If prime minister Mahathir Mohamed believed that by dismissing Anwar Ibrahim and accusing him of moral turpitude would destroy his reputation, the people of Malaysia have proved him dead wrong. Showing uncharacteristic defiance, the people have held massive rallies in support of Reformasi, the reform movement launched by Anwar. Far from supporting Mahathir, they have demanded his resignation. Cracks have even appeared in the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). This must be quite a shock to the doctor who thought he could play with people’s emotions and get away with it.
The Anwar episode reflects a number of fault lines in Malaysia. First, there is widespread dissatisfaction over corruption, crony capitalism and nepotism. This was tolerated as long as there was relative prosperity. Mahathir himself had said that if the country achieved 10 percent annual growth rates, most people would tolerate some restrictions on their freedom. Perhaps. Now he may wish he had never uttered those words. The economic turmoil sweeping Southeast Asia has wiped the smugness off his face and his brand of Asian capitalism and values. The political crisis is not helping the situation either.
In the past, Mahathir tried to deflect criticism by blaming foreigners and the western media, which has an inherent bias against Muslims. While there is some truth in this, the people felt there was also a great deal wrong internally which the Anwar saga has exposed so clearly. Allegations of police brutality and wrongdoing, dismissed out of hand as western propaganda in the past, were suddenly highlighted in the manner in which Anwar was beaten up in prison. When he appeared in court with a black eye and bruises, the people were horrified. If this could happen to a former deputy prime minister, what chance did the ordinary person have at the hands of the police, they thought. Mahathir made matters worse by saying that Anwar’s wounds were self-inflicted.
Similarly, locking up Anwar has not dampened the people’s spirits. Two coalitions have emerged to continue the anti-Mahathir movement. It has also helped focus attention on the judiciary and how it has been used by the regime in the past. The case of Tun Salleh Abas, Lord President of the Supreme Court, in 1989 has come back to jolt people’s memories about manipulation of the judiciary. Mahathir had hurriedly amended article 121 of the constitution to protect his own power in UMNO by killing the judiciary. Similar underhand tactics have been employed against Sukma and Munawar Anees, adopted brother and friend of Anwar’s respectively, to implicate the former deputy prime minister in the sodomy case. The people have rejected this shrill propaganda.
The issue in Malaysia has now gone far beyond the plight of Anwar Ibrahim. The entire system is under the cloud. Mahathir-style crony politics have been rejected by the people. They want change, and now. This is not to suggest that Mahathir would go quietly or easily. Unfortunately people in power for too long begin to think of themselves as indispensible. In neighbouring Indonesia, Suharto had started to believe that without him, the sky would fall off. Mahathir has developed a similar mindset. There are also more earthly reasons: he and his cronies have committed massive financial irregularities. Mahathir does not want anyone to focus the spotlight on these wrongdoings. This is what Anwar was about to do for which he paid a price. The US$2.8 billion bailout package announced on October 12 for Renong, a company with close links to Mahathir, illustrates this clearly.
Mahathir plays rough and he plays dirty. He is also quite racist in his views, calling the Malays ‘docile’. He thinks he can push them around (Mahathir is the son of an Indian immigrant). His racism coupled with a stubborn streak make for a deadly combination. He would rather destroy everything in Malaysia than give up honourably. Such men are dangerous and need to be kept far away from positions of authority.
While time is not on his side, Mahathir could still resort to a number of dirty tricks. He could try to play the communal card, pitting Malays (Muslims) against the Chinese, although the movement against him has transcended the communal barrier. Similarly, he must be furiously working on creating differences between various factions in the two coalitions that have emerged to challenge his authority.
Malaysia is not safe in the hands of such a man. The sooner he goes the better. Malaysia will remain under the cloud so long as Mahathir casts his dark shadow over it.
Muslimedia: November 1-15, 1998