ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Rocky road ahead for Malaysia
, September 27, 2008
Instability in Malaysian looks likely to continue for some time, writes Jeffry Babb.The Internet has changed many things, not least of them Malaysian politics. It's been impossible for the ruling National Front to keep a lid on dissent. The last month has seen opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's miraculous return to parliament, threatening the Malay old guard's iron grip on power.
The National Front has ruled for 51 years, since Malaysia's independence from Britain. The effective ruling power is UMNO, composed of Malays, who form a majority of the population. Other race-based front organisations represent the Chinese and Indians. In other words, politics has been based on race.
Malaysia has never been a poor country. Traditionally, its economy was based around tin, rubber and palm oil. The ups and downs of the commodity cycle saw periodic booms and busts, much like Australia.
The rulers of independent Malaysia were drawn from the Malay aristocracy, who controlled the government. The Chinese ran businesses, and the Indians worked mainly in menial tasks.
Until the race riots of 1969, Malaysia was more or less peaceful. Malaysia, which has a population a bit larger than Australia's, then embarked on the New Economic Policy, aimed at redistributing wealth towards the Malays. This maintained a delicate racial balance, but it was not until the mid-1980s, when Dr Mahathir Mohamed gained power, that Malaysia reached economic prosperity.
Manufacturing, fuelled by foreign investment, took off. Malaysia became a successful exporter of manufactured goods, especially electronics. Mahathir was a skilful and ruthless prime minister, who used the draconian Internal Security Act to keep his enemies under control. When the young Anwar Ibrahim, who looked to be his likely successor, became too uppity, he had him jailed on trumped-up sodomy charges.
The political elite hoped Mahathir would stay out of politics once he retired as PM, but he refused to shut up. He launched his own website, named after his pen-name "Chedet", in which he regularly comments on current political trends. Mahathir, formerly a rural medical doctor, started his political career as a newspaper columnist.
Anwar, released from jail following the retirement of Mahathir, recently regained his seat in the parliament in a by-election in his old electorate, where his wife had been a seat-warmer. Anwar, though originally making his entry into politics as an Islamic radical student leader, now leads a multi-racial party - the first such effective party in Malaysian history. His wife is a highly educated Chinese, most unusual for a Malay politician.
In the March elections, the opposition led by Anwar made significant gains; and the ruling coalition lost the two-thirds majority necessary to change the constitution. Anwar vowed to win over enough National Front lawmakers to gain power by Malaysia Day, September 16, and sent envoys to Taiwan, where some 50 government parliamentarians were on a "study tour".
If Anwar can break the National Front's iron grip on power, it will be the first such transfer of government since independence. The government's preferred outcome is that current PM Abdullah Badawi will retire in several years to make way for Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Najib Razak, a Malay aristocrat related to several former prime ministers.
Najib, however, has his own problems. In one of the more spectacular scandals of recent years, political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, a confidant of Najib, has been implicated in the death of a beautiful Mongolian model, whose body was blown apart, apparently by government-issue explosives.
Speculation has mounted recently that Najib will make a bid for power in the near future if Anwar looks like succeeding in converting members of the ruling coalition to his cause.
Instability in Malaysian politics looks likely to continue for some time. Preferential treatment for Malays in education, business and the professions has certainly lifted some Malays to great wealth and created a Malay middle-class; but this prosperity has not necessarily trickled down to village level.
The Malay elite has certainly benefited, and Malaysia is a far more prosperous country than before Mahathir took over; but as incomes have increased, so has the resentment among those left behind.Crony capitalism
The Indians complain that they have been neglected, and millions of migrant workers, mainly Indonesians, keep wages down. Crony capitalism flourishes, but has not reached the level of the Philippines under Marcos. The government is held accountable and extra-judicial executions are not common.
Freedom House in New York, however, classifies Malaysia as "partly free" and on a downward trend. Human Rights Watch reports that the Internal Security Act "has been used in recent years to jail mainstream politicians, alleged Islamist militants, trade unionists, suspected Communist activists, ordinary criminal suspects and members of 'deviant' Muslim sects, among others". Over 700 prisoners are reportedly being held without trial or charge in the Kamunting Detention Centre.
Anwar has once more been charged with sodomy, a charge greeted with widespread public derision. The Malay old guard will not give up power easily.- Jeffry Babb.