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November 30, 2000

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

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek story

NOVEMBER 26, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 47

A Popularity Contest
The government confronts the opposition - and Anwar's shadow - in the run-up to the polls

"I bring salaam from my husband Anwar. Sabahans are brave in changing governments. Change it now!"
- Wan Azizah Wan Ismail

Chan Looi Tat for Asiaweek

"This is not a beauty contest, nor is it a contest of popularity. Only stupid people think it is about being more popular. This is about who can provide a stable government that can work." Thus, in his characteristically combative style, said Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Nov. 14, four days after he had called snap elections for Parliament and state assemblies. He was addressing delegates from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), or National Front, and the comment was a response to suggestions that the upcoming Nov. 29 polls would be a popularity contest between him and his ousted deputy Anwar Ibrahim.

In the same speech, Mahathir attacked the opposition Barisan Alternatif (BA) - Alternative Front - which consists of Parti Keadilan Nasional (Keadilan for short), headed by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail; the conservative Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas); the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP); and the Malaysian People's Party. Mahathir zeroed in on the motley nature of the alliance. Quoting a Chinese saying on strange bedfellows, he remarked: "They sleep together but have different dreams."

The announcement had the look of a last-minute decision. Last weekend, Mahathir admitted how badly Anwar's dismissal and subsequent treatment may have damaged UMNO's chances at the polls. "Whatever we have done, the people have put it aside," he told a party rally. "The people's focus is on the allegation that UMNO is a cruel party." Such talk seemed to push the likely election date into next year. Then on Tuesday, Nov. 9, only hours before he was due to leave for South Africa to attend the annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Mahathir canceled his trip. On Wednesday morning, he met King Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah to receive permission to dissolve Parliament. News of the dissolution was announced in mid-afternoon by the Lower House speaker as Mahathir met first with state chief ministers and then with leaders of Barisan component parties. Then, at the 4 p.m. news conference, the PM came out swinging.

The government confronts the opposition - and Anwar's shadow - in the run-up to the polls
• Who and What
The polls at a glance
• 'The Issue is Change'
Fadzil Noor on the Pas agenda
• The Good Times Keep Rolling
Malaysia's robust economy holds the skeptics at bay

Mahathir calls elections. How will the ruling coalition fare? (11/19/99)

Malaysia: The Leader in Waiting
Tengku Razaleigh could well be Mahathir Mohamad's heir apparent - if he can win his home state (11/12/99)

'What Will Be Will Be' - That's Razaleigh's fatalistic take on becoming a future leader. Sure (11/3/99)

Malaysia: Now, the Sinatra Principle 'We all did it our own way,' croons Mahathir (11/5/99)

Malaysia Speculation continues over the election date (10/22/99)

The opposition, of course, was neither sleeping nor sitting still while Mahathir was going on the offensive. On Nov. 13, Wan Azizah was in Sabah on a whirlwind tour to rally support. "I bring salaam [greetings] from my husband Anwar," she told 600 Keadilan supporters in Penampang, near the state capital of Kota Kinabalu. "Sabah is special to him." Making a reference to the frequent turnovers in state governments in Sabah, she declared: "Sabahans are brave in changing governments. Change it now!"

Let the battle begin. At stake are 193 seats in Parliament, plus control of 11 state assemblies. In the just-dissolved lower house, BN - led by Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO) - had an overwhelming majority of 166 seats. It also governs all states except Kelantan, which is controlled by Pas. That BN will keep its grip on government is not disputed. The real issue is how strong the grip will be. The main aim of the opposition is to win enough parliamentary seats to deny BN the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments - and perhaps wrest another state or two from BN control. (The Malay belt states of Trengganu and Perlis are seen as vulnerable.)

The upcoming general elections have generated much interest as they are the first to be held since Anwar's acrimonious sacking last year and his subsequent arrest and jailing. The contentious case has split the country, especially the majority Malays, and the polls will, at least in part, be a gauge of where the sympathies of Malaysian voters lie. Whatever the PM may say about popularity contests, it is unavoidable that the elections will be seen as a personal battle between Mahathir and Anwar.

"However hard Mahathir tries to cut the cake, the invisible hand of Anwar will always be there," says Charles Santiago, head of the Center for Economic and Social Research at Kuala Lumpur's Stamford College. An Asian diplomat notes: "This will be a referendum on Mahathir's 18 years and the action he took against Anwar. It will be very personal."

Mahathir has himself acknowledged as much, devoting much of his Nov. 14 speech to denouncing Anwar, who is currently on trial for sodomy. Calling the ousted leader a "liar," Mahathir reiterated the accusation that Anwar had accumulated a slush fund of 3 billion ringgit ($790 million) while in power. "Anwar is like the chicken thief who shouts 'thief, thief' as he runs away with the stolen chickens," charged the PM.

