‘Reformasi’ or reform, has become the rallying cry of opponents of prime minister Mahathir Mohamed in Malaysia since his unceremonious sacking of deputy prime minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim on September 2. In a growing challenge to Mahathir’s authority, Anwar has been attracting massive crowds at his residence in the suburb of Kuala Lumpur every evening to join him in prayers and listen to his speeches. Many more camp outside his residence at Bukit Damansara each night.
Reflecting the nervousness of the regime, the police on September 11 dispersed a crowd of more than 30,000 at an Islamic centre in the university town of Bangi where Anwar was to join in aceramah. Well-known Islamic scholar, Haron Din, who had arranged the meeting, had to tell the crowd to disperse peacefully. Most performed Solat Hajat and then left the area. On September 12, Anwar left Kuala Lumpur and headed for Permatang Pauh - his parliamentary constituency in Penang - where he launced the ‘Permatang Pauh Declaration’ for reformation in front of a crowd of 80,000. The next day, he led a convoy of supporters to Malacca and was greeted by 30,000 people chanting “Death to Mahathir!”. As we went to press, tens of thousands are attending Anwar’s rallies for reformation around the country. Afraid of this, the Mahathir-controlled Malaysian media have been asked not to give any coverage to the gatherings, but the ailing Mahathir appears to have forgotten the Internet. Analysts say Anwar’s homepage, launched hours after the sack, is now the most popular political website in Asia.
A massive crowd already occupies a huge area outside Anwar’s residence and has done so in increasing numbers since September 2. Vendors selling tapes of his speeches are doing brisk business. ‘It is boosting the domestic economy,’ quipped one enthusiastic supporter. The prime minister may have misread the mood of the people when he dismissed his deputy and heir apparent. Never before has Malaysia witnessed such intense anti-Mahathir feelings.
Even before his dismissal, Anwar was subjected to a barrage of attacks in the official media without giving him an opportunity to respond. The manner in which he has been vilified reflects the vicious style of politics in Malaysia, especially under Mahathir. Sleazy personal attacks have been made on Anwar’s character, some too undignified even by Mahathir’s standards.
The 73-year-old prime minister not only dismissed his deputy from official positions but also sacked him from the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) when Anwar refused to resign. Mahathir’s dictatorial style has raised serious questions about political stability in Malaysia with the shadow of Suharto, ousted as president of Indonesia last May, looming large over the region. Some observers have questioned Mahathir’s sense of judgement. Critics have also pointed out that if Mahathir could treat the deputy prime minister in such a shabby manner, what he would do to lesser figures.
Others have questioned whether Anwar’s dismissal from the party was constitutional. Apart from the allegations, some of them too crude to repeat in this paper, he has not been officially charged. There is a common perception among Malaysians that Mahathir is waiting for the Commonwealth games which started on September 11 and will go on till September 21, to be over before making his next move against Anwar.
When asked why Anwar had been sacked from the party, Mahathir tersely brushed aside the question saying, ‘We don’t have to give any reason for his expulsion. He was unsuitable for the party.’ How Anwar suddenly became unsuitable after 16 years in government and rose to the number two position in the party was not explained.
Mahathir has clearly been rattled by the massive turnout of support for his former deputy. On the evening of September 8, an estimated 15,000 people with family and children, and multiracial as usual, turned up to hear him. Some had to be carried away, others fainted, and at times, a stampede occurred. This correspondent has been at the scene on most occasions. Roads leading to Damansara Heights were jammed and some streets had to be closed.
The scene was almost identical to the one earlier in the afternoon when about 10,000 showed up. These included students, government servants, reporters, religious leaders, businessmen and even literary figures. ‘It was a sight to behold,’ one eyewitness said.
Never in its history have such strong anti-Mahathir feelings been witnessed among ordinary Malaysians. Anwar’s support seems to be growing rapidly. If the public support continues to mount and Mahathir is not able to silence his former deputy, he may resort to the use of Internal Security Act (ISA), under which critics are silenced. Mahathir is already the minister for home affairs which administers this draconian act. He has now assumed the post of finance minister as well.
Anwar has not only rejected Mahathir’s charges of immorality against him but hit back calling the allegations the ‘law of the jungle.’ He told the crowd outside his private residence on September 8, ‘I have repeatedly explained to the prime minister that the allegations against me are a series of fabricated lies and deceits. I will absolutely not accept it.’ He also unveiled a plan of reform with a badge that declared, ‘We Support Reform.’ The badge is sold to supporters at three ringgit (78 cents) apiece.
Mahathir has been telling leaders and key members of UMNO that moral reasons forced him to sack Anwar. He has been likening Anwar to US president Bill Clinton and his adulterous affair with Monica Lewinsky. Few people outside and within the official party appear to believe him.
Nor did many people believe the 73-year-old Mahathir when he said he had wanted to retire from politics this year and give Anwar a chance to take over. But he said he changed his mind after being told of the allegations and because of the country’s economic woes. He has hardly helped Malaysia’s economy by such tactics. In fact, he may have undermined it.
Denied access to the official media, Anwar planned to start a roadshow to explain his point of view. It has now been postponed because Anwar said he was deferring to Mahathir who said there was no need for him to travel to explain his side to the people to counter alleged pro-government bias in the local media. ‘If he doesn’t want me to go for a roadshow, give me a TV forum to explain myself. Give me enough space in the local newspapers. Carry out reforms and implement justice to the people,’ he said. ‘UMNO should instil justice, not fabricate lies or abuse power,’ said Anwar, who also denied Mahathir’s charge he was courting arrest.
The only paper that has given him a hearing is Harakah, official organ of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), published twice a week. The paper’s sales have skyrocketed to 120,000 per issue. A number of leading intellectuals in Malaysia have also come out in support of Anwar. And some political figures fear that Mahathir might impose a state of emergency if opposition to his rule picks up steam and he feels seriously threatened.
The battle lines, it seems, have been drawn. Mahathir may have found a match in Anwar. The next few weeks will tell which way the political wind blows.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1998