Leadership Split in Malaysia's Government Puts a Promising Islamic Country at a Crossroad

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Leadership Split in Malaysia's Government Puts a Promising Islamic Country at a Crossroad

Prosperity breeds friends and adversity tests them. This adage has never been more pertinent than in the current Malaysian context.

There was a time, not too long ago, when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, 73, and Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, 51, projected a father-son image, although they are not related. It was taken for granted that Mahathir was grooming the Western-educated Anwar to succeed him when he retires.

Articulate Anwar Ibrahim represented Malaysia at almost all international forums and zealously defended the politics of his boss, especially in the fields of finance and foreign affairs. This was so until the Malaysian economy, as in so many other Asian countries, started sagging a year ago.

Mahathir Mohammed saw a Western hand in the downward slide in the region. Instead of listening to Western arguments for further liberalization, privatization and globalization to attract investments, Mahathir sought to insulate his country's economy from "outside manipulators."

Anwar disagreed, and did not stop there. He openly charged corruption within the ruling United Malay National Party (UMNO), and in Mahathir's administration.

It was only when Anwar Ibrahim publicly expressed his disagreement with Mahathir Mohammed that political pundits realized how deep was the division between the two top leaders. Relying on the popularity he enjoyed with the younger generation, and particularly within the student Islamic groups from whose organizational ranks he had risen, Anwar went to the university campuses and other political forums to make his speeches advocating Reformasi, a Reformist agenda that at one stage targeted Mahathir's retirement, if not ouster.

The Malaysian media gave Anwar headlines, and he received extensive coverage in the Western print and electronic media. Thus the conflict between the two reached a critical point of confrontation.

Mahathir, however, who has been the prime minister of Malaysia for 17 turbulent years, has a history of winning battles against his political adversaries, using whatever means are necessary. During his incumbency he also has campaigned on a platform of political morality, and denounced the West for its duplicity and lack of moral fiber.

Therefore few people were surprised when, on Sept. 2, he dismissed Anwar Ibrahim from the office of deputy prime minister, expelled him from the ruling United Malay National Party, and a week later jailed him under the Internal Security Act, a law that is a legacy from Malaysia's colonial past.

The surprise was not the charges of "seditious activity" leveled against Anwar Ibrahim, but the additional accusations of sexual improprieties. Anwar, a married man, has denied all charges and attributed them to Mahathir's intent to demonize him and to shock the country. The courts have refused to let Anwar out on bail, and there also have been reports that he has been physically mistreated in jail.

MAHATHIR'S DUAL POLICY

It now appears that Mahathir Mohammed, who has been hailed in the developing world as a forthright leader who pulled his country out of the economic doldrums and who has had the courage to stare down the West when necessary, has one private philosophy for running the internal affairs of his country, and another for public dealing with the outside world. …