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TheAge: Mahathir's Resurrection
By Mark Baker
24/11/2001 9:01 am Sat
By MARK BAKER
In four weeks he will celebrate his 76th birthday. He has been an
MP for almost four decades and his nation's leader for more than
half that time. When he first came to power, Ferdinand Marcos ruled
the Philippines by martial law, Vietnamese troops occupied
Cambodia and Bill Hayden was as close as a drover's dog to
becoming prime minister of Australia.
Earlier this year, many in Malaysia, including senior members of the
ruling United Malays National Organisation, were preparing the
political obituaries for Mahathir Mohamad, whose tenure as the
Asia-Pacific region's longest-serving leader appeared to be fast
approaching its end. Now Dr Mahathir seems assured of remaining
Malaysia's Prime Minister for as long as he likes or lives.
Thanks to the extraordinary international events of the past 10 weeks
and some deft political footwork at home, there has been a sea
change in Malaysian politics: The country's resurgent opposition
parties are in disarray and Dr Mahathir is riding the crest of the
global political tide that helped sweep the Howard Government back
to power in Australia this month.
"He was in real trouble earlier this year, but September 11 was a
watershed," says veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, head of
the Democratic Action Party (DAP). "It has helped him and many
others, Howard included. It has been a salvation for incumbents."
But the shift in Dr Mahathir's political fortunes owes as much to his
shrewd political tactics - and what has now been exposed as the
fundamental weaknesses that lie beneath the veneer of the
opposition's achievements - as it does to the climate in which he
has been able to reassert his leadership.
The purging three years ago of deputy prime minister and heir
apparent Anwar Ibrahim was the point at which Dr Mahathir's
political success as the architect of Malaysia's economic
modernisation began to unravel. Many Malaysians and, most
importantly, many of UMNO's traditional Malay supporters were
deeply shocked by the treatment of the respected Mr Anwar, who
was bashed in custody by the then police chief and later jailed for
15 years on now widely discredited corruption and sodomy charges.
At the last general elections two years ago, the UMNO-led Barisan
National coalition retained power with a majority of almost two-thirds
of the national seats, but suffered a sharp drop in its vote and big
gains for the opposition parties, particularly the religious-based
party, PAS (Parti Islam se-Malaysia), which captured control of a
second state government and consolidated its position across the
country. A year ago, Dr Mahathir was humiliated when UMNO was
thrashed at a byelection in his home state of Kedah, a seat in which
the ruling party had never before been seriously challenged.
The underlying erosion in support for UMNO was compounded by
mounting evidence of corruption and nepotism within the leadership
and the harsh crackdown on political dissent ordered by an
increasingly bitter and desperate Prime Minister. By earlier this year,
political analysts, diplomats and some senior figures within UMNO
were beginning to canvass the once-unthinkable prospect of UMNO
losing the next election to the opposition coalition, Barisan Alternatif.
It is more than a little ironic that the United States - the country that
for years has rivalled Australia as the favorite whipping boy in Dr
Mahathir's anti-Western rhetoric - has now emerged as the catalyst
for his political resurrection.
The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and America's
decision to strike back at Osama bin Laden and his Taliban
protectors were just the opportunity Dr Mahathir needed to drive an
ideological wedge through the disparate ranks of the opposition
alliance and to reassert his leadership with the imprimatur of a
superpower anxious to secure the backing of moderate Islamic states
for its war in Afghanistan.
Prior to September 11, the Bush administration had been frosty in its
dealings with Malaysia. At least three envoys sent to Washington by
Dr Mahathir were reportedly told that the future course of the
relationship hinged on Malaysia's treatment of Mr Anwar and a
clutch of other opposition figures jailed without trial under the
infamous Internal Security Act.
By the end of September, President George W. Bush was on the
phone to Dr Mahathir soliciting his support, Dr Mahathir was writing
to Mr Bush with his suggestions for combating global terrorism and,
during the APEC summit in Shanghai late in October, Mr Bush held
detailed talks with the Malaysian leader - a courtesy not extended
to his Australian counterpart, who had already rushed to offer much
more than moral support.
Dr Mahathir's cautious backing for military action in Afghanistan left
him well positioned when PAS leapt to denounce the war, defending
the Taliban and calling for a holy war against the US. A peaceful
protest by about 3000 PAS supporters outside the US embassy in
Kuala Lumpur, led by PAS president Fadzil Mohamad Noor, was
broken up by riot police using water cannon.
The vehemence of the PAS stance made it much easier for Dr
Mahathir to tread the fine line between opposing terrorism and
supporting a war unpopular among many Malays sympathetic to the
plight of their Muslim brethren in Afghanistan - and gave him
powerful new ammunition in his long-running campaign to paint PAS
as a party of extremists determined to impose a hardline Islamic state
in multi-ethnic Malaysia if given half a chance.
"Prior to September 11, PAS was on the ascendancy and
challenging the pre-eminence of UMNO," says Abdul Razak
Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research
Centre. "Now PAS is being seen increasingly as an extreme party.
This could well be the end of the infatuation of the Malay middle
class with PAS."
The charge of extremism is strongly denied by the PAS leadership,
which also condemned the terrorist attacks in the US, and it is not
supported by the experience of the states where PAS now rules and
accepts the rights and freedoms of the minority Chinese and Indian
"PAS is part of Barisan Alternatif and within BA we have agreed that
the issue of an Islamic state does not arise," the leadership said.
"Our objective is the continuance of parliamentary democracy, good
governance, fighting against nepotism and cronyism. We accept that
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state and that's why
we agreed to create the Barisan Alternatif. We respect the processes
Whether fairly or not, Dr Mahathir succeeded in making the mud
stick while at the same time exploiting already emerging divisions
within the opposition coalition over PAS's appeal to religious
Less than a fortnight after the September 11 attacks, the DAP
announced that it was quitting Barisan Alternatif, which was formed
after the arrest of Mr Anwar in 1998 - a decision Lim Kit Siang says
was sealed after PAS refused to formally declare that it would not
seek to impose an Islamic state in the event that the coalition won
Simmering tensions were also set to boil over within Keadilan, the
party founded by Anwar supporters and led by his wife, Dr Wan
Early in October, Keadilan's deputy president and chief idealogue,
Chandra Muzaffar, resigned his party post and attacked PAS for
supporting the Taliban. Several other prominent party figures also
announced that they were quitting, citing factional rivalry. That
rivalry was paraded at Keadilan's annual conference last weekend
after a leadership ballot in which four prominent members associated
with the Islamic youth movement, ABIM, were dropped from the
party's supreme council - apparently out of concern that
associations with ABIM were tainting the party's secular image.
Mr Baginda believes Dr Mahathir has now re-established a political
momentum that will carry him through to the elections in three years'
time - provided he steers Malaysia through the current sharp
economic downturn as successfully as he did after the 1997
"People are looking at Dr Mahathir in a quite different light now," Mr
Baginda says. "They are seeing him as someone who has put the
interests of the state before personal considerations in his moves to
clean up the party and they are recognising his ability to offer strong
leadership in difficult times. I would argue that he has redeemed
himself. I think he is a much better leader than he was a few years
But Fadzil Mohamad Noor insists that Dr Mahathir's recent success
in reasserting his authority will be short lived.
"His popularity may have risen recently, but the people still see so
many issues of injustice in this country and they are very disturbed
by what is happening. As long as these issues of injustice continue,
especially the use of the Internal Security Act, and the case of
Anwar Ibrahim is not settled justly, we know that the trend will
continue and support among the Malay community for UMNO will