Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Mudslingers by Anwar Ibrahim
As printed in WSJ

The recent spat between former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is farcical to say the least. Dr. Mahathir has been whining like a wounded lion as he sees some of his policies reversed. But the irony is that Mr. Abdullah's actions have so far been too weak and indecisive to constitute any serious challenge to his predecessor's legacy.

The former prime minister's initial grievance was the government's decision last October to lower tariffs on auto imports, thus threatening the viability of the national carmaker Proton, which Dr. Mahathir has always championed. Then, in April, the Abdullah administration decided to scrap one of Dr. Mahathir's pet projects, a bridge linking Malaysia and Singapore, after the island state demanded concessions on other issues in return for allowing the project to go forward.While we are not privy to the vows exchanged in the throne room when Dr. Mahathir anointed Mr. Abdullah as his successor before stepping down in 2003, it's reasonable to conclude they included assurances that the new prime minister would not turn his back on his predecessor's megaprojects, or derail the pet industries he had nurtured.

Hence Dr. Mahathir's outrage, which has now broadened far beyond his initial grievances. In recent months he has accused the prime minister of compromising sovereignty by offering to sell sand to Singapore, and leveled charges of nepotism against Kamaluddin Abdullah and Khairy Jamaluddin, Mr. Abdullah's son and son-in-law, respectively.

In response, the prime minister went on television to deny that either had abused their connections or profited from government favors. Dr. Mahathir has even accused his successor of seeking to destroy Malaysian democracy, saying that he has been deprived of opportunities to speak openly and that the state-controlled media are not reporting his charges. But it's clear the former prime minister has overreached himself. Not only does he have little public support, he's even been abandoned by his former allies in the ruling United Malays National Organization, which Dr. Mahathir ruled throughout his 22 years in power. His call for party members to overthrow Mr. Abdullah was dealt a humiliating blow on Sept. 9 when UMNO members in his home state of Kedah refused to nominate him as a delegate to the party's general assembly in November.

Ordinary Malaysians can see only too clearly the hypocrisy of Dr. Mahathir's behavior. When he complains of being muzzled by the media, Malaysians remember how his opponents repeatedly suffered the same fate during his more than two decades in power. His grumbling about being threatened with the Official Secrets Act, for revealing secret government documents relating to the bridge project, sound strange coming from a man who presided over a period when this act was repeatedly invoked against his critics. That doesn't mean ordinary Malaysians harbor any illusions about the Abdullah administration. While there may be more openness than during Dr. Mahathir's years, the climate of fear remains. Dissidents are discouraged with the threat of persecution, while bloggers and other Web sites are intimidated with reprisals if they criticize the government in too strident terms. Citizens held under the Internal Security Act during Dr. Mahathir's reign remain detained without trial, and the government shows no interest in repealing a law which permits such indefinite detentions.

Similarly, in the legal arena, there appears to be a greater measure of independence in the courts thanks to a handful of judges displaying moral courage in certain high-profile cases. These include my 2004 acquittal by a Federal Court on trumped-up sodomy charges. But we mustn't forget that most of today's senior judges first rose to prominence under Dr. Mahathir's rule, and so must share responsibility for the abyss into which the legal system sank during that period. Nor has there been a cleansing of key personnel in other organs of state power that were abused for political purposes during Dr. Mahathir's rule, such as the police and the Attorney General's office.

Though commended for his initial pronouncements against corruption and the reversal of Dr. Mahathir's megaprojects, Mr. Abdullah has yet to offer a substantive agenda for economic growth and public sector reform. This has fed the growing perception of him as a leader incapable of confronting the real challenges facing Malaysia. China is increasingly dominating the region, and India is on the rise. But while most other Asian nations are scrambling to diversify in order to survive, Malaysia's economy remains obstinately reliant on electronics manufacturing, in direct competition with the two emerging giants. No wonder export growth is waning.

Far from charting a new way forward, the Ninth Malaysia Plan that Mr. Abdullah unveiled in April retains one of the ugliest legacies of the past: the race-based affirmative action policy that favors bumiputra -- mostly Muslim Malays -- for educational and business opportunities. While this policy may have served a useful purpose in promoting more equitable growth during the initial decades after Malaysia's 1957 independence, it has long since outlived its usefulness. In recent years, it has devolved into an instrument for corruption and rent seeking that heightens racial tensions and deters foreign investments. Most of all, it demonstrates the Abdullah administration's lack of resolve in dealing with the challenge of global competitiveness while ensuring social justice for all.

These are the real issues facing Malaysia, rather than the current mudslinging between Dr. Mahathir and Mr. Abdullah. It would be easy for those of us who have no love for either to watch the two sides volley accusations of corruption and cronyism. But that would ignore the real challenge ahead in building democracy, freedom and a vibrant and prosperous market economy in Malaysia.

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