Malaysia: Economic Recession, Ethnic Relations and Political Freedom

The events of the second half of October 1987 may yet prove to be the beginnings of another major transition for the Malaysian nation, almost comparable to the post-election race riots associated with 13 May 1969. Once again Malaysia tottered at the edge of the precipice that has already consumed Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and Fiji. The arrests of more than 100 people, as well as bans on three of the more independent newspapers and on all public rallies, seem to have temporarily defused the danger that threatened to explode in late October 1987. However, the underlying sources of ethnic conflict remain very much alive, and seem unlikely to be addressed, let alone resolved, in the near future.

Over the years, Malaysia's political system has become a formula for communal disaster. Political parties, especially the ones in the ruling coalition, are based on particular ethnic groups. From independence in 1957 until the early seventies, the country was ruled by the Alliance coalition of Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnic parties, in which the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was dominant. After this delicate and unsustainable balance was shaken by the events of May 1969, UMNO's dominance became ever more pronounced, relegating its partners in the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN) coalition to ever more humiliating secondary roles. This formula for political mobilization on a communal basis encourages ethnic incitement, bravado and one-upmanship as key means to advance individual political careers.

With the ruling UMNO openly split into two almost equally strong blocs since early 1987, the rival factions were outdoing each other in ethnic heroics, with disastrous consequences for the already fragile nation. Barely more than half the UMNO delegates supported the incumbent leadership - called "Team A" - led by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and his new deputy, Ghafar Baba, against the challenge from "Team B," led by former Trade and Industry Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and former Deputy Premier Datuk Musa Hitam. The outcome of the bitter UMNO electoral contest of 24 April 1987 hardly resolved the dispute, but instead shifted it to new terrain.

Instead of trying to close ranks after the acrimonious party elections, Mahathir purged the cabinet and other political appointments of elements identified with Team B. Party members identified with Razaleigh then took out a lawsuit to declare the April 24 election results null and void, citing various irregularities in party branch elections from which Musa quickly distanced himself while reopening contact with Mahathir.

As the fallout from the UMNO elections settled, UMNO Youth elements connected with Team B mounted a clever campaign to embarrass the Mahathir team, especially his protegé and heir apparent, former dissident Muslim youth leader Anwar Ibrahim. Not to be outdone, Anwar, his arch-rival Sanusi Junid and other Team A politicians also played to the "Malay gallery" by championing "Malay causes," thus putting pressure on non-Malays, particularly on the economically influential and well-organized Chinese community, especially over economic, cultural, language and educational issues. Although ethnic themes were not central in the run-up to the April 24 elections, they have been very much to the fore over the years. They underwent a special revival after the ambitious UMNO MP, former Deputy Minister and skilled propagandist Abdullah Ahmad, declared his doctrine of Malay supremacy soon after the August 1986 general election.

Popular disaffection with the Mahathir Administration had been growing with the economic recession. Together with rising unemployment and declining public expenditure, especially for social services and subsidies, there was now more public awareness of the phenomenon of "money politics" (the increasing political access to wealth acquisition) and of various major scandals and corporate failures, as well as of the growing curbs on civil liberties and democratic rights (such as the amendments to the Official Secrets Act in late 1986).

Meanwhile, Malaysian Chinese politics were also fueling communal tensions. Since independence, but especially after 1969, Chinese Malaysians have felt very much on the defensive in the face of growing Malay, or rather UMNO, political hegemony, and its economic, cultural and other consequences. The mideighties proved to be particularly disastrous for the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), UMNO's main partner in the ruling BN coalition. After a protracted intraparty struggle, the present leadership swept decisively into power in 1985 with corporate tycoon Tan Koon Swan at its head.

By late 1985, however, Tan was involved in the Pan-El scandal, which triggered a stock market collapse in both Singapore and Malaysia, leading to his arrest in Singapore. The Malaysian and Singaporean authorities apparently came to some agreement, allowing Tan to lead the MCA into the August 1986 general elections before the trial began. The MCA's catastrophic electoral performance was due to a variety of factors, including the prior constituency redelineation, which favored UMNO, and ironically, the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) as well, to the disadvantage of the MCA. Shortly thereafter, Tan pleaded guilty to fraud charges and was sentenced to jail in Singapore. Upon his release in late 1987, he was rearrested and convicted by the Malaysian authorities on different charges of criminal breach of trust involving his management of Multi-Purpose Holdings MPH), the main investment arm of the MCA.

Meanwhile, Tan's closest associates in the new MCA leadership were implicated in a scandal involving 24 deposit-taking cooperatives (DTCs), suspended after the August 1986 general elections. The debacle involved almost 600,000 mainly Chinese depositors and over 1.5 billion ringgit (about US$600 million) of deposits. In January 1988, the government surprisingly announced the first payments in an MCA-proposed scheme (in which the central bank underwrote repayments of the deposits by installments), possibly in an effort to appease the increasingly disaffected Chinese community.

With the MCA in disarray and the DAP riding high on a crest of non-Malay frustration, the UMNO - dominated government's new policy changes only seemed to add more fuel to the fire, alienating much of the non-Malay population. Some of the issues that animated Chinese concerns in 1987 included: a mandatory loyalty pledge, with heavy Islamic overtones, for all schoolchildren, introduced by the Malacca state education authorities; the erasing of Chinese characters on stall signboards at a seafood festival sponsored by the Johore state government; the authorities' refusal to allow a father to assert parental rights to prevent the conversion of a Chinese minor to Islam; the decision of the University of Malaya Senate that all optional courses be taught exclusively in the Malay language; and finally, the appointment of 200 ethnic Chinese, lacking Mandarin Chinese language credentials, as senior schools officials in government-run Chinese-medium primary schools, with the last issue helping to precipitate the events of late October 1987.

In mid-October 1987, while Mahathir was in Vancouver attending the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and ensuring that Kuala Lumpur would host the 1989 CHOGM, UMNO Youth called a rally on October 17, urging the government not to yield to Chinese protests - across party lines - against the Chinese schools appointments. The rally, held in pouring rain, and an usually well-attended UMNO civics course the following day, denounced the Chinese protests and the MCA's involvement in them, and raised the threat of racial mobilization in a highly charged situation.

Some UMNO leaders then threatened to triple the attendance at another mass rally already scheduled for Sunday, 1 November 1987, which they claimed would be attended by half a million Malays, in a stadium built for 60,000 in a city of barely more than 1 million, of whom less than one-third are Malays. (The rally was originally scheduled to be held in Johor Baru, with about 150,000 expected, as the climax of Mahathir's efforts to consolidate support in response to the festering Team B challenge. Earlier, after the special UMNO committee set up to resolve the factional dispute and avert the courtroom showdown had failed to reach an acceptable compromise, Mahathir had toured the states in the peninsula, calling for UMNO members to close ranks in the interest of UMNO and Malay unity.)

Upon his return from Vancouver, Mahathir banned all public rallies, including the November 1 UMNO rally, as well as three newspapers. He also authorized the arrests of 119 people under the Internal Security Act, including the three main UMNO Youth provocateurs associated with Team B, as well as others from the non-Malay-based opposition DAP; from UMNO's Chinese coalition partners, the MCA and the Gerakan; and from the Chinese education movement, Dong Jiao Zhong, which the authorities see as responsible for leading Chinese opposition to recent government policy changes affecting Chinese education, language and culture. Also arrested were several Christian evangelists, Islamic Party (PAS) activists, various activists from public interest organizations and community groups.

Some of the original detainees who have been subsequently released included Dr. Chandra Muzaffar from the reform movement Aliran, as well as activists from SAM (Sahabat Alam Malaysia, the Malaysian Friends of the Earth), CAP (Consumers' Association of Penang), PARC (Perak Anti-Radioactivity Committee, which has led community opposition to radioactive waste dumping by the Mistubishi joint venture, Asian Rare Earth) as well as a number of SLDB (Sarawak Land Development Board) and FELDA (Federal Land Development Authority) settlers who had led opposition to unpopular managerial policies. Seventy of the 119 people arrested since October 27 under the obnoxious Internal Security Act (ISA) were released within the initial 60-day "investigation period," although 12 of them have been subjected to restricted residence orders, two of whom are confined in areas removed from their normal place of residence. Forty-nine others have been sent to the Kamunting Detention Center, near Taiping in Perak state (about 300 km north of Kuala Lumpur), raising the total number of known ISA detainees to 86.

Originally, Mahathir - who is also Home Affairs as well as Justice Minister - accused the October 27 detainees of racial and religious extremism, promising "that people would still be free to criticize the government so long as what they said was not racial." However, more than one-quarter of those originally arrested were not even identified by the police with the political parties, the Chinese education movement or the Christian proselytizers blamed for the rising communal tensions. On the contrary, many of these "social activists" - who comprise one-quarter of those sent to Kamunting - had been trying actively (admittedly with limited success) to develop non-communal alternatives for Malaysian society. While many of the intellectuals and social activists detained might be said to be of broadly leftist persuasion, this is certainly not a crime in Malaysia, even under the ISA, nor is there the least evidence to suggest that any of them threatened the security of the nation. Rather, by selflessly trying to develop just and popularly acceptable non-communal alternatives, they have been trying to plant the seeds - despite the formidable odds posed by communal politics - for a more united and harmonious, and hence a more stable and secure, Malaysia.

The government seems to have taken the opportunity provided by widespread public fear of communal conflict in October, and using the sweeping repressive powers available to it, to detain the more Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamic Party (PAS), as well as leaders of the non-partisan Dong Jiao Zhong (DJZ) and those involved in Christian proselytization of Muslim Malays, all of whom it blamed for the deteriorating communal tensions. It has also allowed Malaysia's security police, the Special Branch - aware of Mahathir's well-known antipathy to public interest and other "social groups" - to quash nascent social activism, though clearly of a non-communal nature, partly at the behest of the Singapore authorities.

