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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.'
- Editor

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 domestic dissent.

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 gatherings.

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 alliance.

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.