Riding high after his speech at the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in October, Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir Mohamad finally kept his promise by stepping down after 22 years in power. He seems to have followed the advice from his mother which he used to tell the media when he was asked how he maintained his health and youthful appearance: "You have to stop eating when you’re enjoying your food most."
Friends and foes agree on one thing: that Mahathir has emerged from the unpopularity caused by his vile treatment of Anwar Ibrahim five years ago partly by his political talent. But the "war on terror", which took the Muslim governments by surprise, terrorizing these regimes into joining the crackdown on Muslim activists, required him to be tactful when playing domestic politics, in order to avoid angering Uncle Sam. Even that he managed, maintaining a ‘balanced’ anti-terrorism diet: arresting so-called Muslim terrorists and condemning the US’s war on terror, thereby making sure that Muslim support, both at home and abroad, remained intact.
Of the many Muslim rulers, it is clear that Mahathir has emerged a champion, knowing well that even lip-service will deceive unsuspecting, naive Muslims. Mahathir’s comments on the Jewish control of the world and his condemnation of Israel earned praise from many Muslims, little realising that this was the man who condemned anti-Israel student protesters in his country not long ago as "stupid" for opposing his government’s attempts to establish ties with the Zionist state. But even taking his recent anti-Israel speech at the OIC summit at face value, the frenzy of condemnations that followed only serve to prove the Zionists’ great influence in the world, with even the US congress passing a vote endorsing military sanctions on Malaysia.
Mahathir’s final acts in office bring out one characteristic that distinguishes the veteran former prime minister’s rule from that of other dictators: he was not beholden to outside powers, and had always depended on domestic support. This is unlike the situation in the Middle East and neighbouring Indonesia and the Philippines, where the political future of rulers is determined by the CIA or by the former colonial masters. Thus even at the height of the political crisis after Anwar Ibrahim’s dismissal in 1998-99, no amount of condemnation from western powers could have made him resign, which is a fact that the opposition parties have acknowledged.
Given this reality, the question on everybody’s lips in Malaysia these days is: how will Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the new prime minister, fill the vacuum left by Mahathir? While Mahathir’s 22 years in power were spent on establishing and consolidating his ‘leadership cult’, and his status as the man who developed Malaysia from an economic backwater to an industrialised country with its own automobile and heavy industries (a rare achievement for a Muslim country), Abdullah may suffer from the disadvantage of not having influence on the judiciary and police, two institutions which Mahathir used effectively to hold onto power.
Still, much of the country’s condition has not changed, and the illusions some people had about ‘change’ and ‘reform’ under the new premier have proved to be just that. Just one day after taking oath, Abdullah replaced the country’s police chief. That itself is an indication of what is in store under the new premier. A week into his premiership, the police announced the arrest of 13 young students under the notorious Internal Security Act, which allows Abdullah, who is also the home minister, to hold them indefinitely without trial. The thirteen, most of whom are in their teens, were studying in Karachi until they were accused by the Pakistani authorities of having ‘terrorist’ connections; upon their arrival in Malaysia, they were immediately accused of being members of the so-called Jema’ah Islamiah, the organisation that governments in south-east Asia insist exists, despite having failed to prove it. Various human-rights groups and even Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission have condemned the arrests of the under-aged students, saying that they violate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Already some people expect Abdullah (known in the mainstream media as Mr Niceguy) to be more ruthless, because he has no real grassroots support in the ruling party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). He has the rare distinction of not being ‘elected’ as deputy president of the party, which made him the deputy prime minister by default, in the tradition of ‘democratic’ anomalies. Unlike his predecessor, Anwar Ibrahim, Abdullah’s popularity in the party is untested, and his only advantage is that he comes from a traditional ‘religious’ background — an advantage needed desperately by UMNO these days to fight its main rival, the opposition Islamic Party (PAS). Both have been locked in battle to win the support of the Malay Muslims. Since Anwar Ibrahim’s downfall UMNO has been short of such ‘Islamic cosmetics’, making PAS more attractive to the younger generation. Thus Abdullah must thank PAS for influencing Mahathir’s decision to appoint him as his successor.
At the moment no one can say how Malay Muslim support is divided between UMNO and PAS. One thing few would deny is that the "Anwar factor" has paled into near insignificance. The National Justice Party (Keadilan), which was born after the political crisis of 1998, has failed to shine, hardly surprisingly as it is led mainly by former ruling-party members whose main cause is the loss in their own positions in the business and political world. Even the popularity of PAS and its being viewed as an alternative by moderate Muslims and non-Muslims alike has not lasted. PAS’s appeal, which boomed during the height of the crisis, now risks being reduced once again to the rural areas.
The latest ‘document’ issued by PAS, outlining its vision for an Islamic State in Malaysia, is just one example of the setbacks Muslims must experience when working within the ‘democratic’ straitjacket. The document is an overview of how PAS intends to govern the country by Islamic principles. There was not much to say in reply when its enemies argue that the principles and visions contained in it lack practical value in a country half of whose people are non-Muslim, who in turn control most of the country’s economy. Some PAS leaders’ concern about peripheral issues (such as women dressed in Islamic attire and mixed queues at supermarket check-outs) have already put the party in a bad light. Coupled with this is the lack of leadership at its core, with many impatient ‘young’ PAS leaders hoping to win parliamentary seats in the next general elections, which are due next year.
It will be interesting to see how Abdullah contains PAS’s appeal among Malay Muslims, a large part of whom may still remember the Anwar episode and could give sympathy votes to PAS. The kind of magnanimity many expected Abdullah to show upon taking office — releasing Anwar Ibrahim on bail and taking steps to overturn his conviction — has not appeared. Abdullah may need to consult his former boss on how to survive in such a situation. Whether or not he can master the doctor’s art will be seen in the next few months.