A trade union leader and a university lecturer active among workers - both affiliated with the People's Socialist Party (PSRM) - are among the social activists sent to Kamunting. The latter is one of three university lecturers associated with INSAN, the Institute of Social Analysis, a small independent publishing and educational organization, who are being detained. The other two lecturers have also been actively involved in women's issues, and were vocal in Malaysian public protests over the detention of 22 liberal dissidents in Singapore in May and June 1987 (of whom all but one had been released by December 1987). Three activists from the Center for Development Issues (CDI), supported by the Christian Conference of Asia's Urban Rural Mission (CCA-URM), who have been active among the urban Indian poor, are also among those detained. Two other church-based social activists, an "alternative" theater dramatist, an environmentalist and a former student activist are also still in detention.

More than four months after the detentions began, the Malaysian government has not yet tried to justify the detentions in any comprehensive fashion. However, an official White Paper has been promised, expected to be announced in March 1988 - more than four months after the arrests began - which says a great deal about the official pretexts for the arrests. Not many people expect much new light from the White, Paper, though it will contain the new official version, and probably the usual half-truths to justify the recent actions - similar to some previous White Papers, particularly those after the ISA arrests of December 1974 and January 1980.

So far, however, Prime Minister Mahathir's public remarks have emphasized that the ISA arrests were left entirely to the police, though, of course, he retains ultimate responsibility as Home Affairs Minister. Mahathir has attributed primary responsibility for the buildup of racial tensions in October 1987 to the leading opposition party, the Chinese-based DAP. According to him, the DAP sought political support by championing communal issues, forcing the Chinese-based parties in the ruling National Front coalition to do likewise, with the resultant political mobilization of the Chinese community in turn forcing UMNO and the Malays to resist. While not altogether denying Malay responsibility, Mahathir argued that the Malays - especially UMNO - were forced to react to growing Chinese provocation, and were hence not the primary cause of the deteriorating ethnic situation. Such a view denies legitimate minority (i.e., non-Malay) grievances, as closer examination of the many issues involved would suggest. It also ignores the fact that much of this opposition emerged as a consequence of policy changes and new directives by the UMNO-dominated government. Needless to say, this one-sided caricature of the truth is widely regarded as a historical and self-serving.

Mahathir also blamed the tense communal situation on the opposition Islamic Party, PAS, which launched an embarrassingly misinformed campaign in mid-1987 against Christian proselytization among Malays, who are constitutionally required to be Muslims. There has undoubtedly been a strong Christian revival in Malaysia in recent years, especially among English-educated, middle class Chinese, partly in reaction to the Islamic resurgence, and strongly encouraged by new right-wing American Protestant churches, often with Zionist connections and regionally based in Singapore. However, as Mahathir has acknowledged, most older, established churches have steered clear of proselytizing among the Malays. Some of the detainees were probably involved in proselytizing among Malays, which they see as their mission in life and only fair game, since the government actively encourages Muslim proselytization. However, the government has also taken the opportunity to detain many PAS activists as well, most of whom were not involved in the exaggerated official PAS claims about the extent of Christian proselytization among Malays.

A more independent view would trace existing tensions in Malaysia to colonial as well as post-colonial government policies, including the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP). The NEP - ostensibly intended to eliminate poverty and interethnic economic inequalities in order to establish the socioeconomic basis for national unity - is now widely recognized as a policy of institutionalized racial discrimination reflecting Malay political domination (to which Chinese communal mobilization has been primarily defensive, rather than offensive), rather than a policy for achieving national unity on the basis of more equitable development for all.

However, although Mahathir's political office may have forced him to recognize the almost self-evident, though nonetheless dangerous, roots and consequences of the situation, he has yet to publicly acknowledge the dimensions of the problem and to address himself to it. Instead, he seems to be trying to appease the Chinese community by agreeing to the controversial scheme, proposed by the MCA, to refund deposits in the problematic deposit-taking cooperatives, blaming the nascent state-sponsored Malay bourgeoisie exclusively for their own economic difficulties, and publicly identifying Taiwan as a model for emulation in line with his Look East policy.

Clearly, the ISA detentions, the new repressive legislation and the other related actions will not resolve the admittedly difficult basic problems at hand, but will instead suppress some of the few initiatives and efforts in that direction, besides further undermining the democratic freedoms so essential for this monumental task.

For various reasons, Mahathir's popularity in various circles has declined considerably in recent years, though his remaining support is, arguably, more tenaciously loyal. Electorally, this was reflected in the August 1986 general election results, when the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition's share of the vote declined from 61 percent in 1982 to 57 percent. Meanwhile, the opposition DAP share of the vote increased by one percent from 19 percent to 20 percent as the number of its parliamentary seats doubled to 24. Much of the remaining 3 percent increase in the opposition vote went to the electorally unsuccessful Malay-based opposition parties. The share of the vote received by the Islamic Party (PAS) rose from 15.7 percent to 17.2 percent, though the number of parliamentary seats it won actually declined from five to one.

