Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamed must be getting a sinking feeling that events are fast slipping out of his control. This is not to suggest that the Malaysian judiciary, press or the police have turned against him. As far as the trial of the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim is concerned, it is moving pretty much as Mahathir had expected despite revelations by Dr Munawar Ahmed Anees of police brutality and torture for five days that forced him to sign a confessional statement accusing Anwar of sodomy. Munawar has since retracted his confessions and issued a rebuttal with shocking details (see Malaysia In Crisis section).
It is on the political level that Mahathir is not able to control events. The Anwar saga has aroused a strong anti-Mahathir sentiment among the traditionally quiet and decent Malay people. The Parti Islam Semalaysia (PAS), a major opposition party, has shown nimble political footwork, capitalising on this.
Heading the Council of Malaysian People’s Movement for Justice (Gerak), one of two major opposition alliances that emerged in the wake of Anwar’s arrest, PAS has been in the forefront of the anti-Mahathir campaign in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. On December 6, it took its ‘back-to-the village’ campaign, launched a week earlier, to Kubang Pasu, Mahathir’s parliamentary seat in northern Kedah state.
PAS already controls Kelantan in the north and Hashim Jasin captured a parliamentary seat of Arau from UMNO last July in neighbouring Perlis state. Hashim says PAS membership in Perlis is increasing, with many civil servants joining the party and new branches being formed. ‘In the coming elections, I think we can wrest Trengganu, Kedah and Perlis from UMNO.’
PAS president Ustad Fadzil Mohamad Noor launched the party’s expansion into Mahathir’s stronghold. ‘We have UMNO [United Malay National Organisation] members along with youths joining PAS. These youths are not keeping with family tradition of sticking with UMNO,’ he was quoted by an Agence France Presse report from Arau. Ustad Fadzil said that the humiliation suffered by Anwar and his family and his black eye, the result of beating by police while in detention, had made many people dislike Mahathir.
While Gerak, formed on September 17 calls for the abolition of the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) - a throwback to the days of colonialism - as well as for early elections or for Mahathir to step down, PAS is moving rapidly to capture political ground. Of all the political parties, PAS is best suited to lead the anti-Mahathir movement. Even non-Muslims - Chinese, Hindus etc - are now flocking to its rallies. This is also a measure of the anti-Mahathir sentiment in the country.
Chandra Muzzafar, president of a human rights group, the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), said the Anwar saga had had an impact on the rural population. ‘They are becoming more discerning and more concerned at what is really happening in the country,’ he said. While Chandra was guarded in his assessment of whether the rural segment would shift its support en masse to PAS, he admitted that ‘There is no doubt that PAS has made serious inroads into UMNO strongholds.’
Mahfuz Omar, head of the PAS youth wing which also runs Gerak secretariat, says the aim of the rural campaign is to ‘get all the people to join this justice movement and give information’ about the situation in Kuala Lumpur and on Anwar’s trial. At the launch of the village campaign last month, Gerak handed out video and audio cassettes as well as pamphlets for its members to distribute in the villages. Speakers included representatives from the Islamic Youth Movement, the Malaysian Islamic Council and the Malaysian Muslim Doctors Association.
The Mahathir regime has resorted to a massive show of force by deploying anti-riot police around mosques as well as opposition gatherings and bringing out water cannons. Police helicopters hover overhead. Four people were arrested on November 28 including Tian Chua, leader of another group, the People’s Coalition for Democracy. The Gerak rally demanded his release, as well as of other political detainees.
With the official media dishing out government propaganda which the people no longer believe, PAS has scored another hit with its plucky tabloid, Harakah, becoming the best selling newspaper. From 65,000 copies in June, the twice-weekly paper’s sales have soared to nearly 300,000. That matches the circulation of Utusan Malaysia, the country’s biggest mainstream daily.
Packed with news of jailed politician Anwar Ibrahim and pictures of antigovernment protests that do not appear in the mainstream media, Harakah is flying off newsstands. The Harakah phenomenon reflects a growing unhappiness among Malaysians with the pro-government media’s coverage of Malaysia’s biggest political crisis in a decade.
Lurid details of sodomy and corruption charges against Anwar, splashed across the front pages of mainstream media, have offended most readers in this Muslim-majority State. Similarly, denying space to Anwar’s responses has also turned readers off. They find Harakah’s coverage far more credible and informative.
‘We try to be an alternative paper for Malaysians, besides being a mouthpiece for the party [PAS],’ says Zulkifli Sulong, Harakah’s 34-year-old editor. He must be a very satisfied editor. Hard work pays in the long run, as Zulkifli would confirm.
Malaysians are also avid Internet surfers. In addition to Harakah, their home-based paper, Malaysians and others around the world are finding the Crescent International website,www.muslimedia.com also an important source of news. Four years ago, piqued by our coverage, Mahathir had banned Muslimedia International, the Crescent’s magazine format, published from Kuala Lumpur.
Now Mahathir cannot touch it. There are certain things even the wicked doctor cannot control. Nature has a way of exacting revenge.
Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1998