Malaysia Courts Its Chinese Vote ; in Monday Elections, Asia's Anti-West Leader for the First Time Faces A

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In most countries, a politician who pledges funds for better schools would win accolades from voters.

But here in this farming community in northern Malaysia, Yap Shui Fah sees the government's offer as dirty money.

"We asked them for 18 years, but now they are in a dangerous position," says Mr. Yap, manager of a printing shop. "They want to give us a bribe."

In the run-up to general elections on Monday, the government is going all out to court Chinese like Mr. Yap, who make up more than one-fourth of the country's population of 22 million. It's an indication of how seriously Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad views the challenge to his 18 years of rule.

For the first time, the Chinese could be the swing vote in a country where the majority Malays have always voted as a block to keep the government in power.

The political equation changed this year during the sensational corruption trial and downfall of a charismatic Malay leader, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Outraged by what they saw as a betrayal of Malay ideals of civility, many now accuse Dr. Mahathir of other abuses of power, such as cronyism and corruption. Monday's election is seen as a referendum on Asia's longest-serving leader.

Anti-Western and proud of it

Mahathir leads the rallying cry in Southeast Asia for self- sufficiency# and seeks to minimize Western influence in the region. He is well known for railing against foreign news media and standing firm against such Western ideas as the International Monetary Fund's recent prescriptions for recovery during the Asian economic crisis. In September, Mahathir attributed longer-term economic success in Asia to the "Sinatra Principle," saying, "we have all done it our own way." The opposition coalition claims to be more pro-Western.

Meanwhile, the jailed Dr. Anwar, convicted of tampering with witnesses and standing trial on sodomy charges, has crusaded since his sacking in September 1998 against what he says are attempts by his former mentor to secure his own hold on power.

In reaction to the high drama of the past year, Malays have joined a nationwide opposition coalition in increasing numbers. In Kedah, for example, nearly 20,000 Malays have defected from the ruling coalition to join the Islamic party PAS, part of the opposition coalition. "They are mad at the abuses of the existing government," says Che Had Dhali, a PAS official.

And although the Chinese have traditionally voted conservatively, the government is taking no chances. "We are confident of their support, but we want to be absolutely sure," says a senior official of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the ruling party. …