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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

Newsmakers 1998


The confrontation between Mahathir and Anwar goes beyond the two men, impacting Malaysia's future

Reflections Out with the old, in with the new

Suharto Three decades of rule end in chaos and ignominy

A.B. Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif blast their way into the nuclear club

Zhu Rongji China's reformer grapples with the Crisis

The Internet Governments don't have to love it, but can no longer ignore it

IN 1998, two worlds collided in Malaysia. One, led by a respected if authoritarian prime minister, represented the old order of patriarchal politics, vested interests and the status quo. The other, personified by a former student firebrand, gave voice to the aspirations of the next generation - one that desired greater egalitarianism, transparency and meritocracy. For a while, it seemed as though the two could coexist. But the contradictions, laid bare this year by the Crisis, ultimately proved too great. The resulting clash held the nation and the world transfixed - and changed the face of Malaysian politics.

It was a sad end to a pairing once regarded as the dynamic duo of Asian politics. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, 73, was the national giant - the straight-talking, sometimes abrasive fighter who in 1946 helped found Malaysia's dominant party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Since taking office in 1981, Mahathir did more than any other leader to give Malaysia a vibrant economy.

Anwar Ibrahim, 51, was his suave alter ego. As a young Muslim leader, he was brought into UMNO by Mahathir in 1982. Hailed both at home and abroad as a future star, the affable populist enjoyed a meteoric rise through party ranks, eventually becoming finance minister and deputy PM. The era of Mahathir was to give way eventually to the age of Anwar in a smooth transition. But the Crisis intervened, and their differences - long suspected, always denied - came to the fore.

Outwardly, the disagreement was over the plan for economic recovery. Mahathir wanted an expansionary approach, with loose monetary policy and lower interest rates. Anwar favored a tight monetary policy and International Monetary Fund-style austerity measures. A hint of the discord came in January with the formation of the National Economic Action Council, headed by close Mahathir ally Daim Zainuddin. Its goal was to map out the recovery - overlapping Anwar's role as finance minister.

Behind the dissonance, however, lay a more fundamental difference. Mahathir, who held outsiders largely responsible for his country's woes, felt the established order was basically sound. Anwar wanted to change the system, whose closed, collusive nature he blamed for the problems. "The PM is hands-on, pro-business and works very closely with the business community on economic policies," says Michael Yeoh, executive director of the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute. Anwar, on the other hand, "is not as close to business. He may think there are excesses in the system which need cleaning up. He has been propounding 'creative destruction' - referring to the economy and the closeness between politics and business."

Still, matters might not have come to a head but for the impatience of waning youth. Rather than continuing to wait, Anwar began to move for the top. In the run-up to the UMNO general assembly in June, he spoke of "weaknesses in internal policies" and warned that "we may face the Indonesian situation where the people demanded changes. We have to make changes before it is too late." In an essay for Asiaweek, he wrote: "Our founding fathers did not fight a foreign power merely to have it replaced by a new tyranny, indigenous or otherwise."

On the eve of the assembly, then-UMNO Youth chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, in a move widely believed to have been orchestrated by Anwar, gave a speech criticizing cronyism in government. During the meet, Mahathir repulsed this veiled challenge to his authority by revealing that Anwar and his backers benefited as much from government favors as anyone else. The Crisis, warned the PM, was being used to undermine his position; with him gone, his successor might "submit to the wishes of foreign powers" and "have his country re-colonized."

Mahathir quickly moved to defuse the potential threat from his deputy. In succeeding weeks, key media figures loyal to Anwar were purged. The central bank governor and his deputy, who had favored Anwar's economic policies, resigned from their posts. The police probed claims in 50 Reasons Why Anwar Can't Be Prime Minister, a mudslinging book by the deputy PM's enemies accusing him of sexual and treasonous offenses.

On Sept. 2, Anwar was fired from his cabinet posts; his expulsion from UMNO came the next day. Refusing to go quietly, he took his case directly to the people, making reformasi (reforms) his rallying cry. His subsequent arrest came amid the biggest demonstrations in decades, which ended up almost overshadowing the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games. Today, the streets are quiet, but all eyes are on the trial of Anwar, who has been charged with sodomy and corruption.

For all the news the two men made this year, both are expected to fade away. Mahathir may step down in a year or two. As for Anwar, "the court process will keep him out of action," predicts academic Rustam Sani. But the impact of what they have done - and will do - will continue to be felt. Their struggle is no longer just a clash of personalities; it is a battle for Malaysia's future. It represents a transitional conflict, seen elsewhere in Asia, whereby the old guard - which played a central role in nation-building but has since become entrenched - is confronted by demands for a more open and just society. In Malaysia, the old order remains in place after the initial confrontation. But the final outcome has yet to be decided.

- By Sangwon Suh and Santha Oorjitham/Kuala Lumpur

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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