1,001 Malaysian Nights ...
By Anil Netto

PENANG - On the evening of September 20, 1998, as Malaysia's former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim sat talking to a throng of reporters in his residence, police with balaclavas and submachine guns smashed into his home and hauled him away, in the process, changing the course of Malaysian politics forever.

It will be 1,000 days on June 16 since the momentous   day in 1998 when Anwar led tens of thousands of Malaysians into the center of the capital to thunderous cries of reformasi (reforms) and Mahathir undur (Mahathir resign).

On the surface, little has changed since that dramatic day, which ended with Anwar's arrest. Now suffering from a slipped disc and cervical spondylosis, he is in prison, serving  terms totaling 15 years. His one-time-mentor turned arch-foe, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 75, is into his 20th year in power and shows little sign of clearing his desk.

But scratch the surface and the undercurrents are  revealed - in politics, in the media, in civil society, even in the judiciary. And figuring prominently in this state of flux is the man once regarded as Mahathir's heir apparent, despite more than 32 months of incarceration, largely hidden from the public eye.

Increasingly, Mahathir's vision of reaching developed nation status by 2020, which once captivated much of the national imagination, looks jaded. The economy grew by only 3.2 percent in the first quarter of this year - a far cry from the 8.3 percent posted last year. Apart from the US economic slowdown, which has been blamed for the slower growth, there is a sense that political confidence has dipped. Today, few talk about Mahathir's "Vision 2020".

On June 1, Mahathir's key ally, the powerful Daim Zainuddin, resigned from his post of finance minister - ahead of the annual assembly of Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (Umno) on June 21. Daim's tenure  was unpopular in some circles and was plagued by scathing criticism over several controversial deals that were widely perceived as bail-outs favoring well-connected firms and individuals. Analysts say his departure may help to deflect any potential criticism that may surface during the Umno assembly.

As growth prospects dim, Mahathir has tried to entrench his hold on power with the detention of 10 reformasi activists in April under the harsh Internal Security Act. Four have since been released.

Worried by the dissent sowed in cyberspace, the authorities are also said to be drafting laws that would cover material that appears over the Internet. Since Anwar's ouster, the Internet has played a key role in keeping alive the reformasi movement though they have had to put up with unexpected hazards. In recent days, for instance, Laman Reformasi, the standard-bearer of the reformasi websites, was hacked for a second time, this time with a pro-Mahathir and pro-Umno message.

Independent cybernewspaper Malaysiakini, meanwhile, continues to draw a huge following. Print media freedom, however, looks less encouraging with two relatively independent Chinese newspapers taken over by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the second largest party in the ruling coalition. But within days, an Independent Writers Alliance, comprising many of the 90 contributors who quit contributing to the two newspapers, has been formed. And within two weeks of the takeover, three independent Chinese language news websites have sprung up.

The takeover of the Chinese newspapers has split the MCA as dissident factions try to force an extraordinary general meeting to block the takeover.  The MCA played a key role in delivering the majority of the Chinese votes to the ruling coalition in the last general election. If the Chinese community, which accounts for 25 percent of the population is divided, it could spell trouble for Mahathir's ruling coalition, especially with Malay support for Umno already eroded following Anwar's ouster.

Indeed, in the 1999 general election, opposition parties, especially PAS (the Islamic Party) and  Keadlilan (the National Justice Party) led by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah, made sharp inroads into Umno's traditional ethnic Malay support base. A fledgling united opposition front is set to pose a major threat to the ruling coalition in the next general election due by 2004.

Sparking the Malay disquiet was the black eye - literally - given to Anwar while he was in custody, as well as distaste over repressive laws. The police chief responsible for the assault on Anwar, Rahim Noor, was forced to quit and was recently jailed for two months. However, he received the customary one-third remission of his sentence for good behavior and was quietly released from jail last Saturday.

The anti-ISA and anti-media takeover movements, for example, reflect the new activism in civil society in the reformasi era. Although large sections of society remain apathetic, the intertwining of Malay and Chinese grievances could put the Mahathir administration under renewed pressure.

As if that were not enough, the judiciary appears to be breaking out of the mold it was cast in after the sacking in 1988 of the country's then top judge, Salleh Abas, ahead of a politically sensitive case involving Umno. Salleh's sacking and the subsequent suspension of five Supreme Court judges who tried to come to his aid left the judiciary in disarray and mired in controversy, which it never really shook off in the years to come.

But in recent weeks, judges have raised eyebrows with some surprisingly bold decisions. The latest came last Friday, when a judge in Sabah state ruled that an election for the Likas seat, which was won by the  ruling coalition, was null and void as the electoral roll used included non-Malaysians and phantom voters. It was a decision that struck at the very heart of the electoral process in Malaysia. But the real bombshell came when the judge, Muhammad Kamil Awang, mentioned that he had received a directive to strike off the election petitions without a hearing - a revelation that shook the legal fraternity and sparked a storm of
controversy. He later revealed that the person who had phoned him in mid-1999 to instruct him to strike off  the petitions was his superior in the judiciary at that time.

With individual judges staging something of a revival, there is an air of expectancy over the land, although few dare to hope that radical changes are in sight. Indeed, Mahathir's continues to wield power from Putrajaya, the administrative capital, but the country he has ruled for over two decades has changed irreversibly.

It is increasingly more difficult to put a lid on public discontent. Perhaps that is in no small way due to the defiant prisoner in Sungai Buloh whose influence continues to shape the political landscape as it has done for the last 1,000 days.

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