Asia-Pacific, Headlines

MALAYSIA: ‘Reformasi’ Movement May Be Down, But Not Out

Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia, Sep 24 2001 (IPS) - Lim Boon Tong is a mild-mannered man, but there is grit in his voice when he insists that the ‘reformasi’ movement is still alive and kicking.

In between mouthfuls of spicy noodle soup, the 36-year-old information bureau chief of the National Justice Party (keADILan), insists: “(Prime Minister) Mahathir (Mohamad) wants Malaysians to forget about reformasi, but reformasi is very much alive.”

‘Reformasi’, of course, is the movement for wide-ranging reforms that was spawned by the sacking and subsequent arrest of then deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim three years ago. Yet even those who want to believe in what Lim is saying are finding his declarations harder to swallow these days.

Just last week, the third anniversary of Anwar’s arrest slipped by almost unnoticed on Sept 20 – ignored by the mainstream media and largely overshadowed by events in the United States and Afghanistan. One pro-establishment columnist even scoffed, “Anwar who?”

As if that weren’t bad enough, two days later, the opposition alliance, the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front), which was also formed in the wake of Anwar’s arrest, suffered a major blow when one of the coalition partners announced it was pulling out.

The multi-ethnic but Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) decided to withdraw from the front following differences with an alliance partner, the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), over the latter’s ideological goal of setting up an Islamic state.

The DAP expressed concern that it would lose its traditional support from Chinese Malaysians, who make up about a quarter of the country’s 23 million population, due to the party’s link with PAS within the alliance.

Analysts say the DAP’s departure could erode Chinese and Indian support for the Barisan Alternatif as the keADILan, led by Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, may now be perceived to be more closely associated with PAS. (The other party in the alliance is the small multi-ethnic Malaysian People’s Party, which is predicted to be merging with keADILan soon.)

Toh Kin Woon, who heads the Penang state government’s education portfolio and is a member of the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front), even believes that the DAP’s pull-out is a setback not only for the Barisan Alternatif.

“It will come as a disappointment to people who want a two- party system,” observes Toh, one of the more progressive voices in the Barisan Nasional.

“The DAP to me is taking a rather short-term view in its political calculations, looking at (the next election due by) 2004,” he adds, noting that the party appeared more concerned about being linked with the more radical elements within PAS than anything else.

Analysts also say the party seems determined to take full advantage of its support from the ethnic Chinese, who are likely to play a crucial role in future polls given the political split among the majority ethnic Malays.

Toh points out that there is a sizeable force of moderate elements within the ranks of the opposition alliance, including PAS, which the DAP could have cultivated. “But,” he concedes, “it takes time to build them up.”

Lim, though, is confident that keADILan — and the reformasi movement — has not been put in any danger because of DAP’s departure from the alliance, saying that his party enjoys ethnic Chinese support.

Even many reformasi sympathisers, however, are not so sure. They say that with the DAP’s pull-out and Anwar himself serving jail sentences totalling 15 years, the future of reformasi looks somewhat uncertain.

Others say official moves against reformasi have had tremendous impact as well on the movement and seem to have weakened it.

“If reformasi appears to have slowed down, it may have something to do with curbs on the media and on freedom of assembly,” observes media analyst Mustafa Anuar. “All these have played a part in making reformasi activities less visible.”

Indeed, mass demonstrations have petered out, due largely to stringent police curbs. Political talks throughout the country — except for the north Borneo state of Sarawak, where a state election will be held on Sep. 27 — have been banned.

Last April, 10 leading reformasi campaigners were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for allegedly supporting militant reformasi activities to “topple the government”. Six of these activists are still under indefinite detention.

In the universities, a hive of anti-establishment sentiment, students have been cowed into silence following stern official action. Two students were detained under the ISA in July — though they were later released — while others have been threatened with suspension.

Just this August, police detained 10 men, mainly PAS activists and supporters, again under the ISA, for alleged involvement in a so- called Malaysian Mujahideen Group (KMM), which somehow got renamed the “Malaysian Militant Group”.

PAS has flatly denied any involvement in any such group while rights groups have demanded that evidence of the group’s existence be produced and that the 10 be produced in court so that they can defend themselves.

Some observers now also say that the spectre of militant activity outside the country may make Malaysians more wary of opting for the unknown within. In truth, even veteran politicians like Toh find it difficult to gauge if the reformasi movement still has sizeable public backing.

Nevertheless, Toh believes that Anwar remains a force to reckon with. He says of the jailed opposition leader: “I don’t think that he is a spent force. He still has his charisma.”

As it is, there are still many Malaysians who believe Anwar could make a comeback once Mahathir leaves. They say that if there is anyone who could bring all the different forces together, it would be Anwar. But the key question for some analysts is whether he would follow through with his reformist agenda.

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