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KANGAR, Malaysia — Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has cleverly manipulated the Sept. 11 Islamic terrorist attacks in the United States and their aftermath to crush his political rivals in a crucial by-election in the north Malaysian state of Perlis over the weekend.

In Saturday’s vote in Indera Kayangan — whose boundaries include Kangar, the state capital — the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Chinese component of Mahathir’s ruling National Front (NF) coalition government, convincingly defeated the National Justice Party (Keadilan), the party led by the wife of Mahathir’s sacked deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.

The MCA’s candidate Oui Ah Lan polled 4,279 votes to beat Keadilan’s Khoo Yang Chong who obtained 1,687 votes. The victory margin of 2,592 votes was larger than the 1,974-vote margin for the previous MCA candidate over his Keadilan rival in the 1999 election.

The death of the MCA incumbent Khor Liang Tee on Dec. 19 paved the way for the by-election in Indera Kayangan, whose voters are 47 percent Malay and 47 percent Chinese, with the remainder being Indians, Thais and others.

Although the candidates from both contesting parties were ethnic Chinese, Mahathir and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which leads the NF, made it very clear from the outset of the campaign that securing the Malay vote was their priority. The prime minister viewed the ongoing political as a battle between UMNO and its archrival the Islamic Party (PAS).

Keadilan is a component of the Alternative Front (AF), a loose coalition of three parties, with PAS as the leading component. Ever since UMNO lost a lot of Malay support to PAS in the 1999 general election, Mahathir had been frantically trying to regain this lost support.

As Islam is central to the way of life of the Malays, the struggle between UMNO and PAS for their support, naturally focused on religion.

Often in the past, PAS had successfully projected the issue of a theocratic Islamic state as a panacea to the corruption and “cruelty” of Mahathir and the UMNO, particularly in the government’s treatment of Anwar Ibrahim.

But the Sept. 11 incident and the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan in their hunt for Osama bin Laden gave Mahathir the opportunity to and mount a counteroffensive and turn the tide against PAS.

Like the citizens of many other countries, Malaysians had reacted with shock at the Sept. 11 assaults in New York and the Pentagon, reinforcing their fears and suspicions about Muslim fundamentalists and militants, especially among the Chinese.

The premier first implicated PAS with Islamic militancy in the arrests of several members of the Malaysian chapter of the Mujahedeen which had originated from Afghanistan, some of whom happened to be PAS members.

Then he declared that Malaysia supported the U.S. strikes in Afghanistan which were directed at terrorists, and not Islam. PAS, which had opposed the U.S. strikes, found Mahathir’s clear distinction between terrorism and Islam difficult to counter.

When official campaigning for the Indera Kayangan by-election got under way on Jan. 10, the NF lost no time in portraying the weaker and multiracial Keadilan as a stooge of PAS whose main aim was to set up an Islamic state.

During the intense nine-day campaign, the NF also cleverly manipulated Chinese fears of PAS arguing that PAS was the real enemy, and that a vote for Keadilan was eventually a vote for PAS — and an Islamic state.

The government-owned television channels had, even before the official campaigning commenced, carried as prime time evening news reportedly doctored CNN clips of Taliban militiamen executing Afghan women clad in the burqa, long robes that allow only a net over their faces for them to see through.

Images of cruelty against defenseless women were often followed by unrelated clips of PAS leaders, and it was extremely difficult for the opposition to present its side in the pro-NF local mainstream media.

On the Chinese front, the MCA organized nightly lavish dinners with appetizing food and drink. As Loh Yoon Foo, a Perlis MCA leader explained, the idea of free dinners was a very effective way of attracting Chinese crowds. MCA campaign speeches invariably hammered on the dangers of PAS’s Islamic state concept. They warned against the restrictions and taboos that could be imposed on Chinese long accustomed to secularization. One of the precepts often mentioned was the hudud, an Islamic law that prescribes amputation of limbs for incorrigible thieves and stoning to death of adulterers.

Another MCA leader, Lim Boo Chang pointed out that the best defense of the Chinese against Islamic fundamentalism was to rally round the moderate Muslim leadership of Mahathir, whom they believe is capable of providing political stability in the country, that would facilitate foreign, particularly, U.S. investments.

The MCA approach proved successful in marginalizing more salient issues, such as the one relating to Chinese unhappiness over the treatment by the government of their schools, an issue of segregation over which the MCA had been at a loss to defend.

Those issues had been raised by Keadilan Chinese members with the support of Chinese educators who had come all the way from Kuala Lumpur to highlight their plight.

On the Malay front, Keadilan Malay leaders complained that UMNO thugs had taken control of several Malay kampongs or villages in Indera Kayangan, blocking Keadilan workers from campaigning. Keadilan also complained that the cars of its members were vandalized and that UMNO had deployed “phantom voters” to cast votes. They charged that the police had intercepted three busloads of UMNO members who had come all the way from Kuala Lumpur on polling day. UMNO vehemently denied Keadilan’s accusations.

So strong was the NF propaganda machinery in the form of the print and broadcast media, not to mention the overwhelming superiority of numbers regarding campaign workers and vehicles, that the opposition rallies, or ceramahs, though well attended by large crowds, failed to convey their message effectively.

When the ballot boxes were opened on the night of Jan. 19 and the votes counted, the NF had won convincingly. Mahathir’s clever strategy had paid off.

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