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ATimes: 'Reformasi' running out of steam
By Anil Netto
27/9/2001 8:45 am Thu
'Reformasi' running out of steam
By Anil Netto
PENANG, Malaysia - Lim Boon Tong insists that the Reformasi movement
is still alive and kicking. The 36-year-old information bureau chief
of the National Justice Party (Keadilan) believes that Malaysian Prime
Minister Mahathir Mohamad "wants Malaysians to forget about
Reformasi", but he is adamant that "Reformasi is very much alive".
Reformasi is the movement for wide-ranging reforms that was spawned by
the sacking and subsequent arrest of the then deputy premier Anwar
Ibrahim three years ago.
Many find Tong's declarations hard to swallow these days, even those
who want to believe in what he is saying. Just last week, the third
anniversary of Anwar's arrest slipped by almost unnoticed on September
20 - ignored by the mainstream media and largely overshadowed by
events in the United States and Afghanistan. One pro-establishment
columnist even scoffed: "Anwar who?"
As if that wasn't bad enough, two days later, the opposition alliance,
the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front), which was also formed in
the wake of Anwar's arrest, suffered a major blow when one of the
coalition partners announced it was pulling out. The multi-ethnic but
Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) decided to withdraw from
the front following differences with an alliance partner, the Pan
Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), over the latter's ideological goal of
setting up an Islamic state. The DAP expressed concern that it would
lose its traditional support from Chinese Malaysians, who make up
about a quarter of the country's 23 million population, due to the
party's link with PAS within the alliance.
Analysts say that the DAP's departure could erode Chinese and Indian
support for the Barisan Alternatif, as the Keadilan, led by Anwar's
wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, may now be perceived to be more closely
associated with PAS. The other party in the alliance is the small
multi-ethnic Malaysian People's Party, which is predicted to be
merging with Keadilan soon.
Toh Kin Woon, who heads the Penang state government's education
portfolio and is a member of the ruling Barisan Nasional (National
Front), even believes that the DAP's pull-out is a setback not only
for the Barisan Alternatif. "It will come as a disappointment to
people who want a two-party system," observed Toh, one of the more
progressive voices in the Barisan Nasional. "The DAP to me is taking a
rather short-term view in its political calculations, looking at [the
next election due by] 2004." He added that the party appears more
concerned about being linked with the more radical elements within PAS
than anything else.
Analysts also say that the party seems determined to take full
advantage of its support from the ethnic Chinese, who are likely to
play a crucial role in future polls given the political split among
the majority ethnic Malays. Toh points out that there is a sizeable
force of moderate elements within the ranks of the opposition
alliance, including PAS, which the DAP could have cultivated. "But,"
he concedes, "it takes time to build them up."
Lim, though, is confident that Keadilan, as well as the Reformasi
movement, has not been put in any danger because of DAP's departure
from the alliance, saying that his party enjoys ethnic Chinese
support. Many Reformasi sympathisers, however, are not so sure. They
say that with the DAP's pull-out and Anwar himself serving jail
sentences totalling 15 years, the future of Reformasi looks somewhat
uncertain. Others say official moves against Reformasi have had
tremendous impact as well on the movement and seem to have weakened
"If Reformasi appears to have slowed down, it may have something to do
with curbs on the media and on freedom of assembly," observes media
analyst Mustafa Anuar. "All these have played a part in making
Reformasi activities less visible."
Indeed, mass demonstrations have petered out, due largely to stringent
police curbs. Political talks have been banned throughout the country,
excluding the north Borneo state of Sarawak, where a state election
will be held on September 27. Last April, 10 leading Reformasi
campaigners were detained without trial under the Internal Security
Act (ISA) for allegedly supporting militant Reformasi activities to
"topple the government". Six of these activists are still under
In the universities, a hive of anti-establishment sentiment, students
have been cowed into silence following stern official action. Two
students were detained under the ISA in July, though they were later
released, while others have been threatened with suspension. In
August, police detained 10 men, mainly PAS activists and supporters,
again under the ISA, for alleged involvement in a so-called Malaysian
Mujahideen Group (KMM), which somehow got renamed the "Malaysian
Militant Group". PAS has flatly denied any involvement in any such
group, while human rights groups have demanded that evidence of the
Malaysian Militant Group's existence be produced.
Some observers now also say that the spectre of militant activity
outside the country may make Malaysians more wary of opting for the
unknown within. In truth, even veteran politicians like Toh find it
difficult to gauge if the Reformasi movement still has sizeable public
Nevertheless, Toh believes that Anwar remains a force to reckon with. He says of the jailed opposition leader: "I don't think that he is a spent force. He still has his charisma." As it is, there are still many Malaysians who believe Anwar could make a comeback once Mahathir leaves. They say that if there is anyone who could bring all the different forces together, it would be Anwar. But the key question for some analysts is whether he would follow through with his reformist agenda.