If we assume, as is often done in Malaysia, that only Malays voted for the PAS and non-Malays for the DAP, then no more than two-thirds of Malay voters chose the ruling BN, and presumably UMNO. The April 1987 UMNO elections showed that only half of UMNO's delegates supported Mahathir in a contest always heavily favoring the incumbent. Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that Mahathir enjoys the support of only one-third of the Malays, at most, and probably less than one-fifth of the Malaysian population. Perhaps most crucially for political stability, Mahathir has alienated significant sections of the Malay elite and middle class.

Hence, it is not surprising that former prime minister and UMNO president, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and others have accused Mahathir of allowing matters to deteriorate in October 1987 in order to justify the subsequent repression, which the Tunku claimed - without offering any evidence - was primarily directed at Mahathir's rivals within UMNO. (However, the four UMNO men arrested can all be linked to particular actions that could be considered racially provocative, though many could quite correctly point to other more prominent UMNO leaders in Mahathir's camp who made far more provocative statements and speeches. Rumors abound, however, that the police were told not to arrest any high-ranking politicians. In any case, all four had been released by December 1987, and the only one from Mahathir's camp arrested was decorated with a high state award (a datukship) by the Sultan of Kedah, Mahathir's home state, in January 1988.)

For some time it was widely believed that Mahathir's greatest worry was the legal suit taken by the 12, then 11 UMNO members aligned with Tengku Razaleigh. Although not distinguished by a record of great judicial independence (as claimed by several foreign journalists), recent court decisions must surely have worried and irritated Mahathir enough for him to add the Justice Ministry to his already considerable prime ministerial and home affairs portfolios. However, Mahathir quickly turned the court decision of 4 February 1988 to his advantage. In this case, instead of ruling for either of the contending factions, the controversial presiding High Court judge, Harun Hashim, ruled that UMNO was illegal under the law by virtue of the legal improprieties acknowledged by both sides. Mahathir did not appeal the court ruling, or overrule the deregistration by using prerogatives available to the Home Affairs Minister by law, as was widely expected. Instead, he registered a new party (UMNO Baru, or New UMNO) after the Registrar of Societies - a civil servant directly answerable to him at Home Minister - rejected another application from the Tunku, Tun Hussein Onn (Mahathir's immediate predecessor), and other elements identified with Tengku Razaleigh. With Mahathir's complete control over the new party, the uneasy coherence of Team B has come apart publicly, with former Deputy Premier Musa Hitam and most of his camp rallying to the new party, leaving Tengku Razaleigh and his supporters out in the cold, with the prospect of being shut out of the new UMNO. For the time being at least, Mahathir seems to have successfully used the advantages of inçumbency to consolidate his position and isolate his main rival, Tengku Razaleigh.

It is also pertinent to consider Mahathir's increasingly authoritarian rule in larger perspective. After more than six years as premier, it is clear that Mahathir desires to be recognized as a Third World statesman. In 1986, he supported the initiative to establish the South-South Commission (chaired by Julius Nyerere), and has otherwise tried to play a more important role in the Non-Aligned Movement and the Muslim world. In mid-1987, he successfully sought the chair of the UN's International Conference Against Drug Trafficking. After playing down British and Commonwealth links in the early eighties, he now actively cultivates them. Kuala Lumpur was accepted as the venue of the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1989 at the last meeting in Vancouver, only days before the October 1987 arrests began. If anything, this change of mind shows Mahathir has had to lower his ambitions, and aim instead for international platforms still open to him.

Mahathir is also beset by problems of economic recession, low investment and rising unemployment, and is anxious to attract foreign investment. He may actually believe that the dissenters detained (especially the political opposition, the environmentalists and labor activists) have been responsible for reduced investment, and that their detentions will somehow restore investment confidence and attract more investors. However, his more recent pronouncements suggest a recognition of the need for his government to appease and revive domestic Chinese investment, despite the racial sensitivities involved.

Tangled Web: The ISA Charges

Generally speaking, the DAO MPs and the Dong Jiao Zhong (DJZ) leaders are accused on inciting non-Malay Malaysians, especially the Chinese community, against various policies and actions of the UMNO-dominated government. Even if one does not agree with their politics and perspectives, nothing they have been charged with is illegal under the laws of the country. More importantly, the support they enjoy suggests genuine grievances and frustrations with government attitudes and policies - which cannot be resolved by repression. The charges against them and the prime minister's explanation for the arrests place the primary blame for recent communal tensions of the DAP, and now, it would appear, on the Chinese educationists as well - clearly a one-sided version few other Malaysians would fully accept.

The high proportion of Chinese originally arrested - including some from the ruling coalition - has been seen by some as necessary for Mahathir to justify canceling his own party's scheduled mass rally for 1 November 1987. However, a more ominous interpretation, in view of the charges against the DAP and DJZ leaders, suggests that the authorities may now deem advocacy of non-Malay rights and interests, especially outside the ruling coalition framework, as subversive of national security. This position is liable to expose the Malaysian government to charges of authoritarian racism, especially in light of its enthusiastic support for Rabuka's clearly racist and Christian fundamentalist military coups in Fijji against the elected, multiracial, social democratic coalition led by Bavadra.

