KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took two hours to deliver a 21-page address at the opening ceremony of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) assembly on June 21. During the assembly’s closing session two days later, he took another two hours to elaborate on the key points of his earlier speech before 2,000 party delegates.

In his address, Mahathir spoke of the position of the Malays, the politically-dominant group in multiracial Malaysia’s, and how they came to be dominated by other races but subsequently regained their political supremacy when the country became independent in 1957.

A 20-year program of affirmative action from 1970, called the New Economic Policy, gave the Malays back what they had lost as the indigenous people of the country, Mahathir noted. This took place after the country saw its worst racial riots in Kuala Lumpur on May 13, 1969 following a keenly contested general election where the ruling party lost a lot of ground to the opposition.

Mahathir noted that despite their political supremacy, the Malays, compared to the Chinese, were still backward in many areas, especially economics and higher education. Worse, the Malays have not critically assessed their weaknesses, often blaming others instead.

Mahathir warned that if the Malays continued to remain complacent, they would be in danger of once again losing their special position as the bumiputra or indigenous people of the country in an era of globalization, where Malaysia is open to external influences.

Mahathir’s bottom line was an appeal to the Malays to stop quarreling among themselves and unite as a community behind UMNO in order to succeed, as they had succeeded before.

Old line rehashed

Mahathir’s exhortations were in fact nothing new. He had said the same things 30 years ago in his controversial book, “The Malay Dilemma.” Mahathir, then a maverick UMNO politician, had been expelled from his party by former premier and party president, Tunku Abdul Rahman, whom he criticized for “selling Malay rights to the Chinese.”

Mahathir returned to the fold of UMNO in 1971, a few months after the Tunku resigned in September 1970. The ideas he espoused in “The Malay Dilemma” soon became the basis for the New Economic Policy, the government’s blueprint on affirmative action. Mahathir, the populist UMNO politician, became party president and premier in 1981.

The response from top UMNO leaders to his assembly address was predictably positive. Vice President Muhammad Taib echoed Mahathir’s plea to the Malays to be united to form a strong political base that could guarantee the success of UMNO’s agenda to be formulated following Mahathir’s themes.

UMNO Youth President Hishammuddin Hussein said the speech had not only made the younger generation of Malays born after independence in 1957 aware of the history of UMNO’s struggle, but also pinpointed the weaknesses of the Malays at all levels for remedial action.

Their response was also in deference to Mahathir’s emotional appeal, dramatized by his weeping when he recited a Malay poem “The Malays Forget Easily” at the end of his speech.

Beneath the positive veneer, there was growing concern that UMNO had lost substantial Malay support to the opposition Islamic Party (PAS) and the National Justice Party (Keadilan) led by sacked Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim’s wife, in the country’s last general election in 1999. Only a strong rally from the Chinese community prevented Mahathir’s ruling National Front (NF) from losing its traditional two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Mahathir had since offended the Chinese by castigating one of their prominent organizations, the Suqiu, for what he saw as their questioning of Malay supremacy and demanding equal rights. In return, the Chinese showed their displeasure by voting against the NF, causing it to lose a crucial by-election in Lunas in Mahathir’s home state of Kedah last November.

Mahathir tried to lump PAS and the Chinese together as strange bedfellows in an unholy alliance that is going all out to undermine and eventually end Malay political supremacy.

Mahathir was aware that the Malays had rallied to UMNO before when the chips were down, not only in 1945 when the then newly-formed party opposed the British Malayan Union plan to give equal rights to the Chinese and Indians, but also in the aftermath of the 1969 racial riots, which resulted in entrenching Malays’ special rights in the constitution in such a way that they would never be challenged by the Chinese again.

But this time, Mahathir is facing an uphill task, because conditions are very much different and appear to work against UMNO, thanks to the partial success of the New Economic Policy.

Compared to 30 years ago, the Malays are economically much better off now, and their political supremacy is no longer challenged by the marginalized Chinese.

More worrying for the premier, PAS and Keadilan have managed to convince many Malays that as a community, they have not lost their political supremacy, contrary to what UMNO and Mahathir had propagated.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, deputy president of Keadilan, explained that there was no split in Malay political strength, only a shift in support from UMNO to the Malay opposition as indicated in the results of the 1999 general election. Where UMNO used to lay claim to at least 70 percent of Malay votes, it could now command no more than 30 percent, Chandra said.

Analysts contend that Mahathir and UMNO lost significant Malay support to the opposition because their economic policies were seen to benefit a coterie of Malay businessmen beholden to Mahathir and former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, rather than the Malay masses.

Anwar issue divisive

In addition Mahathir’s sacking of Anwar, subjecting him to long trials and finally jailing him for corruption and sodomy, had made many Malays who were skeptical of the charges, unhappy. Even some UMNO leaders interviewed during the assembly conceded that the Anwar issue had split UMNO in the last general election.

Mahathir’s hot-and-cold ties with the Chinese — whose position is intricately tied to his perception of the Malay dilemma — is also an issue in UMNO’s bid to regain Malay support. Many Chinese leaders are unhappy with the way Mahathir and UMNO have been making their community the scapegoat of UMNO’s many problems.

They resent Mahathir for continuing to make economic activities available to aspiring Chinese businessmen beholden to him, while at the same time warning them in his closing remarks at the assembly not to demand equal rights with the Malays. His moves to appoint a Chinese press secretary and a Chinese political secretary to have better rapport with the community may seem too little and too late in winning back its support, many analysts say.

But Mahathir has three more years to go before Malaysia’s next general election in 2004 to accomplish two strategic goals: to persuade the Malays to heed his warnings contained in a rehash last week of “The Malay Dilemma,” and to regain Chinese support.

And the premier is certainly not giving up this chance.

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