ad info

 web features
 magazine archive
 customer service
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

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


Can they get their act together in time?

By Arjuna Ranawana / Kuala Lumpur

m a l a y s i a   
Party on the Move: UMNO gears up for the next challenge

Touchy subject: A Singapore paper strikes a nerve, and Dr. M strikes back

Divided and Conquered?: Malaysia's opposition tries to pull itself together

Putrajaya: Mahathir is determined to build his new capital

THE OCCASION IS A June 20 rally in Kuala Lumpur held by the opposition Parti Keadilan Nasional, or National Justice Party. A young man dressed in blue prison fatigues, his head covered by a hood, is dragged roughly onto the stage. A "guard" rips the hood off to reveal the face. It is easily recognizable. The metal-rimmed glasses, the thin mustache and goatee, the blackened eye. An activist has been made up to look like Anwar Ibrahim. The 700-strong crowd raises its fists and chants "reformasi!" Passions run high. But passion alone cannot win elections. Though the opposition will likely make some gains, it is having difficulty forging a coalition strong enough to fully challenge Barisan Nasional.

Malaysia's opposition consists mainly of the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas), the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), newly formed Keadilan and the Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM). Pas is robust in the northern "Malay heartland" and controls Kelantan state. The DAP is the biggest opposition party in Parliament. (But together, Pas and the DAP took just 16 of the 192 federal seats in the 1955 elections.) Keadilan - symbolically led by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail - is still in the process of coalescing. However, it rides the wave of support Anwar has drawn from many sections of society. The PRM is small but vocal. All in all, a pretty mixed bag united only in their opposition to Barisan. Representatives are still haggling over a common manifesto. "It needs a slogan," says Keadilan vice president Tian Chua: And a whole lot more.

For one thing, the parties are at odds over basic issues. Pas has long called for an Islamic state, though, says a party leader, "we will not emphasize that for the elections." The DAP, on the other hand, is nominally multiracial and embraces different religions. Also, its declared aim is to make Malaysia a meritocracy. That won't sit well with Keadilan, which supports the affirmative-action policy to improve the economic status of the indigenous people, the vast majority of whom are ethnic Malays. So while the joint platform carries an agenda for change, it studiously avoids going into the details of the various objectives of the different parties. In the manifesto, says DAP chairman Chen Man Hin, "what is disagreed is outside."

Then there are differences over election strategy. Keadilan is out to win outright. Notes deputy president Chandra Muzaffar: "A lot of ordinary people want a change of government." Too ambitious, snorts DAP secretary-general Lim Kit Siang:"We have to be realistic. We are not out to topple Barisan but to deny it a two-thirds majority in Parliament."

The opposition parties have little hope of even budging Barisan unless they agree on sole candidates against the government nominees wherever they contest. "We must put up a one-to-one fight," says Chua. Okay, say that's settled, but which party gets to go for which constituency? "We are working on the seat-sharing," says Lim. Working is the operative word. Peninsular Malaysia has 144 constituencies. Keadilan negotiators suggest they and Pas contest an equal number of seats, about 60 each. The rough division would be that the Malay-majority constituencies go to Pas, the mixed seats to Keadilan. PRM would get around seven, with the rest to the DAP. Pas is unhappy with that proposal; it wants about half the peninsular seats, closer to 70. This sort of juggling takes place in Barisan too, but the ruling coalition is practiced at it. Also, every Barisan component accepts that its lead member, UMNO, calls the shots.

Yet another sore point is poaching. A number of DAP members unhappy with Lim's leadership have joined, or offered to join, Keadilan. Some Keadilan organizers eager to boost the new party's membership and breadth of appeal are encouraging the rebels to sign up because, says a Keadilan official, "this is a historic opportunity to challenge Barisan." But Chandra insists that recruiting members from one another's rolls "must not be done at the cost of an alliance partner."

Within the opposition coalition, Keadilan is the popular middle-of-the-road vehicle and the standard-bearer for Anwar. But it is also the weakest group in terms of party machinery. DAP and Pas each have a good organization in place on the ground but no leader as charismatic as Azizah. In this way, they complement one another, but only if they put a halt to their squabbling. After all, observes Zulkifli Sulong, editor of the Pas newspaper Harakah, "this is war." A war that, at the moment, the opposition looks like it is losing.

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

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN

Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.