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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 8, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 40

Malaysia's Electoral Pivot
Barisan and the opposition court the Chinese
By JONATHAN SPRAGUE and SANTHA OORJITHAM Kuala Lumpur

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China: Right Down the Middle
On the economy, Jiang Zemin wants it fast and slow
• Party Time - for Some

Taiwan: Shocks and Aftershocks
The political effects of the eartquake will be more enduring

Malaysia's Electoral Pivot
Barisan and the opposition court the Chinese

Korea: A Borderline Decision
Behind North Korea's move to push its sea frontier south

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Still, Myanmar's dissidents keep up the fight

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Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's initial reaction was dismissive. "Do not put pressure on us," he said. More recently, his ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, has been much more accommodating. "We accepted the appeal," said Ling Liong Sik, transport minister and president of Barisan member Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA). "We feel that the principles are universal and can be accepted by all."

Mahathir and Ling were both referring to a list of pre-election demands set forth in August by 11 ethnic-Chinese organizations. Since then, the list has been endorsed by more than 1,800 Chinese groups in Malaysia. Besides the MCA and two other Barisan component parties, oppositionists have also voiced their support. It all adds up to two things: the demands reflect concerns that go beyond the Chinese community, and Malaysian Chinese could hold the key to victory in upcoming parliamentary polls.

The improving economy, not to mention Mahathir's and Barisan's enviable record of managing Malaysia's development and social stability, is the ruling coalition's trump card in the next general elections - which must be held by August 2000 but could be called in the next two months. However, the power base of Barisan's dominant member, Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), is the ethnic-Malay community, which is split over the prime minister's sacking of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. That puts the spotlight on the Chinese, who form about 23% of the population. "Chinese votes are pivotal because of the divided Malay community," says Michael Yeoh of the research bureau of Gerakan, a predominantly Chinese Barisan member. Chinese constitute the majority in some 24 of the total 192 constituencies and over a third of voters in about 30 "mixed" districts where no ethnic group prevails. Besides, with Malays disunited, even small numbers may swing results. Yeoh reckons Chinese voters hold the balance of power in over 70% of seats.

That has opposition politicians salivating. "We hope the Chinese will increase support [for the opposition] to ensure greater democracy," says Lim Guan Eng, deputy head of the Democratic Action Party (DAP). In past polls, around one-third of Chinese voters tended to support Barisan, one-third leaned to the opposition, and the rest flip-flopped. Now, oppositionists hope that the Malay split and a Chinese swing, while unlikely to oust Barisan, could deny Mahathir his two-thirds majority in Parliament. This chance comes just when the Chinese community is a bit disgruntled. It has long chafed under Mahathir's affirmative action policy for Malays, who are under-represented in the Chinese-dominated economy. Many feel officials mishandled a recent outbreak of encephalitis which killed 105 people and devastated pig farms (which are mostly Chinese since Muslim Malays do not eat pork). And government plans to merge the nation's 58 banks and financial institutions into six large groups is sparking resentment since many Chinese-owned banks could be absorbed into Malay-run entities.

Hence the rush to embrace the Chinese demands. The 17-point petition included community-specific issues - such as increasing the number of Chinese- and Tamil-medium schools and recognizing the unified examination certificates of Chinese schools for admission to government universities. And more general appeals like abolishing the Internal Security Act (which allows detention without trial) and restoring confidence in the police. "We have no problems endorsing them," says Lim of the mostly Chinese DAP. "We share the same objectives." Keadilan, led by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, said it backed many of the list's ideas and proposals. "They reflect the concerns of the vast majority of Malaysians at this point in time," the Malay-based party said. While Mahathir initially cold-shouldered what he saw as pressure tactics, he won points by asking Chinese cabinet ministers to meet the petitioners and hear their views. And he had already been courting Chinese voters, for example through his August visit to Beijing.

So how will the Chinese vote? Many professionals, academics and lower-income Chinese, like their Malay compatriots, are angry over the Anwar dismissal and trial, and could lean to the opposition. Yet for all their recent irritation with the government, the violence in Indonesia has reminded many Chinese of the race riots that swept Malaysia in 1969. The Islamist ideology of a major opposition party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, makes many nervous. And the economy remains a key issue. All that helps Barisan, especially among older and wealthier voters. But if the Chinese are in a delicate position, their suitors are even more so. In particular, the brand-new Keadilan must put in a strong showing if it is to become a broad, multi-ethnic alternative to Barisan. "Chinese votes will be more unpredictable this time, so politicians will have to be more careful," says Wong Chin Huat, one of a group of Chinese professionals and academics behind "People are the Boss" - a citizens' awareness campaign. Their vote could determine not just the seats of the next Parliament but the shape of party politics to come.

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