Thursday, September 18, 2008

Anwar's popularity adds to ruling party's fear and loathing

Anwar's popularity adds to ruling party's fear and loathing

28/08/2008 10:15:00 AM

Former deputy prime minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim won a crucial by-election for the parliamentary seat of Pemantang Pauh on Tuesday. That Anwar was going to win was never in doubt. He was first elected to the seat in the early 1980s and his wife became MP when he was jailed in 1988. Last month, she resigned from the seat so Anwar could get back into Parliament.
What was unexpected was the huge margin of victory. Anwar's wife won the seat in the March general elections with slightly more than 13,000-vote majority. Many had expected Anwar to win by about 10,000 votes rather than the nearly 16,000 votes he took on Tuesday.
The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition poured everything it had into the campaign. Led by the Deputy Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak, the BN promised nearly 60million ringgit (about $A20million) worth of development.
Almost every minister visited the constituency offering more goodies if Anwar was defeated. The BN has spent millions in trying to discredit Anwar, using the mainstream media and giant video screens spread all over the constituency, to remind voters that Anwar is under criminal indictment for sodomy.
Sodomy is a serious offence under Islam and more than 60 per cent of Pemantang Pauh's voters are Malay Muslims. The BN showed a tape of Anwar's accuser swearing on the Koran that he was sodomised by Anwar. Malay voters were told also that Anwar was a race traitor.
Anwar champions the removal of the New Economic Policy, or NEP. Under the guise of affirmative action, this policy discriminates against the non-Malay population in all areas of political and economic life.
Special scholarships, bank loans, contracts and even a university were established exclusively for the Malays. While it was initially popular among the Malay population and deeply resented by non-Malays, in recent years, the younger, better educated, Malays have become critics of the NEP.
It is a known fact that the NEP has enriched only those with link to the United Malays National Organisation, the ruling party, and that poorer Malays have benefited much less. Some Malays who supported opposition parties were even denied access to the NEP.
Younger Malays are starting to realise that the NEP, far from helping them, is actually a tool for UMNO to manipulate and buy its political support from the Malay community. The culture of corruption created by the NEP has reached the plateau that a large segment of the Malay community has decided that the only way to get rid of the corruption is to get rid of the NEP and UMNO. They also want an end to racial politics in Malaysia pioneered by the BN, and UMNO in particular.
UMNO's ideology of ''Ketuanan Melayu'' or Malay Supremacy has meant open and blatant racial discrimination against the non-Malay population.
One senior Chinese minister described UMNO's relationship with its non-Malay parties in the BN parties as akin to a ''master-slave'' relationship. Race relations are now much worse after 50 years of independence.
Anwar has promised to replace the NEP with the Malaysian Economic Policy, or MEP, which does not have racial criteria. The overwhelmingly majority of the younger population sees this as the only real long-term solution to racial polarisation.
Anwar has promised that he will engineer the defection of about 30 MPs from the BN by the middle of September, and he will take over as prime minister then. There is every reason to believe that Anwar is capable of doing this, although the BN will still try to do its best to stop him. The BN will do its best to make sure that Anwar is convicted of sodomy.
It does not matter that more than 80 per cent of the population thinks that the sodomy allegations are politically motivated. The only political game Malaysia now, at least among UMNO, is to stop Anwar. The security apparatus will also be used against Anwar's allies. Several leaders in Anwar's parties have been arrested for corruption, and bloggers who are sympathetic to Anwar are being sued for defamation and publishing false reports on the internet.
The Government is also expected to pass laws that restrict political chatter on the internet, and crack down harder on civil society groups. The BN is still a powerful political machine and when it is threatened, it moves back to its authoritarian mode.
There is every reason to believe that there will be mass arrests under the Internal Security Act to stop Anwar from becoming prime minister.
There are too many vested interests that will stop at nothing to make sure that their corruption and past misdeeds are not exposed by Anwar's new administration.
They have every reason to fear the consequences of an Anwar ascendancy. When Anwar's party took power in several states after the March general elections, they exposed shady land deals and government contracts worth millions. A Morgan Stanley report published a few years ago says that corruption has cost Malaysia the equivalent of more than $110billion in the past 30 years. The NEP was promulgated about 30 years ago and it was only after the NEP came into being that ''money politics'' became synonymous with UMNO.
If Anwar eventually becomes Malaysia's prime minister, it will be one of Asia's most remarkable political comeback tales. The closest one to it is that of Kim Dae Jung. Sometimes called the Nelson Mandela of Asia, Kim was nearly killed by South Korea's intelligence service in the 1970s, imprisoned, put under house arrest, sentenced to death for sedition and banned from politics. Kim managed to overcome all these obstacles before becoming South Korea's president from 1998 to 2003.
James Chin teaches at Monash University's campus in Malaysia.

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