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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Milder Lim Fights On

The issues: corruption and accountability

By Roger Mitton / Kuala Lumpur


LIM KIT SIANG IS an extremist, intolerant, monstrous, unacceptable, disloyal, foreign spy. That, at least, is what government leaders have called him over the past three decades. He once wrote: "The road of an opposition in Malaysia is a hard and stony one, interspersed with great pressures and temptations." As a founder member of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in 1966, Lim knows that road. He was elected leader three years later while languishing in detention. He was then in his twenties. Now nearly 56, Lim -- and his party -- have never tasted power at any level.

Still, the DAP battles on. Lim is official leader of the opposition with a seat opposite Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Parliament and a spiffy black Mercedes bought by the party. "It's secondhand," he says, modestly. Perhaps it's deserved. Syed Husin Ali, leader of another opposition group, notes: "Their MPs are hardworking. Certainly Lim stands out." Former partyman Fan Yew Teng says: "You have to take your hat off to them. Without the DAP there would not be much of an opposition in Malaysia."

But have they achieved anything? Naturally Lim asserts they have, especially in pushing for a policy of integration not assimilation and in fighting to preserve the language, education and culture of non-Malays. "Because of our stand many of us were detained," he says. "But we can look back with some success. Mahathir has now acknowledged that assimilation cannot succeed -- it is a multicultural, multiracial society."

Lim recalls the tense times, like speaking in Parliament about Chinese education and culture in 1971: "You could feel the static of antagonism." Chinese lion dances, he was told, were un-Malaysian and performed only by Communists and secret societies. Now they are watched enthusiastically by Mahathir and other leaders, and routinely shown on television. Chinese primary schools, once frowned upon, now "are praised as a major contributor to national development. A profound change has come about and the DAP made an important contribution to that change."

But the party's health has suffered. In the 1995 general election its vote share dropped to 12%. Many say that after Malaysia's almost decade-long economic boom, urban professionals who once lauded the DAP's watchdog role, now concentrate on the money game. Lim believes the party can recover. He trusts that people are still concerned about basic issues like accountability, corruption, good government and quality of life. His son, party youth leader Lim Guan Eng, notes: "Even goverment MPs say we need an opposition to keep everyone on their toes."

Yet things have gone from bad to worse. The party's tiny caucus was reduced to eight when an MP was disqualified after a controversial court case. Even Guan Eng may lose his seat if found guilty in a sedition trial that Amnesty International claims is politically motivated. Also, the party has been riven by internal disputes and hit by defections. One ongoing gripe is the apparent grooming of Guan Eng to inherit the leadership from his father. Guan Eng contends the issue is premature because he is not offering himself for any top job. For now, he says: "I prefer to be judged on merit."

Many feel Lim has mellowed and lets Guan Eng and deputy leader Karpal Singh raise controversial issues. In any case, Lim claims the fiery "extremist" image of his younger days was fueled by biased reporting. "Since the authorities control the mass media they could portray me in the worst possible image." Today things have improved. "It used to be a total blackout for us in the press, but now there has been some little opening up." TV, however, remains closed off.

Nowadays Lim is more likely to be tagged formidable and legendary than disloyal and chauvinist. Mahathir, who once said he was "the biggest stumbling block to national unity," recently took him to South America for the launch of Malaysia's second satellite. Lim is an ardent supporter of the PM's push to make the country a center for information technology. Yet Lim maintains that his "political beliefs, principles and modus operandi" are unchanged. Will he fight on? He laughs: "There is still a lot to do. I started very young. Mahathir is 71, I'm only 56. There's a long distance to go." Hold that retirement cake.


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