|ELECTIONS IN MALAYSIA|
November 29, 1999
SPENCER MICHELS: Malaysians cast their votes Sunday and Monday for a fifth term for their outspoken prime minister, Mahathir Mohammed, giving his coalition a two- thirds majority in parliament. Opposition parties did better than ever before, but failed to shake Mahathir's grip on the country. Now 73, he has served for 18 years, longer than any current elected leader in Asia.
Since Malaysia gained its independence from Britain in 1957, Mahathir's 14-party coalition has ruled the predominantly Muslim nation of 22 million, more than half of them ethnic Malays. The question in this election was whether Mahathir would maintain his two-thirds majority in the parliament. It gives him the power to amend the constitution, among other things. The campaign has been as bitter as any in the country's history.
Helping fuel the four-party opposition's campaign was the lingering controversy over Mahathir's longtime heir- apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed last year on charges of corruption, and is now on trial for sodomy. Anwar's backers used his case, and especially his alleged beating while in prison, to call for a less autocratic government, and especially to rally younger voters with the slogan of reform. Anwar's supporters claimed one victory today as his wife won 62 percent of the votes for his seat in parliament from the northern state of Penang.
Mahathir's campaign took him on a whirlwind tour of Malaysia's 13 states, spread over the Malay Peninsula and the Island of Borneo. And in a dramatic campaign tactic, he brought Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to Malaysia last week. More than a quarter of the population is ethnic Chinese. The prime minister's campaign rhetoric, often critical of the U.S. and other countries, was a reminder of his go-it-alone policies, especially during the recent Asian financial crisis. He had rejected the aid and advice of the International Monetary Fund, and instead instituted currency controls and other nationalist measures on his own. He now claims personal credit for Malaysia's success in weathering the economic storm.
During the two-day election, soldiers were on hand for possible disturbances. But the polling went smoothly, with about 70 percent of the population turning out to vote. Still, one election monitoring group said that waxy marks had been placed over the space to mark opposition votes in some places, making it difficult to vote for the opposition candidates.
|Was this a victory?|
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes it from there.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on the Malaysian elections and what they mean, we turn to Ronald Dewayne Palmer, U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia during the Reagan administration, and former president of the Malaysia- America society. He is now a professor at George Washington University. And Murray Hiebert, a journalist who covered Malaysia for the "Far Eastern Economic Review" from 1995 until just last month. He was jailed for writing an article criticizing the Malaysian judiciary system. He is now Washington bureau chief for the magazine. Welcome, gentlemen.
Mahathir was portraying this a couple of hours ago as great victory. Is that how you read it?
MURRAY HIEBERT, Far Eastern Economic Review: In a sense there was a victory. There was a lot of anticipation by the opposition and a lot of observers that he would have trouble maintaining his two-thirds majority. He got that but he still lost much more than he, his majority is much dented, much less than it was before and it raises questions whether that will cause people -- people within his ruling coalition to raise questions about his leadership and whether in the long run we'll see some political change.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you read these results?
RONALD DeWAYNE PALMER, Former U.S. Ambassador, Malaysia: Basically, a victory is a victory and we start from the premise that, the National Front won, they retained their two-thirds majority. Clearly there are some problems ahead in terms of the future of the prime ministership, future of the, of his basic party and, in the front, questions about succession and so forth. But I think for the time being that the prime minister has got good reason to feel quite content tonight. It is I guess morning over there. I don't wish to in any sense demean the effort of the opposition; the opposition did a terrific job. It has revealed, however, that there are some serious problems that need to be addressed in terms of Malay attitudes.
MARGARET WARNER: And by Malay attitudes, you are talking about the dominant ethnic group within Malaysia.
RONALD DeWAYNE PALMER: I am. It is about 50 percent of the population. This is a moment to say something about a very successful effort that Mahathir, the prime minister, has been a part of. And that is the question of what has been called the new economic policy. It's very easy to forget that in 1969, there were race riots in Malaysia in which hundreds of people lost their lives.
MARGARET WARNER: They were predominantly between the Malays and what the Chinese who had all the economic power.
RONALD DeWAYNE PALMER: That is exactly right. The result of those race riots with the Chinese being the victims often of the Malays led to a decision on the part of the Malay leadership that they had to do something very dramatic to attempt to cope. That was a program of affirmative action, of quotas, of efforts to provide legs up in business, in industry, and in education. Among other things, I was fortunate enough to be there in 1981-'83, when the government of Malaysia decided that it would start sending students to the United States. It ran it -- Malay students. It ran at about 10,000 a year for any number of years. There must be 100-200,000 Malay officials who have had U.S. educations. In short, there are many complications behind this vote that I think we will have a chance to get into.
MARGARET WARNER: And why do you think Mahathir did so well? I mean, do you think it is because essentially the population is still grateful for his leadership, the economy has rebounded to some degree?
