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SEPTEMBER 1 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 34 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

The Way Forward
Tensions over Anwar make reforms imperative in Malaysia

ALSO:
Remembering Justice:
Honor a Hong Kong official by letting the legal system work

On the surface, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is now unchallenged. His rival, former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim, twice convicted, is serving sentences that will keep him — unless he is pardoned — behind bars for at least nine more years. Second, it may appear that the political and economic issues that fired Anwar's rallying cry of reformasi largely languish with him. Third, the PM commands a solid majority in Parliament. In reality, of course, smoldering crisis besets the Malaysian leadership. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) that leads the Barisan Nasional coalition is struggling to hold its own at grassroots level. A political consequence of these travails is that the need for reforms has never been more pressing.

The saga of Anwar's arrest and trials has come close to isolating Malaysia. In key Western countries, where Malaysia must court investment if not respect, the Aug. 8 judgment against him for sodomy was denounced in stark terms. Typical was the U.S. State Department's statement that it "casts a serious doubt on the impartiality and independence of the Malaysian judiciary." Small comfort to Malaysia was that neighboring countries whose leaders gave voice to criticism after Anwar's arrest and beating in 1998 now stayed silent. At a time when ASEAN is drifting (see SPECIAL REPORT, page 44), its states held to the tenet of non-interference.

The bitter legacy of the Anwar trials is most troubling at home. It has caused deep divisions — political and religious — among Malaysians and put serious strains on UMNO and the government. Indeed, as voters search for alternatives, UMNO is beginning to look a little like the Congress party of India in its declining years. It may be farfetched to think that the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) and its allies could oust the coalition that has ruled Malaysia since Independence in 1957. Yet few predicted 10 years ago the rise to power in India of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Though Barisan won more than three-quarters of the seats last November, about half the Malay votes went to Pas and the National Justice Party headed by Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. Barisan owed its majority to the votes of the Chinese, Indians and East Malaysians. The election left fractures across society which haven't healed. Those Malays who seek an Islamic state are riding high and a few radicals appear to have opted for armed rebellion. In the mainstream, some Malays want more concessions for their community from the weakened UMNO, countered by talk among Chinese leaders of paring down affirmative action for Malays.

One reason Mahathir has appeared strong is that the economy is doing well. After the Crisis struck in 1997, he eschewed the conventional fixes and took his own road to a relatively successful recovery. Yet it remains to be seen whether the economy's performance can be sustained — particularly in the face of globalization. There are underlying weaknesses that could well show up when the competition gets tougher, as it inevitably will. Not least, major industries, some headed by friends of the PM, are coddled and subsidized.

Amid the political tensions, how best can Malaysia move forward? Mahathir, now 74, has said he will be too old to lead come next election. That's probably in 2004 and reforms cannot, and need not, wait for the next leader. The national ordeal of the Anwar trials makes political and other revitalization ever more urgent. UMNO knows that it must match the impact of the invigorated opposition. Within the party there is a rededication to hard work at the grassroots because of the imperative to win back voters. One great need is to attract more young and educated people into UMNO.

Many in UMNO want reforms to overhaul laws and institutions. Initiatives must be taken — and pressed. Some Barisan backbenchers are calling for a review of the Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial. UMNO's youth wing has called for possible changes to the Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses & Publications Act. Deputy PM Abdullah Badawi recently met with a media delegation to hear its request that the latter act, under which the government can close newspapers, be abolished. Meanwhile, technology is forcing change. The online newspaper Malaysiakini has pushed the established media to be more balanced, as when it covered Wan Azizah's opening speech in Parliament.

A promising development is the government's establishment of the National Human Rights Council. It bucked ministers and the police by insisting that people had a right to gather outside the court to hear the latest Anwar verdict. While council observers wearing armbands were present, and the police allowed people to assemble peacefully, another gathering was dispersed with water cannon, arrests were made, and some participants claimed they were beaten up at the police station.

None of the moves so far are major steps in reform, which must be pursued with determination. One area of reform that needs impetus from the top is business, particularly greater transparency and a level playing field — whichever corporate boss is involved. Good economic growth now is a poor excuse for not acting, and is a self-defeating approach. The tensions generated by the Anwar trials, as well as prudent planning, make this reform unavoidable.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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