Profiting From Fear

One repercussion of the attacks in the United States is a political shake-out in Malaysia--to the benefit of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad

By S. Jayasankaran and Lorien Holland/KUALA LUMPUR

Issue cover-dated October 11, 2001

HIS REACTION to the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington was almost identical to the view of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. "The attacks are to be condemned as senseless violence," jailed former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim told the REVIEW through his lawyer Sankara Nair. "But I hope the United States will react with justice, and not vengeance." Such unanimity of views reflects a problem for Malaysia's opposition in its struggle to present itself as an alternative to the government.

Three weeks after hijacked airliners hit the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, Mahathir and his ruling National Front coalition are riding high and the opposition is in disarray. The United States blaming the attacks on Islamic extremists has cast a long shadow over Malaysia's Islamic opposition, which Mahathir had long sought to portray as extreme. Secular parties are suddenly worried by ruling party members asking questions about whether the opposition has links to militant groups in Southeast Asia. Their concern is compounded by the expectation that militants will strike back against any U.S. reprisals.

Such worries will be felt at the polls. General elections must be held by 2004 and there is now some speculation that Mahathir might call a snap poll by next year. On September 27, the National Front won 60 out of 62 legislative assembly seats in an election in Sarawak, the country's largest state.

The two largest opposition parties--the Islamic Party of Malaysia, or Pas, and Keadilan headed by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail--failed to take any seats. Kamaruddin Jaafar, a Pas assemblyman from northern Kelantan state, blames the poor performance on what he says is the government successfully drawing comparisons between Pas and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.

Five days before the Sarawak election, the Democratic Action Party, which is largely Chinese, quit the Alternative Front, an opposition coalition that includes Pas and Keadilan. The move was largely a result of DAP frustration at Pas keeping an Islamic state as its goal. But DAP veteran Chen Man Hin said the bloodshed in the United States served as a catalyst. "We are alarmed by the calls of those who preach martyrdom and those who are prepared to die for an Islamic state," Chen told reporters. Adding to pressure on the DAP in the wake of the killings in the United States, Pas chieftain Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat said it was the duty of all Muslims to support any Islamic nation under attack.

A weakened Alternative Front strengthens Mahathir, who heads the United Malays National Organization, the dominant party in the National Front. At the same time his quick condemnation of the attacks and terrorism in general has improved ties with the United States. This contrasts with his past diatribes against Washington and the damage done to relations by the sacking of Anwar in 1998 and his jailing for abuse of power and sodomy. "Since 1998, Washington has downgraded Malaysia to negative from positive previously," says an Asian diplomat. "Now it's neutral, if not positive."

Mahathir has also gained support from his crackdown on Islamic militants just weeks before the New York and Washington attacks. In early August, police arrested 10 people--some of them Pas members--under the Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial. Police said they were members of the Mujahideen Group of Malaysia and planned to topple the government. The group's alleged leader was Nik Adli, the eldest son of Nik Abdul Aziz, the Pas chieftain. Nik Adli, through his family and lawyers, denied the allegations. But he was jailed for two years--as were eight of the others. The government said Nik Adli received military training in Afghanistan, ordered weapons to be bought in Thailand and learned bomb-making from Muslim rebels in the Philippines. In large part because of the carnage in the United States, opposition protests against the detentions were muted.

Mahathir must still tread carefully. His key constituency is the country's 60% Malay population, many of whom abandoned Umno because of Anwar's treatment. But Malays are ambivalent toward the United States because of what they see as U.S. bias on Muslim issues, particularly in the Middle East. Almost everyone deplores the attacks, but many also oppose an all-out war on impoverished and Muslim Afghanistan.

Should Malays feel that the government is slavishly backing Washington there could be a backlash. The prime minister seems to realize this. Umno officials say that a September 28 meeting of the party's Supreme Council decided that Malaysia would go with the consensus position of the Organization of Islamic Countries regarding the war against terrorism declared by the United States.

The biggest single loser in the domestic political shake-out could be Pas, which emerged from the 1999 general elections as the largest opposition party by exploiting what it said was Anwar's mistreatment by Mahathir. In the wake of the Asian economic crisis, it also accused the government of corruption and cronyism at odds with Muslim teachings.

But Western diplomats agree that the Anwar issue is fading. Pas in the past had managed to garner some of the non-Muslim vote because of its links to Keadilan, a largely Malay party, and the DAP. With the DAP out of the opposition coalition, Pas will be forced to depend on Malay votes.

Meanwhile, non-Malays and a large number of moderate Malays are alarmed by the government's talk--fuelled by state media--of growing Islamic radicalism in Malaysia. Pas hasn't helped matters by appearing to lose its moderate voice. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the party's official newspaper Harakah published a strident editorial with the title "The Coming War is a Crusade against Islam."

Such talk alarms middle-of-the-road Malays. Says a Malay businessman who supported the opposition in the last elections: "All my friends think Pas is going overboard. " Mustafa Ali, a senior Pas official, says that the editorial "doesn't necessarily reflect our views" but concedes "Mahathir has probably got some political mileage out of all this."

The government has always portrayed Malaysia as a force for moderate Islam and secular governance. But in the wake of the attacks, Mahathir has hammered away at "the dangers of extremism"--pointing for instance at the horrors of the inter-religious conflict in Aceh in Indonesia. Syed Azman Syed Ahmad, a Pas parliamentarian from Terengganu state, acknowledges the problem for the opposition. "We're being portrayed as extreme and, after the U.S. attacks, it's had an impact on the Chinese community. We have to work triply hard to regain their support," he says.

But that isn't the only danger, he adds. "It's not just national. If the government can convince the international community that we're extreme, then it will get all the support."