At another level, however, the contest is more than just a personal feud. It is a fight between what Mahathir and Anwar represent - at the same time an ideological and generational clash. To many, the PM symbolizes Malaysia's past. He is of the generation that built a stable, prosperous country from the rubble of poverty and colonialism. Those drawn to him are often older people who remember the deprivation and instability during the early years of Malaysia's existence. Sunder Rekhraj, a businessman and a BN leader in Kuala Lumpur, states: "For the past 40 years, this government has done a fine job. Why change a winning team?"

By contrast, Anwar represents the belief that the current political system, while contributing to Malaysia's development, has become closed, corrupt and inequitable. Rightly or wrongly, Anwar has come to embody the struggle for justice, reform and transparency, and carries the aspirations of young, idealistic Malaysians who seek a future that is not just about high growth rates and even higher buildings. "The new generation rejects corruption, cronyism and nepotism," asserts Keadilan vice president Tian Chua. Says Yusuf Abdul Rehman, a BA parliamentary candidate in Sarawak: "Anwar represents hope for a better future with more justice."

Correspondingly, the two camps have placed their emphasis on different things in their campaigns. BA has been expounding on the need to break from the past and build a better, cleaner, fairer future. BN, on the other hand, has been playing up its past track record, dwelling on the issues of economic betterment and religious moderation. "The BN theme will be development, stability and religion," says a Kuala Lumpur-based diplomat. The government has not shirked from equating Anwar supporters with violence and instability, with Mahathir telling reporters: "They want to create trouble, have another demonstration, burn a few cars." (Oppositionists, however, claim that it is BN activists who are going around beating up their opponents.) The government has even resorted to lionizing Mahathir in a way reminiscent of the personality cult of China's Mao Zedong. There has been a CD-ROM praising the PM's achievements and a seminar on the "Thoughts of Dr. Mahathir," and on Nov. 8, Deputy PM Abdullah Badawi unveiled an album of 10 patriotic songs in his honor.

BN has also been playing the nationalism card, painting itself as a defender of Malaysian sovereignty and the opposition as a stooge of foreigners. "Do you want a government that is preferred by [U.S. Vice President] Al Gore?" said Mahathir in reference to Gore's open support for Anwar last year. "Do you want a government that is controlled by a foreign power?" The issue, says UMNO Youth's acting chief Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, is about "safeguarding the independence of the nation."

Whether the government's message of stability, prosperity and national sovereignty will continue to have currency with the voters remains to be seen, but it is clear that the election results will have a significant bearing on Mahathir's future. Some view the general elections merely as a prelude to the real battle: the coming UMNO general assembly, which must be held by the end of next year to select the party president, his deputy and members of the Supreme Council. If Mahathir fails to deliver, his position as UMNO president may become untenable come next year.

Says Santiago: "If the opposition successfully denies BN the two-thirds majority, or even comes close to doing so, then there will be pressure on Mahathir to step down from the leadership of the party." Another gauge is the popular vote itself. In 1990, BN received 54% of the vote. In the 1995 landslide victory, it polled 64%. This year, BN is said to be aiming for at least 50%. One view is that if it fails, Mahathir's days are numbered - irrespective of whether BN retains its two-thirds majority.

Still, UMNO leaders dismiss the idea that Mahathir could lose his post. "It's not easy to derail a sitting prime minister and party president," says Abdullah Ahmad, Malaysia's special envoy to the U.N. In any contest for succession, Deputy PM Abdullah Badawi, former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and UMNO vice president Najib Tun Razak are the most likely contenders.

Ahead of Nomination Day on Nov. 20, the wily PM has kept a tight lid on BN's candidate list, but it was reported that he has dropped a few prominent names, including Trengganu chief minister Wan Mokhtar. There is also speculation over whether he would nominate pro-Anwar members in order to steal the opposition's thunder. "If Mahathir gives [Anwar sympathizers] nominations, it will be a blow to us," admits a Keadilan member.

Working in BN's favor is the timing of the elections, coming as they do before January, when 680,000 new, mostly young (and hence more likely to vote opposition) voters are to be added to the electoral roll. Crying foul, the opposition has filed a lawsuit to change the Nov. 29 date, charging that it is "unconstitutional to deny 680,000 people the right to vote." The opposition has also been flummoxed by the postponement of Anwar's sodomy trial on Nov. 15, three days after the judge adjourned the proceedings complaining of backache. Suspicious minds see a government hand in ensuring the trial - and Anwar - is kept out of the limelight during the polls.

Can BA make history and deny BN its majority? Oppositionists call the prospect a "realistic expectation." A Western diplomat is less sanguine ("I'm skeptical"). But whatever the outcome, the die is cast: In Malaysia's 1999 elections, the new confronts the old, the future takes on the past - and the country may never be the same again.

With reporting by Arjuna Ranawana/Kuala Lumpur and Santha Oorjitham/Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan

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