Perhaps most damaging to the Mahathir government's credibility is the widespread belief that the main DAP targets were parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang and DAP deputy chairman Karpal Singh. They were jointly instrumental in bringing a civil suit to prevent the government from privatizing the highly profitable North-South highway to United Engineers Malaysia (UEM). UEM is a controversial company with a poor track record, but one recently taken over by Setia Budi, a UMNO-owned company that has since secured a number of lucrative government projects under dubious circumstances.

According to Lim, the North South highway project would eventually be worth a total of 62 billion ringgit (US$25 billion) after an initial UEM outlay of 8 billion ringgit! After some early success, the suit was rejected by the Supreme Court in a split 3-2 decision in mid-January 1988, at which Karpal was brought to court from detention in a wheelchair! Many observers agree that despite the judicial defeat, the DAP has won a moral victory in the process, strengthening its stature and reputation among an increasingly disaffected public. On 9 March 1988, Karpal secured his own release from ISA detention through the courts after the government acknowledged that one of the charges against him was factually erroneous. On the following day, however, he was reasserted under the ISA.

The Christian evangelists seem to have made it their priority to proselytize among Muslim Malays. Although the Malaysian government actively supports Muslim proselytization, and is indifferent to other religions proselytizing among non-Muslims, non-Muslim proselytization among Malays has widely been considered taboo, even among the other longer established and generally more liberal churches, which have generally acquiesced to these un-written curbs on religious proselytization. For this reason, Christian proselytization of Muslims is widely considered more provocative than other religious proselytization, although even supporters of the ISA would agree that those involved did not pose a threat no national security - the pretext for the ISA.

Although the PAS detainees were initially accused of contributing to religious tensions by mounting a campaign against such "Christianization," it now seems that those still detained had little to do with that quickly aborted campaign. Instead, the remaining PAS detainees included some of its more effective activists, many of whom were beginning to articulate a more radical Islamic social program acceptable to many non-Muslims. Their detention suggests an effort to preempt such potentially significant PAS initiatives.

The dozen "social activists" are from a variety of left-of-center nongovernmental organizations, including two from the People's Socialist Party (PSRM). They have all been accused of being procommunist, although the accusations generally stop short of suggesting links with Malaysia's communist underground. Instead, the emphasis is primarily on ostensibly communist international links, largely with the Philippines, and in several cases, under the auspices of the liberal Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), recently expelled from its headquarters in Singapore, and even the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference.

Most knowledgeable observers point to the hand of Singapore in this connection. The idea of an international communist conspiracy in Christian garb was first promoted in May last year by the Singapore government in its efforts to nip the emergence of a nascent liberal democratic opposition in the bud. Disbelief in the official Singapore story has recently culminated in a confrontation between the Singapore government and the reputable business weekly, the Far Eastern Economic Review. Close collaboration between the security services of Malaysia and Singapore is long-standing. In fact, it almost resulted in Mahathir's elimination through a similar frame-up in 1976. Hence, Mahathir's apparent willingness to acquiesce to the dubious Singapore-inspired police actions against the social activists has been seen by some observers as involving a quid pro quo. It is suggested that the police "got" their social activists (and some others) in exchange for acting against Lim, Karpal and the others said to be contributing to racial and religious tensions.

According to this interpretation, then, Mahathir may well have been sincere in initially seeing the October 27 crackdown as targeted against those responsible - from his perspective - for the communal tensions, and for promising to allow criticism of his government as long as it did not contribute to racial or religious tensions. Nevertheless, his subsequent willingness to let the Singapore-inspired Malaysian police's Special Branch have their way suggests another possible quid pro quo, by sacrificing the detained social activists to regain favor with the Singapore government. Already, international press reports suggest a significant improvement in bilateral relations between the two prime ministers between the Vancouver Commonwealth meeting and the Manila ASEAN summit two months later in December, which led to another follow-up meeting in January 1988.

Diplomatic sources claim that in August 1987, the police had recommended a list of Malaysian social activists for arrest under the ISA, soon after the Singapore crackdown in May and June. Though Mahathir publicly warned these social groups again in September, the social activists were only arrested in late October in the general crackdown ostensibly directed against those causing racial and religious tension. Since no one has claimed that the social activists still detained ever contributed to such communal tensions, some Mahathir critics insist that he was simply bluffing. Some even argue that the buildup of ethnic tensions was actually orchestrated by Mahathir and his lieutenants in order to justify strengthening his own position and the subsequent repression. Others, however, would concede that it is quite possible that after seeing how matters had gone dangerously out of hand upon his return from Vancouver, Mahathir gave the police a blank check, allowing them to act - and detain - as they saw fit. Hence, unless one chooses to see Mahathir as a cynical liar or conspirator creating communal tensions to legitimize the subsequent repression and authoritarian enhancement of powers, it seems more, plausible that the police took advantage of Mahathir's general authorization for ISA arrests to crack down against the social activists as well.

