It could have been yet another festival of tears for the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysia’s ruling party, when it held its annual congress last month. That party-president-cum-prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad would weep as he has in previous years was taken for granted. However, during his closing speech (his last to his party before stepping down next October) he managed to avoid displaying any such emotion. Instead of reiterating the same lamentations about the Malays’ "ingratitude" and party infighting, Mahathir took the opportunity to bash his enemy number one, the Islamic Party (PAS), and its "devious" ways of twisting Islam.
Things have been looking up for the 77-year-old doctor who has been ruling for 22 years and dominated almost every aspect of Malaysian life. Undoubtedly, his poor reputation among the Malay Muslims because of his treatment of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim (now in jail) seems to have improved. Some say that this is partly due to the usual ‘memory lapse’ of people, and also to the assurance, repeated now and then, that this time he really intends to step down as promised. Such assurances usually build an aura of an ‘outgoing leader’, thereby giving the people a reason to reflect on Mahathir’s economic achievements, transforming it from an agriculture-based economy to one of the most industrialised countries in Asia.
However, it was (and still is) his skilful use of Muslim world affairs and his public declaration that the west is out to plunder the Muslim world–words unbecoming of a "secular Muslim leader"–that have pulled him out of the political rubble. During his speech at the UMNO congress, he was his vintage self. He earned the wrath of some western journalists by describing the Europeans and their colonialist policies as the real problem facing the world. Recently, he has managed to reclaim his ‘spokesman of the Muslim world’ image, talking a language of intifada that makes him stand out among Muslim leaders, who are now largely bereft of even the fig-leaf of lip-service to causes such as Palestine and Iraq.
Calling Europeans greedy and ruthless, he reminded the party that Europeans are a race of colonialist robbers "who had snatched New York from the Indians for 10 bottles of brandy...They also conquered Australia. The Tasmanians were massacred. When asked about their history, they would refuse to tell us," he added. It is words such as these that have helped him to rebuild support and remove the stigma of his dramatic dismissal of Anwar Ibrahim in 1998.
All this, however, cannot make him anti-west (which he takes pains to convince westerners that he is not), as some naive Muslims think. True, he may believe wholeheartedly what he has said at many international forums, and he has rightly spoken out against Zionist cruelties and Western domination without mincing words. Yet his actions at home to stifle even the mildest dissent fuel doubts about his sincerity.
Even near the end of his premiership, he has not shown signs of easing the iron grip his government has on political freedom, stifling dissent by using various laws and subverting the independence of the country’s judiciary, which is now occupied by his own cronies. Some hoped, a few days before the UMNO congress, when the government released six reformasi activists, four of whom are members of the National Justice Party led by Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (wife of Anwar Ibrahim), that the government might show lenience to Anwar Ibrahim. The six had been held since April 2001 and accused of plotting violent street protests.
Even such illusory hopes died when the government threatened to dismiss university lecturers who participated in a seminar in June on the Shari’ah, to be opened by PAS acting president Haji Abdul Hadi Awang, the chief minister of Terengganu state. This threat forced organisers to cancel the seminar, which was also to be attended by several prominent Muslim scholars.
Hopes are also thin that anything will improve when deputy prime minister Abdullah Badawi takes over. Some fear that he will be more ruthless. Many UMNO leaders quietly acknowledge that Mahathir’s withdrawal from all party and government posts in October will create a power vacuum, as Abdullah’s popularity is yet to be tested. Speculation is also rife that Mahathir’s departure from the scene will spell disaster for UMNO and the ruling National Front in next year’s general elections. This has even led to some calling on the leadership to consider releasing Anwar Ibrahim, and reversing or ignoring his conviction, in attempt to strengthen the party.
Abdullah, a long-time rival of Anwar, would be the last person to entertain such an idea, even if Mahathir were to surprise everyone by saying that he will leave that decision to the party. This statement belies his claim that Anwar’s incarceration is a ‘legal’ matter outside his jurisdiction, and not political.
PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang, when asked for his comments on Mahathir’s final speech before stepping down, said that, although one could not deny his contribution, Mahathir should have used his last few months in power to do something that history will appreciate, such as "strengthening democracy". Hadi was of course referring to the fitnah against Anwar, and the flawed judicial process against him, which is a wrong that can only be corrected by Mahathir himself now that he is leaving soon.
In the primitive politics of Malaysia, which has strictly followed the saying that "there are no permanent enemies in politics", such a scenario cannot be unexpected. Whether or not Anwar Ibrahim will accept any offer of reconciliation is another question; and whether or not another enemy will be transformed into a ‘friend’ will only be seen when big brother finally departs.