When Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad finally bade farewell to his party’s general assembly on Saturday, it was with a smile and a wave rather than the tears many had expected once again.
After lambasting the “European race” as colonialist robbers and lashing out at the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Mahathir was mobbed by supporters belonging to his United Malays National Organisation as delegates were seen dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs.
For all his rhetoric, Mahathir’s speeches at the party assembly conspicuously avoided touching on pressing domestic issues including the economic slowdown, ethnic polarisation, the declining human rights situation, income inequalities and the level of money politics and corruption.
And if there is one bitter legacy of the Mahathir years, it is the extent to which the stature of democratic institutions such as Parliament and the Judiciary has dropped over the years as power became concentrated in the hands of the Executive, especially the Prime Minister’s office.
No mention either of the huge projects with questionable economic returns – the massive edifices at Putrajaya, the nation’s new “administrative” capital, for instance. Nothing on how successful or otherwise the high-tech Multimedia Super Corridor project near Kuala Lumpur has turned out to be - or the state of healthcare, education and affordable housing. Not to mention the billions of ringgit lost in failed or ill-conceived infrastructure projects.
Mahathir said he was leaving the party in strong shape, and that was evident on the surface at least from the turnout at the assembly and the adulation.
A smooth UMNO leadership succession to current UMNO deputy president, Abdullah Badawi, who is also deputy premier, is expected. The party’s other top leaders have also vowed to respect Abdullah’s choice of deputy president (who, by tradition, assumes the deputy prime minister’s post - if he lasts that long!). Indeed, Mahathir steps down in October in the knowledge that the party has weathered one of its worst crises brought about by the sacking and jailing of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998.
But a closer look reveals that heir apparent Abdullah has not had to face party elections for the No. 2 UMNO post he now holds. He was appointed – rather than elected – as UMNO deputy president, replacing Anwar. Now Abdullah is set to assume the UMNO leadership role even before party elections in the middle of next year.
The top party leaders’ pledges to respect Abdullah’s choice of deputy premier appears to have satisfied Mahathir that the expected jostling for power may be minimised. But few who have observed UMNO history are as convinced that the leadership tussle will not resume in earnest especially after the next general election, expected to be held before the UMNO party elections. Dark horses lurk - among them former Mahathir archrival-turned-ally Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Defence Minister Najib Razak, believed to be favoured by Mahathir. And will former deputy premier Musa Hitam and former finance minister Daim Zainuddin play any role behind the scenes?
Some believe that potential challengers for top UMNO posts in the party elections will not be willing to show their cards until after the general election is over for fear that they might be dropped as candidates for the general election. Abdullah’s grip on power will also largely depend on UMNO’s performance at the general election and on whether PAS makes any further inroads.
In the post assembly conference, Mahathir could not avoid a question about the fate of the man whose shadow continues to loom over UMNO: Anwar.
The ailing prisoner, who is only due for release in 2009, is applying for bail pending the outcome of his appeal into his conviction for sodomy. The Court of Appeal in Kuala Lumpur is scheduled to begin its hearing into his bail application on July 14. Hopes of an unexpected early release for Anwar have risen somewhat after six key reformasi activists, most of them second echelon leaders of Keadilan, were freed from detention under the Internal Security Act in June 2003.
The thorniest problem Abdullah will have to deal with is how to handle the Anwar issue. Both Abdullah and Anwar hail from Penang and if Anwar is freed on bail, Abdullah could be in for a major headache.
But then again, if Anwar is freed, PAS would be deprived of the single biggest issue that enabled it to ride a wave of outrage among grassroots Malay in the last general election, when it made sharp inroads into UMNO territory. All the same, early freedom for Anwar is likely to boost the opposition alliance’s hopes in the coming polls.
Mahathir is also confident his scathing remarks about the Europeans won’t lead to a loss in new foreign investment in Malaysia. That confidence probably lies in the knowledge that the top five sources of foreign investments (in terms of applications received in Jan-Mar 2003) were Japan, the United States, Singapore, China (including Hong Kong) and Taiwan. They contributed 84 per cent of total foreign investment – so it’s not as if Malaysia is particularly sensitive to fluctuations in European investment.
Though Mahathir’s anti-European stance may have rankled certain Western leaders and diplomats, his comments may have struck a chord among many Malaysians upset over the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and the blind eye turned towards the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. In that sense, many Malaysians generally support Mahathir’s independent foreign policy stance especially on Iraq and Palestine and his ability to “thumb his nose” at the big powers.
But it’s a pity that the premier’s comments were not more intelligently framed. Instead of criticising United States’ hegemony in the new world order and pointing out the perils of neo-liberal globalisation for developing nations, Mahathir preferred to launch a diatribe against the “European race” as a whole.
In the process, he ignored the various shades of public opinion within the “European race” such as the Franco-German opposition to the invasion of Iraq and the wave of anti-war protests in Europe. His sweeping statements - along with the earlier distribution to UMNO delegates of U.S. industrialist Henry Ford’s anti-semitic book ‘’The International Jew’’ – have created unnecessary ill-will, which Abdullah will have to repair.
Mahathir also simplistically overlooked the aggression and human rights abuses committed by Asian countries – notably the brutal Japanese Occupation of Malaya during the Second World War, the “Confrontation” with Indonesia in 1962-1966, and Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975.
No one expected Mahathir to dwell on human rights issues - and he did not try to. More than 100 people remain under detention without trial. As Prime Minister - and Home Affairs Minister for many years - he cannot escape ultimate responsibility for the human rights abuses during his tenure, the sacking of top judges in 1988, the suffering of ISA detainees, the black eye inflicted on Anwar, and the exploitation of migrant workers.
To Mahathir’s credit - and this he must share with the vast majority of level-headed Malaysians - the country has been spared any major bloodshed and conflict over the last two decades. Also, income levels have risen over the years, making Malaysia one of the most economically prosperous nations in Southeast Asia in terms of per capita GDP. A new Malay middle-class has emerged.
But for all the progress, the nations’s wealth is far from evenly distributed - even after years of economic policy aimed at “restructuring society”. Income inequality in Malaysia - as measured by the “gini coefficient” indicator (where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality) - remains high.
According to UNDP statistics cited by Boston University’s Project on Human Development, Malaysia’s gini coefficient stood at 0.49 in the year 2002, i.e. higher income inequality than in Indonesia (0.32), Laos (0.37), India (0.38), Thailand (0.41) and Philippines (0.46).
For now, Mahathir’s protracted farewell continues until October when he is finally expected to step down after hosting the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conferences. Plenty of time for Malaysians to look back at his 22-year tenure, to take stock and to speculate on what the uncertain post-Mahathir era holds.