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Time People Money

Editorial

CHALLENGE TO MAHATHIR

In his struggle with Anwar, let Malaysians be the winners


WHO SHOULD WIN THE power struggle between Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his ex-deputy Anwar Ibrahim? Answer: Malaysians. They want prosperity in the land, peace in the streets, freedom, truth and justice in society. They ought to get all these things. Mahathir would agree, having declared many times his aim of a better life for his people. His firing of Anwar came amid differences over how to best secure the economic welfare of Malaysians. For over a year, the PM let his No. 2 pursue a program of austerity and openness urged by the IMF. But in September, with no respite in sight for the country and the region, Mahathir imposed currency controls and got set to spur growth through more credit and spending. With this new tack, he understandably did not want Anwar in the cabinet.

There was, of course, much in the way of an old-fashioned power play in Anwar's sacking, campaigning and detention. For nearly two years, he and Mahathir have been at odds, as Anwar boosted his clout in the dominant United Malays National Organization. At the UMNO general assembly in late June, he urged an ally to launch an attack against cronyism among party leaders. His opponents retaliated with a book titled 50 Reasons Why Anwar Can't Be Prime Minister, alleging, among other offenses, unlawful sexual acts by the deputy PM. Mahathir once dismissed such accusations, but his government has now charged Anwar with some of the crimes.

The bitter contest over power and policy, however, has ignited a far weightier struggle - for greater freedom, openness and democracy in Malaysia. Stirred up by the ousted Anwar, this reformasi movement may be taking on its own momentum, with two new groupings advocating change: the Malaysian People's Movement for Justice and the Coalition for People's Democracy. Protesters see the hallmarks of repression in the heavy-handed treatment of Anwar and his supporters. The bruises he bore at court appearances cannot but elicit sympathy, if not outrage, from the public and the world.

The PM and his supporters insist there is no groundswell of support for Anwar and reformasi. So far, the movement has not won overt backing from the bulk of the Malay majority. This crucial segment may not be keen to upset a power structure that has long ensured their dominance of national politics. Yet the government has been unrelenting in its crackdown on protest leaders. Many of them hope Malaysia will follow the same "people power" route to change taken by the Philippines, South Korea, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and, most recently, Indonesia. The authorities, on the other hand, aim to get the economy on the road to recovery, which would, among other things, help blunt dissent.

A hardline policy cannot but fuel the reformist fire and international criticism. Every demonstration the police break up gives ammunition to those railing against repression. The rough handling of rallyists makes it difficult to disavow allegations of police brutality toward detainees. One-sided reports in the media, especially those that don't presume Anwar's innocence until guilt is proven, buttress the belief that local publishers and broadcasters are controlled. Then there is the use of the Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial, to jail Anwar, his close associates and other leading protesters. The sweeping arrests and reports of injuries sustained in custody have spurred critics to compare Mahathir to Suharto and Ferdinand Marcos.

Plainly, the PM needs to explore other ways of persuading Malaysians that they don't have to take to the streets in pursuit of reform. In particular, the government must ensure that the country's long-established institutions of democracy - Parliament, political parties, courts, a legal system, elections - do function as they are meant to. Of paramount importance is the judiciary, which must play its role as an independent, impartial bulwark against injustice and abuse.

One crucial measure to dispel any doubts about Malaysian institutions is a fair and open trial for Anwar, with no effort spared to ensure not just due process, but credibility with the domestic public and the international community. There may be difficulties, especially after all the statements made by people in power that Anwar is guilty, which in the West would be deemed prejudicial to an impartial trial. But try the government must to give the man his every right under the law. In dealing with protests, meanwhile, the police should devise ways to allow citizens to peaceably convey their views, while avoiding gratuitous disruption and violence.

As for the public agitation for greater democracy, transparency and rule of law, to deny this as Anwarist fiction insults Malaysians and their leaders. Especially the prime minister. He has worked harder than most to catapult his nation into the modern age. In the past 17 years, he brought royalty within the confines of law, built high-tech cities and industries, and lifted millions of his compatriots out of poverty. Thanks to the spread of affluence and education under him, Malaysians now value not just food on the table - but freedom, justice and democracy. Mahathir Mohamad should now deliver, not deny, those final fruits of Malaysia's development.


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