Mahathir can't blame his successor

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 March, 2008, 12:00am

Predictably, Mahathir Mohamad reacted to the stunning election rebuff to Malaysia's ruling coalition by demanding that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi resign immediately. He could not resist badmouthing his successor, claiming that he had made a big mistake in appointing Mr Abdullah in the first place.

Sadly, Dr Mahathir made a wrong diagnosis: he helped create the problem that brought about the relative defeat of the National Front, the multiracial coalition, and set Malaysia on a path to potential disaster. Mr Abdullah's fault was not in vigorously reversing or overhauling the policies of Dr Mahathir.

Equally predictably, the prime minister is refusing to bow to criticism. He admitted his 'disappointment' at having lost the customary two-thirds majority, but pointed out that the coalition had won 63 per cent of the 222 parliamentary seats, a result that would be counted in most other countries as a healthy majority.

As he was sworn in for a second term, Mr Abdullah claimed that the election results were 'proof positive that our country does indeed enjoy a free, fair and highly competitive democracy'. He cited an economy growing at more than 7 per cent, nearly full employment, more than US$100 billion in foreign exchange reserves and a record US$13.7 billion last year in foreign direct investment as further proof that the country is in excellent shape.

That is the optimistic gloss. On the other side, the government's failure was stunning, given its command of the media and the benefit from gerrymandered constituencies. In terms of the popular vote, the coalition won just 51 per cent; on peninsular Malaysia (without the votes of Sabah and Sarawak), the coalition won only 49.8 per cent. In parallel state elections, it lost control of five of the 12 states contested, including industrialised Penang and Selangor.

Mr Abdullah is boxed in. Although his own United Malays National Organisation (Umno) captured 77 seats, the principal Chinese and Indian parties in the rainbow coalition suffered heavily. Malay voters defected in large numbers from Umno, but they deserted the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress in droves, effectively to deprive the rainbow coalition of two of its important colours.

Mr Abdullah promised: 'I will dedicate myself to healing the divisions that became evident during the [election] campaign. That will mean developing new and concrete initiatives, not just rhetoric, that bring our people together and ensure that no one is left behind as Malaysia prospers, whether they are ethnic Malays, Chinese or Indians.'

Fine words, but they are easier said than done. When the new opposition government in Penang state announced that it was abandoning the New Economic Policy that favours Malays, there were mutterings that the federal government would financially squeeze the Penang government.

Mr Abdullah failed to assert himself strongly enough against the corruption and cronyism that grew during the Mahathir era. The New Economic Policy, based on Dr Mahathir's prescriptions that gave advantages in education, business and government to the underprivileged Malays, became entrenched under his rule to favour, and give favours to, a well-connected elite.

It was costly to speak out against abuses, and more so to challenge the prime minister. When then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim did challenge Dr Mahathir, he found himself ousted, imprisoned, and charged and jailed for alleged sodomy and corruption.

Mr Abdullah was timid in tackling the excesses. He has also allowed zealous Muslims to consolidate the identity between being a Malay and a Muslim, and to assert the primacy of Islamic over civil courts that non- Malay Malaysians must deal with.

Mr Abdullah is in a tight spot. He no longer has any politically strong allies in the Chinese or Indian parties in his coalition, and his Malay colleagues are likely to resist giving up any of the plum portfolios, such as defence, education, finance or trade, even if he can find a non-Malay to fill any post. He is likely to meet resistance if he tries to dismantle or re- design the New Economic Policy.

But the opposition camp also faces its difficulties. It consists of three parties, which are potentially uneasy bedfellows: the long-standing Democratic Action Party is predominantly Chinese; the Parti Islam se-Malaysia is a Muslim party, as its name implies, though on some issues, including whether Christians may use the word 'Allah' for 'God', it is less of an ultra-Islamic party than Umno has become; Keadilan is multiracial and run by the controversial Mr Anwar, who is still serving out the last few weeks of a political ban and was not a candidate himself.

The revival of Keadilan was remarkable. From a single seat in the 2004 election, it gained 31 seats to become the biggest opposition party. Much now depends on Mr Anwar, who is hated within Umno and distrusted by many Chinese and Indians because he was so strongly pro- Malay when he was a minister.

If Mr Anwar can build bridges between his own opposition coalition while pushing Mr Abdullah's Umno-dominated government to curb the entrenched patronage and corruption, he has the opportunity of a political comeback that could bring Malaysia back from the brink of damaging racial polarisation.

There has been a steady outflow of highly qualified Chinese and Indian Malaysians, so that today non-Malays make up fewer than 40 per cent of the 23 million people, against more than 45 per cent 20 years ago.

Malaysia is still a blessed country that is growing quickly, but it has not made the best of its natural and human resources. At independence, it and Singapore were about equal in terms of income. When I started Business Times in the 1970s, we hoped that oil- and gas-rich Malaysia might become the financial, communications, aviation and media centre for the region. In each case, it has lost to Singapore. Mr Anwar now has a chance to help reduce the gap.

Kevin Rafferty was founder-editor of Business Times daily, now part of the New Straits Times