Sat, 15 Jan 2000

Mahathir's fading authority

When an opposition politician is arrested for criticizing police conduct in riots that took place 30 years ago, and a second is apparently charged over statements he made in a courtroom while defending ousted deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, questions are inevitably asked about how much of a role remains for the democratic process in Malaysia.

Charging three prominent opponents with sedition on such apparently flimsy grounds may turn out to be premier Mahathir Mohamad's biggest miscalculation to date.

His United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is already showing signs of disarray. A move by the party's supreme council to have Dr. Mahathir reelected without contest in next May's leadership poll is opposed by members who claim it undermines their freedom of choice. Dr. Mahathir, once universally recognized as the father of the nation, appears to be tottering on his pedestal.

At 74, the Prime Minister is serving his last five-year term. It may turn out that like other Asian leaders his mistake is to stay in power too long.

The Anwar episode has tarnished his image. But the characteristic defiance with which he scorned conventional Western wisdom to announce capital controls and a fixed exchange rate for the Malaysian dollar, helped Malaysia to weather the financial crisis without incurring more debt and becoming in thrall to the International Monetary Fund.

It was the sole note of triumph in a traumatic year and would have allowed Dr. Mahathir a dignified exit from power. But now, the portents suggest four years of increasingly bitter political rows.

That would be a tragedy for a secular state that, under his guidance, has enjoyed ethnic harmony and economic prosperity. But it looks increasingly likely if the current repression increases.

Dr. Mahathir is in danger of destroying his own creation. Worse yet, he risks leaving his people without a natural successor: one with the charisma and vision to maintain the singleness of purpose that forges a diverse population into a unified nation, as he has done.

-- The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong