Malaysian opposition parties struggle to seize the opening created by Mahathir’s campaign against Anwar

Developing Just Leadership

Abdar Rahman Koya

Safar 16, 1420 1999-06-01

South-East Asia

by Abdar Rahman Koya (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 7, Safar, 1420)

Politics in Malaysia is at a crossroads. The aftermath, or rather the aftershock of Anwar’s verdict, which virtually all Malaysians have now dismissed as a shameless show-trial, is still felt all over the country. The judgement, as Anwar himself described it, ‘stinks to high heaven’.

Street protests, however, have been abandoned for fear of police brutality. The involvement of police agents provocateurs, the threat of arrests and police brutality have driven them off the streets, at least for the time being. Recent experience on the streets proved disastrous to Reformasi. But that is not to suggest that Reformasi, the movement for political, economic and judicial reforms started by Anwar, has died. Instead it is reflected in the number of people attending programs held by opposition parties, especially the Islamic Party, PAS, which has emerged as the most organised opposition party.

People who have hitherto not bothered about politics - professionals, businessmen, retired government servants, and the youth - are now politically active. A series of bizarre pro-government propaganda claims in the Mahathir-controlled media have forced Malaysians to switch off the television news and log-on for the more believable ‘rumours’ disseminated on Internet websites. The government’s claim that the economy is now recovering is frankly disbelieved.

The job situation has shown no improvement, with thousands of graduates unemployed and barely able to make ends meet. But local Internet service providers have reported that the number of new subscribers is rocketing. That is one area in which the government is helpless. One journalist aptly described the current scene in the country as being a cross between George Orwell’s 1984 and Bill Gates’s Windows 95.

All indications are that the general election is just around the corner. PAS looks strong and mature enough to challenge the secular UMNO and its claim to represent the Muslim Malays in the country. UMNO’s hold on the Malay psyche seems to be breaking.

But recent revelations indicate that even the election, the only remaining semblance of democracy in the country, would not be clean. A recent investigation into the electoral roll by PAS and other opposition parties revealed thousands of non-existent names registered using false identity card numbers. ‘Phantom voters’ have been a weapon by the ruling UMNO machinery to sway the final election results. Such practices, suspected in the recently concluded State elections in the Eastern state of Sabah, where the UMNO-led alliance won a clear victory, have been confirmed. The secret police were deployed at polling centres to prevent opposition party observers from monitoring the process. The media, meanwhile, is used to instill fear of racial troubles if the ruling party loses the elections. All parties have appealed to various racial sentiments to gain support depending on the audience. But the ruling regime has been the greatest benefactor of its own divide-and-rule politics.

UMNO, although it claims to be an Islamic party, has deliberately created an Islamophobia among the non-Muslims who constitute 45 percent of Malaysia’s population. Mahathir has deliberately played the fear card to discredit PAS aspirations for an Islamic state if it comes to power. This has led PAS to play down its Islamic state concept for the time being, saying the more pressing issues of injustice and corruption should be addressed collectively with all other parties.

Since it is clear now that UMNO has lost the support of a majority of Malays, it depends on Chinese votes to remain in power. A recent gathering in the southern state of Johore attracted less than 200 people, even though the media reported 15,000 people. The Chinese know this weakness of UMNO and the MCA, a Chinese party in the UMNO-led alliance, support it all the way.

Many even predict that UMNO will collapse soon after the next general election. An UMNO minister has claimed that people are now abandoning government-controlled mosques which dish out pro-UMNO sermons and going for other mosques. The minister suggested UMNO may introduce ‘Shari’ah’ legislation to stop people from going to mosques of their choice! Such ignorance of Islam reflects the nakedness of UMNO since the ouster of Anwar Ibrahim, the ‘Islamist’ prime-minister-in-waiting who failed to ‘reform’ the secular system from within.

PAS, despite the great inroads it has made recently, is in a dilemma. Many issues have still not been addressed. One is that, while it maintains its aspiration to establish an Islamic state, it has to deal with the so-called ‘moderate’ Malay Muslims, who are disenchanted with the ruling regime, and the non-Muslim Chinese who are still suspicious of an Islamic leadership.

Among Muslims, difficult questions are being asked about its stance on women candidates; its position is that ‘it is not proper for the time being’. The recent controversy in Turkey has put the party in a dilemma: on one hand, its widely-circulated tabloid Harakah splashes stories condemning Turkey’s secular fundamentalists, on the other PAS must explain why the ‘Islamist’ women of Turkey and Iran are allowed to stand as candidates but Malaysian women are not. Such issues have made even some PAS sympathisers reluctant to openly support it. Many are more comfortable with the newly-formed National Justice Party (KeADILan).

KeADILan is headed by Anwar’s wife Dr Wan Azizah Ismail, a woman of strong religious background who commands support Muslims and non-Muslims. The party now attracts defecting UMNO supporters and says that it wants to work with all parties to topple the UMNO-led alliance in the coming elections. PAS has also openly shown its support for Azizah should she decide to contest in Mahathir’s parliamentary constituency in northern Kedah state.

In a recent interview, Azizah said she supported plans by PAS to set up an Islamic state if the opposition parties come into power. ‘But you mustn’t have this misconceived idea that Islamic state is the chopping of hands and segregation of sexes. This is just a rough and almost unjust view of Islam,’ she said, referring to UMNO’s tactics to scare away non-Muslim support for her.

But even as election fever is in the air, the show trial of Anwar continues. On June 7 his second trial, involving a charge of sodomy begins. But trials and court cases have become as irrelevant as Malaysia’s corrupt judiciary. Anwar has recently slammed the Attorney General for his selective prosecution. A lawyer who recently met him in prison, said that even the former leader was not bothered by the ridiculous charges being brought against him. One may as well concentrate on the more important things in life.

The next few months will be crucial to decide the future of Malaysia. Whether or not the country is going down the drain ‘Indonesia-style’ remains to be seen. What is clear is that the Muslims cannot afford to miss this chance to punish Mahathir for his total contempt of decency and public opinion.

Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1999

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