Sunday November 9, 2003

Staying power

By John Aglionby

A week is often considered a long time in politics. However it has only taken Malaysia's new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, five days to demonstrate that while Mahathir Mohamad might no longer be premier, Mahathirism is still very much the order of the day.
In sharp contrast to the fall of the last south-east Asian strongman, General Suharto of Indonesia in 1998, Dr Mahathir has ensured his departure will not be followed by chaotic uncertainty but a continuation of his own brand of benign authoritarianism. There has not even been a cabinet reshuffle -Mr Badawi has just taken on the finance ministry portfolio that was held by his predecessor, in addition to the home affairs ministry he already had - and no major policy changes apart from a few platitudes on fighting corruption and alleviating rural poverty.
The new prime minister is considered by most analysts to be more vulnerable to internal backstabbing from within his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), so he has delayed appointing a deputy. Defence minister Najib Razak and domestic trade and consumer affairs minister Muhyiddin Yassin, both UMNO vice presidents, are the favourites and Mr Badawi clearly wants them on side in the run-up to the next election. This is due by next November, but it is likely to be much sooner - Mr Badawi has hinted it might even be this year, while he is still riding the wave of new-leader popularity. Even the opposition admits that Mr Badawi will have little to fear from the polls. With the media and police tightly under his control and political protests all but banned, the former Islamic scholar's re-election is nearly guaranteed.
"People here will forgo a lot of things if they can survive another day and become more prosperous," said Hatta Ramli, a member of the Islamist All-Malaysia Party (PAS).
The media's lapdog loyalty was highlighted during the handover when all the main newspapers ran huge supplements, in some cases up to 96 broadsheet pages, on thanking Dr Mahathir and welcoming Mr Badawi. With the economy relatively buoyant - growth will probably top 4% this year - it is hard to find chinks in the armour. Analysts point to religion, education and ethnic-based politics as the potential problem areas.
The UMNO claims to stand for the interests of Malays, and in particular Malay Muslims, but over the last few years PAS has been chipping away at this with some success. It now controls two of the northern states in the Malay heartland, Terengganu and Kelantan, and if it wins another UMNO's whole raison d'etre will be called into question. Both sides claim to represent the true Islam and the intensity of this already extremely heated debate is likely to increase over the coming months, partly because PAS has few other avenues of attack that are not banned by law.
"The rising religious debate is a manifestation of there being no other outlet of civil rights," said Tian Chua, a leader of the People's Justice party, which is in a coalition with PAS.
During his 22 years in office Dr Mahathir built numerous infrastructure mega-projects - a capital city in the middle of the jungle, a regional alternative to silicon valley, a futuristic international airport and the Petronas Towers, which for years were the world's tallest buildings. Many analysts, however believe this "hardware" hides a failure to develop "software" as graduate unemployment and perceived corruption reach new highs.
"The emphasis was on bricks and mortar," said political analyst Chandra Muzaffar. "It should have been on the brain."
It remains to be seen if this will come to haunt Mr Badawi, but if educated people are failing to find jobs, they might no longer be willing to forgo the restriction of so many of their rights. If Mr Badawi wants to stay in power for even half as long as his predecessor's 22 years one issue observers say he will have to address is the divisive race-based nature of Malaysian politics and society. More than anything else race dominates this country that is 60% Malay with the rest fairly evenly divided between Indians and Chinese. All the political parties are based on race, although the People's Justice party and the PAS are trying to rectify that.
The 14 parties in the National Front ruling coalition are not; they would lose their identities if there was any change. But some analysts say they may have no choice.
"There's a new socio-political dynamic at work that's outside the formal political structure," said Mr Tian. "Just because we [the opposition] are weak, it won't stop the National Front self-destructing." Political analyst Farish Noor agrees. "The poor Chinese and poor Malay have much more in common than they realise," he said. "They are just kept apart by the divisive politics."
The big unknown is how long it will take for this new socio-political dynamic, which is still pretty embryonic, to take root. And perhaps more pertinently, what will be Mr Badawi's reaction if it does.

The above article appeared in The Guardian of Thursday November 6, 2003