Not surprisingly, then, the proportion of social activists released during the first 60-day interrogation period has been the lowest among all the categories affected. The Singapore hand is also evident from the nature of the charges made against the social activists. The charges against all the detainees contain little that is actually illegal under Malaysian law. Many specific allegations are very similar to some of those made by the Singapore authorities in mid-1987.

In might, of course, be argued that the Filipino authorities provided the information upon which both the Singapore and Malaysian police have acted. However, a more careful examination of the charges against the social activists and the actual constellation of political forces and tendencies in the Philippines would expose serious basic factual inaccuracies one would not expect from Filipino intelligence, no matter how right-wing its bias. Such unfounded allegations were, however, of great use and convenience to the Singapore government's fictive creation of an international Marxist conspiracy to legitimize harsh repression against liberal democratic dissent. Potentially threatening to continued unchallenged PAP hegemony, these new dissidents were clearly not linked to the communist underground but rather to the churches, traditionally anticommunist bastions of the colonial era now seeking a new spiritual and social relevance in a changed era. Once again, the communist bogey was invoked, relying primarily on the convenient device of guilty by association, to revive a political siege mentality among the Singaporean population.

The Malaysian charges against the social activists reflect a similar method, though it remains unclear why the social activists should have been targeted. Almost everyone acknowledges that they had not contributed to communal tensions, but rather, had actually worked against them by trying to encourage community and solidarity across ethnic lines on social issues. Yet ethnic polarization has largely frustrated these efforts; except for some pockets of localized popular support and some limited influence on public opinion, they remain marginal to the mainstream of Malaysian politics. They are generally middle class, English-educated and left of center on the Malaysian political spectrum, and even the Malaysian police authorities would acknowledge that none had connections with the communist-led underground. Some would argue that it is precisely their noncommunal and nonpartisan advocacy of popular issues that undermines the legitimacy of the existing body politic. It is well known that Mahathir dislikes them - especially the larger, more vocal nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) - and may consider them, especially the environmentalists, to be antidevelopmental. But it is more likely that he considers them more an irritation than a real threat to national security. In fact, most of his public attacks on NGOs have been directed at the bigger NGOs with a higher public profile, rather than those currently affected by the detentions.

Hence, the circumstantial evidence suggests that the social activists were targeted by the police. But why? Many of the social activists still detained were actively involved in opposing the Singapore repression of May-June 1987. More importantly, almost all have the international contacts portrayed by the Singapore authorities as part of an international communist conspiracy. (To locate Singapore on the international political spectrum, it is enough to note that Singapore is the only Third World nation to follow Reagan's US and Thatcher's Britain out of UNESCO.) But why should the Singapore authorities want them arrested? Probably to give greater credibility to their own badly discredited conspiracy story, working on the perverse logic that if more than one government acts on the basis of the same fiction, the fiction will become more credible. And, of course, also to punish those in Malaysia who had worked to expose the truth behind the Singapore detentions. And perhaps also to get the Malaysian government to go along with the Singapore-led right-wing shift in ASEAN, which has seen, among other things, increased repression against the left by the Aquino government, new arrests in Thailand and even a donation to the Nicaraguan contras by the world's richest man, the Sultan of Brunei.

But why should the Malaysian police authorities collude in these efforts? Again, the answer here is necessarily speculative. The significance of the historic ties between the two police units - which used to be one, not so long ago - cannot be underestimated. Nor should the influence of paranoid "national security considerations" or ideology in such circles be ignored. The Singapore police could persuade their Malaysian counterparts that these social activists threatened Malaysian national security by virtue of their alleged international communist connections, "information" that Singapore would gladly provide in the interests of bilateral "security cooperation."

On the Malaysian side too, the ISA has long been used against noncommunists as well as alleged communists, contrary to the impression created by some liberal opponents of the recent detentions. The legislation was introduced in 1960 to replace some of during the Emergency, from 1948 to 1960. Although originally introduced ostensibly to deal with communists, even during the sixties - during the tenure of the first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman - it was used against noncommunist opponents of the government, including a former senior cabinet colleague, Aziz Ishak. In the sixties and seventies, thousands of people were detained without trial under the ISA, some for more than 16 years. In this regard, Mahathir's most notable achievement - until 27 October 1987 - was to reduce the number of known ISA detainees to fewer than 30.

Equally significantly, unlike in earlier mass detentions, none of the new detainees seems to be accused of having domestic communist connections, and almost two-thirds are not even accused of being procommunist - a telling statement of Malaysia's changed political circumstances in the late eighties. In fact, many have formidable anticommunist credentials, partly accounting for the unprecedented, widespread nature of the global opposition to the detentions, including elements previously undistinguished for their advocacy of democratic or human rights.

At this point, however, how Mahathir will proceed is still unclear. Already, he has introduced new laws enhancing police powers and control over the press and broadcasting, and restricting public gatherings, besides warning the judiciary against making decisions unfavorable to the government. On 18 March 1988, Parliament amended the Constitution to further limit the independence of the judiciary. More than three decades ago, Singapore Premier Lee Kuan Yew - then a rising opposition lawyer - compared repression to sex, always morally difficult at first, but easier the next time around. It is too soon to tell whether Lee's perverse analogy will be relevant to Mahathir. However, if he does not act soon to release the first four categories of detainees, he risks losing all remaining liberal democratic credentials at a time when he has decided that Malaysia should play a bigger role on the world stage. The continued detention of the social activists can only serve to underline the manipulation of domestic Malaysian politics by a smaller foreign power. Ironically, while all but one of those detained in Singapore in mid-1987 had been released by late 1987, the Malaysian social activist detainees may now be stuck far longer in the logic of a web of external making.