MURRAY HIEBERT: I think that's part of it. There is a lot of appreciation for what Mahathir did. He took the country from what was basically a commodity exporter to one that's a large manufacturing base, electronics products. But the other factor in the opposition -- effecting the opposition was that people don't entirely trust that coalition. It is very disparate. It is made up of an Islamic party that wants to introduce an Islamic state. It had the Democratic Action Party, which is largely a Chinese party, and would really look askance at an Islamic state, and then it has the party of Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, whose wife won the election -- but there is always fear that if these three groups got together and won, that they had no common platform; they had no common agenda and they would end up squabbling. And I think that hurt them as much as anything.
MARGARET WARNER: If you look at the Asian economic crisis, in a lot of Malaysia's neighbors, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, the economic crisis really sparked political change, real change in leadership. Why in the biggest picture sense why hasn't that happened in Malaysia?
MURRAY HIEBERT: Well, I think one of the big reasons is it didn't cause the unemployment and inflation that it caused in the other countries. People really didn't -- the economic crisis, the recession didn't really hit people really hard. Malaysia has always, for a long time has had a negative unemployment rate and the economic crisis did not throw a lot of people out of work. Prices did not go up very much, and so the bread and butter issues just really never hurt people to the extent that they did in Indonesia or Thailand or Korea. So I think that's the main reason.
RONALD DeWAYNE PALMER: I would just like to add that the fact is that the Malays area also -- the Malaysian government has been generally pretty well run. It was not perfect, but some of the problems that arose in Thailand -- that arose in Indonesia had been worked on. This is again to suggest that nothing is perfect in this world. They didn't do a perfect job but in many respects, the Malays -- the Malaysian government was in a sense better prepared to deal with some of the problems that came up.
MARGARET WARNER: But Mahathir, the way, one way he dealt with it was by blaming foreigners, currencies, traders, the IMF, the West.
RONALD DeWAYNE PALMER: Using nationalism.
MARGARET WARNER: Using nationalism -- imposed currency control, did that resonate well? Do you think that was a kind of winning message for him?
RONALD DeWAYNE PALMER: Well, winning message I'm not sure, but Malaysia -- like all of the countries out there -- is highly nationalistic and if you can find a successful way to blame the foreigner, we know something about that here. If you can find a successful way to do that, it can have a very useful effect in terms of getting public support behind you. The other thing is that from the beginning, Mahathir has been a go it alone guy. He has -- this is not the first time he has gone against the --
MARGARET WARNER: Prevailing international sentiment.
RONALD DeWAYNE PALMER: Well, even prevailing national sentiment. He has criticized the first prime minister of Malaysia who was considered to be a saint, and ended up being kicked out of the party. But he was a useful person and he was brought back into the party and has subsequently done what he has done.
|The implications for the West|
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think of the implications of these results both for the West, the United States, I want to remind our viewers that just last December Vice President Gore -- when he was in Malaysia -- hailed the reformers, the liberal reformers of Anwar's party. One, do you think it's going to cause any problem for the U.S., and what about the western investors who are now being invited to reinvest in Malaysia?
MURRAY HIEBERT: I'm not sure it has a lot of implications. The government of Mahathir will continue and so will his policies in large. The thing about Mahathir, he talks a lot, criticizes a lot what is going on in the West, but on the other hand, he is a friend of foreign business, foreign investors -- in fact played a large role in the economic rebirth in Malaysia. He has military ties with the United States. He has joint military exercises. He has aircraft carriers calling. He doesn't publicize it but he is friendly despite his rhetoric.
RONALD DeWAYNE PALMER: I would support that. Rhetoric is one thing. Money, investments, having important and potent friends is something else. And I would suggest there is a certain, I wouldn't call it love-hate but ambivalence in the relationship between Mahathir and the United States in particular. I think, among other things, Mahathir would like to have 250 million people.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain that.
RONALD DeWAYNE PALMER: I mean simply that he has a nation of 20 million people. And he a person with 18 years experience. Sometimes he thinks he probably could do as good a job.
MARGARET WARNER: As the President of the United States. Do you think that this economic recovery is for real? There has been a lot of criticism that it really isn't, that restructuring that other countries did has not been done there?
MURRAY HIEBERT: He started on the economic restructuring, the country has. They've started on the banking reform. They've tried to do some things there. They've taken the nonperforming loans off the books of the banks. They've worked out mergers - it's been facing a lot of opposition. I think the area in which it's the larger corporate restructuring that probably hasn't happened and largely Mahathir has refused that prescription from the IMF and other financial institutions because he thinks that it will put Malays out of business so he tries to avoid that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well Murray Hiebert and Ambassador Palmer, thank you both very much.
RONALD DeWAYNE PALMER: Thank you.