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MGG: BKAdil: Is The Opposition Relevant in Malaysia?
By M.G.G. Pillai

15/4/2002 12:18 pm Mon

Berita KeADILan

April 2002

Is The Opposition Relevant in Malaysia?

M.G.G. Pillai

UMNO's stranglehold on Malaysian politics is loosened not because the Opposition forced it but because its heir apparent was forced out of the party and into the Opposition after a botched leadership struggle. If the UMNO president (and prime minister) Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed had expelled the UMNO deputy president (and deputy prime minister), Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, UMNO would remain the force it was before that fateful day on 02 September 1998. For UMNO was THE party of the Malays, in whose name the country is run. But Dr Mahathir would not leave well enough alone. Frightened at Dato' Seri Anwar's organisation and reach, he decided to make him an example to other potential plotters of the future. What better way, he thought, than make him out a homosexual and render him unfit to lead a Muslim nation. This, he felt, would spread fear in the anti-Mahathir group within UMNO.

Only it backfired. Malay feudal leadership is a compact -- as the Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals) tells us -- between the feudal Lord in return for absolute fealty promised his chieftains to kill them but not under any circumstances humiliate them if they be treacherous. It brought the Malay out into the streets by the tens of thousands, and UMNO and with the National Front (BN) lost its political gravitas and raison d'etre. The Malay, aghast at this breach of feudal etiquette, his anger seething at the innumerable hurts and slights he faced, rose in revolt to seek justice for Dato' Seri Anwar, as a wronged feudal chieftain. Suddenly, Malaysia has an opposition UMNO could not control. It is this that gives the Opposition its raison d'etre although one has existed in UMNO's shadow from the first days of representational politics.

This Malay political and cultural breach gave it life, but the Opposition, sans strategic and tactical sense of its role, could not turn Dr Mahathir's cultural misjudgement to its advantage. Those who went into the Opposition insisted it had a special role and expected special terms. The comic antics of forming an Opposition front could not damage a faltering UMNO and BN, and ensured its historical irrelevance. But UMNO and BN quake in their boots at what Dato' Seri Anwar wrought, and no more dictate Malaysian politics as once they did. UMNO particularly is ever more autocratic and dictatorial to staunch Malay anger. The courts become armed enclaves whenever he has his day in court. It is frightened of his shadow, and the longer he is in prison the worse off it is for the Prime Minister and his party.

UMNO's survival depends paradoxically on Dato' Seri Anwar. If he remains in prison, UMNO's appeal to the country at large is nominal. If he is out of prison, his value to UMNO -- and with it a chance to fight hard for the Malay cultural ground -- is his return to the party that reduces him for the rest of his life, when all is said and done, to near incurable back problems that confines him to a wheelchair and neck brace. Could he? He could, if he becomes the heir apparent once again. Would he? That is not the issue: for UMNO cannot survive if it does not make amends with him.

Which is how Malaysians came to believe the talk that the two protagonists met in a four-wheeler in a drive to Janda Baik. They did not. But their representatives did. Which is the basis of the Sun story of a plot to kill Dr Mahathir. It was spread, so I gather, by UMNO members to warn their leaders of the consequences of Dato' Seri Anwar's return. The Sun did not print an exclusive it thought it had. The Inspector-General of Police, Tan Sri Norian Mai, himself had told reporters of all newspapers with the request it be not publicised. The Sun, for reasons of its own, published it when the deputy home minister told them to take their own decision. When the government is so unconcerned about it, what happened was inexplicable. But it reflects the total fright within UMNO of anything that remotely is linked to Dato' Seri Anwar.

The Opposition is weak, but UMNO and BN is weaker. The Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), as always, harped on its vision of a Islamic theological Malaysia. UMNO, in its moment of weakness, turned to Islam as its political platform in the hope the Malay would turn to it than PAS. Malaysia is an Islamic state, the Prime Minister thundered, but he would not allow it discussed in Parliament. He did not want a debate with PAS on it but suddenly politics in Malaysia is Islamic centred. It is, as the Shah of Iran found to his eternal cost, not one UMNO could win. Like the Shah, Dr Mahathir adopts Islam to out-PAS PAS's theocratic agenda. When he declared Malaysia an Islamic state, the PAS mentri besar of Kelantan, Dato' Nik Aziz Nik Mat, promply described it an instant Islamic state. That pushed the debate out of the public eye. Dr Mahathir does not talk of it any more. UMNO is defensive in matters of Islam yet again. But he cannot walk away from it without another conflagration in UMNO.

What is missed here is that the most dramatic transformation of Malaysian politics is forced upon UMNO and BN by an Opposition party, PAS. The future of Malaysian politics has become Islamic. The only choice open to Malaysians is: which brand of Islam do they prefer, UMNO or PAS. The non-Malay political parties in BN and Opposition -- MCA, Gerakan, MIC, DAP amongst others -- think they can wean the country out of this. They cannot. They have no choice but accept it in the end. For they, like all political parties, look to the future in short term spurts, to win skirmishes than win the war. BN and the Opposition cannot get together now because of this divide religion forced into their ranks. It is the first time Malaysia's national overview changed because the Opposition forced BN and UMNO to. The clock cannot be turned back because only UMNO could and that is only possible if it wants to commit political seppukku again.

In other words there is a meeting of minds in the Malay community over Islam, and the non-Malays slept through it. It could have been stopped if the non-Malay parties in BN and Opposition had looked upon it not to score political points with the non-Malay opposition but as one they would have to carry their communities along. They could not. Each had its problems with the dominant Malay political party representing each faction: UMNO for BN and PAS for the Opposition. Without a debate, this agenda is now an article of faith for both. It cannot now be reversed.

In UMNO and in Opposition this changing of the national agenda is viewed with concern by Malays and non-Malays by this political hijacking of Islam by UMNO. The cultural Malay is nervous of this dominant influence of Islam in his life, and looks for an alternative. With DAP confrontational and the BN parties of little help, they look to Parti KeADILan and Parti Rakyat Malaysia to look after their interest in a secular Malaysia. It compounds UMNO's nervousness of the party formed originally to free Dato' Seri Anwar from prison but which moved quickly enough to a more central role in Malaysian politics.

UMNO seethes at this development, and the arrest of KeADILan activists under the Internal Security Act is in part to remove any who actives promotes its cause. It wants KeADILan destroyed, PRM is too small to bother now though it could be a threat in the long run, and UMNO hopes it could snare its nemesis back into its fold: that it hopes could kill two birds with one stone. But there's many a slip 'betwixt the cup and the lip. The Opposition's new found strength is fixated, like UMNO, to what the man in Sungei Buloh would do. That is good neither for UMNO nor BN. As for the Opposition, the jury is still out.

M.G.G. Pillai