects Mahathir to be challenged, many think a contest for the deputy presidency will fire up the rank-and-file and strengthen the mandate of the winner. And a mandate is especially important if his next term really turns out to be Mahathir's last. "No harm if [Mahathir and Abdullah] continue to lead the party," says former deputy premier Abdul Ghafar Baba, "but it is better if their leadership is endorsed by the members."

Behind that are lingering doubts that Abdullah is ready for the job. Political scientist Askiah Adam asked in a published commentary whether Mahathir's successor would have the same courage of conviction, the novel ideas to secure Malaysia's prosperity, and the ability to confront Islamic conservatism. An UMNO supreme council member says party members worry that Abdullah cannot be all that, especially when it comes to facing the resurgent opposition. "Who would be best able to face the onslaught of both Anwar and Pas?" he wonders. Anwar is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power but re-tains wide popularity. Pas more than tripled its seats in Parliament in the November polls and won the state government of resource-rich Trengganu as well as keeping Kelantan. The names most often mentioned as possible contenders for the deputy presidency are Najib and former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Ham-zah. But Najib was weakened by the razor-thin margin with which he kept his seat in the general elections, and Razaleigh disappointed by failing to deliver his native Kelantan to UMNO. Neither are publicly gunning for the deputy presidency, but their supporters hint that they may run if nominations pour in.

So Abdullah seems set to win the deputy presidency. But can he win the hearts of UMNO members and rally them in the face of rising opposition challenges? The arrests of Marina and the others are rather tame as crackdowns go - only five people arrested, the police waited until after the end of Ramadan, and the accused simply surrendered at police stations. "But they are still seen as hardline," says the Asian diplomat. "These are the old methods of controlling dissent." Abdullah also warned Anwar supporters against holding street demonstrations when the former deputy prime minister's trial on sodomy charges resumes on Jan. 25. The question is whether such tactics will reinforce UMNO morale or only stiffen the opposition's determination to fight back. "The wounds opened up by the [general elections] will now deepen and fester, with far-reaching repercussions for nation-building in years to come," says DAP national chairman Lim Kit Siang. Whether politically motivated or not, Abdullah may find his new tough-guy role a difficult one with which to win his audiences - both inside and outside UMNO.