Prospects

The Malaysian arrests, then, are hardly likely to resolve the underlying ferment that continues to threaten the fragile stability of the nation. While the arrests and the ban on public rallies as well as on three national newspapers have temporarily averted the feared ethnic confrontation, the underlying forces contributing to this tension have hardly diminished.

Since independence three decades ago, the colonial ethnic division of labor has changed with economic development, and with political intervention addressing interethnic, but not intraethnic, inequalities. Capitalist growth - considerable in the sixties and seventies - enabled Chinese business interests to expand last decade and a half into the business world, albeit often mainly to collect rents for political patronage and access. Malay middle class expansion, again largely under government auspices, has similarly encroached into the growth of the non-Malay middle class, while Malays, Indians and, more recently, illegal immigrants, increasingly compete on unequal terms for the more poorly paid positions in industry and the services.

The favorable resource situation, commodity prices and high growth performance of the seventies have given way to lower growth, investments and incomes, to higher unemployment and to unprecedented fiscal and debt crises in the eighties. These have been exacerbated by dangerous speculation in the property, stock and commodity markets, expensive heavy industry investment losses, and rising corruption, abuse of power and "money politics." Mahathir's leadership has also come under pressure from Western governments unhappy with his somewhat independent foreign policy, and at the same time from foreign investors and international agencies demanding deregulation, public sector contraction and discipline, and ever more economic concessions. Domestic (mainly Chinese) capital flight, and the high expectations and insatiable appetites of the still growing, largely rentier Malay ruling class, anxious to translate political hegemony into economic profit, have aggravated the situation.

Until the challenge to his leadership from within UMNO early last year and the heightened communal tensions more recently, Mahathir's main interests and concerns were principally economic. Developments since late 1986 suggest that the worst is probably over, at least for the time being. But the deep-rooted structural problems, which have been compounded by various developments since the early eighties, remain. Although it may be unlikely that Malaysia's relatively diversified export commodities will again in the near future experience the conjuncture of price drops for tin, petroleum and palm oil as occurred in late 1985 and early 1986, investment and unemployment growth still lag badly behind. Average per capital income has actually fallen for the last three years, while the official unemployment rate doubled from 4.6 percent in 1982 to 9.1 percent in 1987, and is projected to continue rising into the next decade. Meanwhile, the fiscal and debt crises of the early eighties - related to disastrous heavy industry investments, as well as to trade and balance of payments problems - have come under increasing control. However, the economic-political interface of Malaysia's problems - including corruption, "money politics" and other abuses of power - seems to be immune, having become very much part of the fabric of the system."

Some of the economic policies of the early eighties have been reversed as a consequence of pressure from Western governments and international agencies. Enhanced economic concessions and investment incentives have yet to reverse the capital flight of the last decade, which is spurred on by the growing appetites of the rentier political elite, largely unmindful that they are slowly killing off the geese that lay their golden eggs.

Dr. Mahathir's Malay populist and Islamic rhetoric has frightened the non-Malay and non-Muslim half of the population. At the same time, it has failed to win over ardent Muslim Malays alarmed by continued Westernization, or other Malays angered by the inequalities and abuses of the regime, or frustrated by the deteriorating economic situation.

In retrospect, Musa's resignation as deputy premier in early 1986 over differences with Mahathir was the first stage in galvanizing opposition to Mahathir from within UMNO itself, and it coincided with falling petroleum and other commodity prices and the worst period in recent Malaysian economic history. Economically, the situation has improved for Mahathir since 1987. Despite pessimistic predictions in 1986, commodity prices improved in 1987, improving export earnings, the trade balance and the overall economic situation. Yet the basic structural problems besetting the Malaysian economy remain unresolved, while the economic and political set-ups continue to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, communal tensions. Meanwhile, the UMNO split has aggravated interethnic conflict, as the rival camps compete for support within the Malay community generally, and in UMNO in particular.

Mahathir's casting of blame on the DAP for recent communal tensions may actually enhance the opposition party's image, especially among non-Malays. The DAP has recently increased its political standing by taking on many unpopular new government policies and actions. Although many of these tend to involve the non-Malay communities, who feel besieged by the general drift of government policy over the years, more and more Malays grudgingly concede that DAP leader Lim Kit Siang has also successfully identified himself with the broader public interest in opposing obvious abuses of power, such as in the notorious Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (BMF) case or the awarding of the North-South highway project to an UMNO - owned company. Ironically, government-controlled media coverage has reinforced such impressions by highlighting DAP opposition and playing down other, especially Malay, dissent.

