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Behind The Smile . . .

Date: 06 Dec 1999
Time: 02:46:29


Behind The Smile . . . Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad faces a startling change in his country's political landscape. It gives cause for concern - but also for hope By ARJUNA RANAWANA Kuala Lumpur

This picture of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was taken when the results of the general elections were announced. It shows him elated, giving supporters the thumbs-up. Mahathir has been there, done that. To his credit, the polls marked another victory for his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, another two-thirds majority in Parliament, another stint as his country's hard-driving, hard-nosed, undisputed leader.

Business as usual, right? Wrong. The facts barely camouflage serious setbacks for the establishment. Mahathir's own party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), lost unprecedented ground, mainly to the opposition Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (Pas). At least half of the country's ethnic-Malay population voted for the opposition, denied a shot at power only by the Chinese and other minority communities. They did so partly because they were drawn to Pas's stern brand of morality, partly because of the bitter personality clash between Mahathir and his ousted deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. The upshot is that the Malays are divided as never before. For the first time in his 18 years as chief executive, the prime minister will face a fellow Malay, from Pas, as leader of the opposition in Parliament.

The Nov. 29 ballot has caused a sharp reconfiguration in Malaysia's political landscape which gives much cause for reflection, perhaps even concern - yet promises hope for the future. The danger is that opposition-minded Malays will resent the Chinese who voted the government back in. The Malays are the country's biggest and strongest ethnic group. To have them badly split does not augur well for stability, an essential precondition for economic as well as political progress. Such a divide is a price that neither side - government nor opposition - should want to pay for victory. Yet if the divide means that Malaysia will eventually move toward a multi-ethnic two-party system, then that would be the best option for a long-term democratic - and stable - polity.

Between the polarized halves stand Malaysians of all races seeking a middle ground, looking beyond Mahathir and Anwar and Pas. In a democracy, elections are not just a way of voting in a new government, or reaffirming an old one. The ballot box is also a way of debating and settling national issues. In Malaysia the debate of the day is this: Does the current system, which keeps the peace and provides development but is riddled with corruption and autocratic practices, need to be reformed? The polls did not answer that question comprehensively - overall, the status quo prevailed. But in many seats that UMNO or its coalition partners contested against, say, the reformist banner of the fledgling, multiracial Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party), the margins of victory were perilously thin. This despite Barisan fielding seasoned campaigners against Keadilan's neophytes, including party chief Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar's wife and proxy. The underlying message is that there is wide support for positive change, and that the young people who stood on street corners yelling "reformasi" cannot be dismissed as a fringe group. Ignoring them may force them to seek redress perhaps not through the vote but through public protests that may well turn violent.

Both government and opposition need to sustain the sentiment that at times surfaced during the otherwise heated campaign period: that ties from common interests and goals are stronger and healthier than those along communal lines. Said opposition worker Stephanie Bastian at one point during the elections: "Everyone seems blind to race." In that spirit lies Malaysia's future.

Last changed: December 06, 1999