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ATimes: Dialogue the way out of a state of flux
By Anil Netto
29/10/2001 3:18 pm Mon
[Pembangkang bercelaru dipermainkan oleh Mahathir dengan satu dua isu mudah
sahaja... Pembangkang mempunyai banyak modal percuma tetapi banyak yang
dipersiakan begitu sahaja. Kalau beginilah sikap pembangkang mereka akan
kesibukkan menepis sahaja sedangkan ruang sudah semakin tiada.
'The opposition should always pressure the BN government and dictate the issue -
not the other way round.'
October 30, 2001
Dialogue the way out of a state of flux
By Anil Netto
PENANG - Many would agree that Prime Minister Mahathir
Mohamad has further entrenched himself in power after the events of
September 11. Amid the uncertainty among many Malaysians over
the future, he has positioned himself as the only person capable of
holding the country together in the face of sundry threats posed by
alleged "extremist groups".
His strengthened position is also due to the inability of the opposition
to coalesce into a genuinely multi-ethnic movement for change.
Many non-Muslims these days are wary of the unknown - in this
case, of the model of Islam that the opposition alliance could usher
in if it came to power.
Of particular comfort to Mahathir are the renewed ties with the United
States after his recent meeting with President George W Bush during
the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in
Shanghai. Relations were strained when then vice president Al Gore
expressed his admiration for reformasi demonstrators during an
earlier APEC dinner in Kuala Lumpur as Mahathir looked on, a
glazed look concealing his irritation.
Mahathir's stand in expressing his reservations over the
indiscriminate US strikes on Afghanistan has not stopped him from
supporting the "war against terror" - and all that it implies. Endorsing
the "war against terror" probably means that governments need no
longer look over their shoulders to justify repressive actions against
In particular, human rights workers can expect less international
outrage whenever the feared Internal Security Act is used to haul in
anyone the government considers "a threat to national security".
Already some 80 Malaysians are languishing in the Kamunting
Detention Camp north of Kuala Lumpur. They are accused of a range
of alleged offenses from trying to "topple the government", belonging
to a so-called Malaysian Mujahidin Group (KMM), to forging
passports. All of them have been denied the right to a fair trial.
There is already a ban on ceramahs or political gatherings - a key
channel for the opposition to reach out to the public, in the absence
of meaningful access to the mainstream media.
The risk is that politics in Malaysia will become polarized between
different interpretations of an Islamic state - UMNO's more
"moderate" interpretation using existing constitutional provisions and
Islamic party PAS' stricter interpretation, which would probably
require a constitutional amendment.
The key question is where does this leave advocates of a civil
society who want a society built on justice and human rights. If a
new vision of Malaysian society is to emerge, it can only be through
a dialogue between secular civil society advocates and those who
want an Islamic state.
It is not inconceivable that an alternative vision - a third force -
could emerge that seeks to fuse lofty civil society aspirations with
noble spiritual values from Islam and other religious traditions.
In hindsight, the reformasi phenomenon unleashed in 1998 was
perhaps a manifestation of that desire for an alternative model of
society. But the movement - multi-ethnic, broad-based, bringing
together different strands of society - was never given a chance to
evolve into a genuine people's movement.
Right from the word go, the movement was harassed, beaten back,
suppressed. This continued even after a new party, the National
Justice Party (KEADILAN) led by Wan Azizah Wan Ibrahim, the wife
of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, was formed in 1999.
Indeed, if there is one person who could have brought together the
different strands of Malaysian politics, it may have been Anwar.
When he was sacked from government in September 1998, crowds
representing a broad cross-section of society thronged his home.
But today he is ailing, not allowed to travel abroad for the medical
treatment of his choice, and virtually out of the public gaze while
serving jail terms totaling 15 years.
In April of this year, 10 prominent reformasi activists, many of them
KEADILAN youth leaders, were detained under the ISA and
immediately the movement's main mobilizers were out of action.
Today reformasi appears to have gone underground - it is hard to
gauge the support of the movement, given the absence of opinion
polls, the lack of media coverage, and the ban on political
The ruling coalition itself faces no immediate threat from the
opposition, which has fallen into disarray. The Islamic state issue has
split the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front), the four-party
opposition alliance. In September, the multi-ethnic Chinese-based
Democratic Action Party pulled out of the alliance citing differences
with Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). That left PAS, KEADILAN and the
tiny multi-ethnic Malaysian People's Party (PRM) in the rump
In a sense, this parting of ways reflects the inability or unwillingness
of secular civil society advocates and those aspiring for a
conservative Islamic state to sustain their dialogue.
By reining in the broad-based reformasi movement, the government,
however, has unwittingly strengthened PAS' hand. But PAS has
failed to capitalize on its renewed strength. By calling for a jihad -
no matter how liberal its interpretation was - it has put off a
significant number of non-Muslims. This means the Barisan Alternatif
will find it harder to win back non-Muslim support in coming months.
Not all is well with the ruling coalition though. The main Chinese
party in the coalition - the Malaysian Chinese Association - has
been rocked by factional infighting. Much of the support - especially
ethnic Malay/Muslim support - for Mahathir could ebb if the
economic slowdown in Malaysia is prolonged.
Most analysts are expecting little growth this year and there are
strong indications that a recession is already under way. That makes
the 4-5 percent official economic growth forecast for next year look
much too rosy.
All this leaves Malaysian politics in a state of flux and somewhat
polarized between the ruling coalition, increasingly reliant on
non-Muslim support, and a re-energized Islamic-based opposition.
Mahathir's position may have been temporarily strengthened, but if the war in Afghanistan is prolonged and if the local economy slides further, he could well turn to more repressive measures to quell dissent.