For the time being, however, the main threat to Mahathir's authority comes from within the Malay ruling class, especially UMNO. After all, neither the DAP nor PAS (which has only one parliamentarian, despite capturing 17 percent of the vote in 1986) are in any position to provide an immediate alternative. UMNO's junior partners in the ruling coalition are all resigned to playing second fiddle.

In this connection, Mahathir must surely be displeased by his predecessor, as UMNO president and Malaysian premier, the octogenarian Tunku Abdul Rahman, who expelled Mahathir from UMNO after the May 1969 events (after Mahathir had lost his parliamentary seat to current PAS president, Yusof Rawa). The Tunku, who is chairman of the now banned Star newspaper group, has accused Mahathir of moving toward dictatorship and a police state by engineering the recent communal crisis to legitimize the arrests and bans and to bolster his position against Team B. Subsequently, when UMNO was deregistered by a court ruling in February 1988, the Tunku attempted to register a new party, UMNO Malaysia, with himself as pro-tem president. Fortunately for Mahathir, despite the Tunku's popularity among the non-Malay elite and in the Western press, he has little credibility and influence in the politically dominant Malay community.

The events of October 1987 have also thrown the future of Malaysian coalition politics into doubt. On the one hand, UMNO's right to call for Malay or Muslim unity with the opposition Islamic Party, PAS, has never been publicly disputed by its non-Malay partners. However, when Chinese leaders of UMNO's coalition partners appeared publicly with DAP and other Chinese community leaders, on the Chinese school issue, this was deemed unacceptable. In the event, racial paranoia was encouraged by politicians on both sides in order to mobilize and consolidate as much support as possible for themselves. On this and various other issues, the rival UMNO factions have sought to strengthen themselves by trying to outdo each other against the Chinese bogey.

In the unlikely event that the UMNO split were to be amicably resolved in the near future, the prospects for communal reconciliation would still remain dim. The best that could be hoped for then would be a lull in ethnic posturing on the Malay side. However, the potentially explosive political system would remain, for new forces to fuel it again at some later juncture unless, of course, the system itself changes. But the problem in Malaysia is that no significant force exists on the horizon that could bring about such profound change, away from the present communal formula for national self-destruction.

The October 1987 crisis has also raised the immediate possibility of further erosion of the viability of the ruling National Front coalition - already under considerable stress on both eastern flanks, in Sabah and Sarawak, in recent years. Under Mahathir, government policy is basically determined by the prime minister, with the UMNO supreme council and the cabinet enjoying varying degrees of consultative status. Marginalization of the former in favor of the kitchen cabinet around Mahathir is likely to continue in view of the presence of rival camp members. Meanwhile the non-UMNO coalition partners are likely to continue to be marginalized by their own lack of support and lack of clout.

Mahathir's problems are bound to be complicated by the increasingly open split in his own camp, between his heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, and the powerful former UMNO secretary-general, Sanusi Junid. There is also considerable speculation about the ambitious of Deputy Prime Minister Ghafar Baba. Serious speculation has circulated of fresh alignments, possibly involving splits in both camps. Already Mahathir's former number two, Musa Hitam, has returned to his fold, while Anwar's rivals may yet defect to Razaleigh's camp. Sanusi Junid's replacement as party secretary general by ambitious Information Minister Mohammad Rahmat - reputedly strongly backed by the King, who also gave an unprecedented display of public support for Mahathir in February 1988 - has become the subject of considerable speculation.

Attention was focusing on the expected elections of the UMNO Youth head due in 1988. Acting head Najib Razak, once considered an eventual candidate to step into his late father's prime ministerial shoes, is now believed to have badly bungled his previous political fence-sitting. Both camps were expected to come up with alternative candidates for this high-profile position.

Another development considered potentially significant is the likely ascension in 1989 of Raja Azlan Shah, the Sultan of Perak, to the throne, in Malaysia's unique constitutional monarchy, which rotates every five years. Azlan was Lord President, the nation's highest judicial position, before succeeding to the Perak throne, and has continued to express some independent liberal views after his royal elevation. He is considered strong-willed, like Mahathir, and it is widely expected that their relationship will be far from comfortable, though the position of constitutional monarch in Malaysia is constitutionally defined and circumscribed. Such expectations ignore the adaptive capacities of both sides, previously evident in the unexpectedly smooth compromise achieved after the "constitutional crisis" of the early eighties and the ascension of the present monarch. (At the time, anticipating the ascendance of less than fully cooperative rulers, Mahathir sought to amend the Constitution to preempt royal interference in the legislative process.)

Clearly, then, the apparently defused communal situation is still potentially explosive, as rival UMNO factions continue to complete for political and economic power, further alienating the already besieged Chinese and Indian minorities, in a political system that rewards rather than discourages ethnic heroics. As the government drifts from one stop-gap measure to another, fundamental problems, requiring careful long-term attention, remain largely ignored.

While Mahathir and at least some of his kitchen cabinet must recognize these pressing but apparently intractable problems, it is also likely that they are too preoccupied with the question of political survival to begin to address, let alone solve, them.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue:

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.