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The Politics of Malaysia's Islamic Resurgence: Challenges in Mahathir Era

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Challenges in Mahathir Era

1981 – 1987

In Mahathir’s early years as prime minister, Malaysia was experiencing a resurgence of Islam among Malays, resulting them to become more conservative and religious. In response to the resurgence, an Islamist political party, PAN Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) which had joined United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in government takes an increasingly strident Islamist stand under leadership of Yusof Rawa.

With the aim of appealing religious voters, Mahathir established Islamic institutions such as the International Islamic University of Malaysia which promote Islamic education under the government’s oversight. He also persuaded Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM) to join UMNO. In some instances, Mahathir’s government employed repression against extreme exponents of Islamism. In a police shoot-out in 1985, a popular Islamist leader, Ibrahim Libya was killed. Al-Arqam, a religious sect was banned, and its leader was arrested under the Internal Security Act. All these contribute to the winning of Mahathir at the polls in 1986, defeating PAS with 83 seats out of 84 seats contested.

1987 – 1990

In 1987, Mahathir was challenged for the presidency of UMNO, and effectively the prime ministership, by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. Consequently, Razaleigh was demoted from the Ministry of Finance to Ministry of Trade and Industry. Former close allies of Mahathir, Musa supports Razaleigh and together ran for the UMNO presidency and deputy presidency on a joint ticket against Mahathir and Ghafar Baba. The tickets were known as Team B and Team A respectively.

Mahathir’s Team A was supported by the press and most party heavyweights while Team B was supported by some significant figures such as Abdullah Badawi. In the election held on 24th April 1987, Team A prevailed with Mahathir re-elected by a slight margin receiving 761 votes and Razaleigh received 718 votes. Mahathir responded by purging seven Team B supporters from his ministry, while Team B refused to accept defeat and initiated litigation.

In an unexpected decision in February 1988, the High Court pronounced that UMNO was an illegal organization as some of its branches had not registered lawfully. Both factions compete to register a new political party under the UMNO name. Mahathir’s side successfully registered the name “UMNO Baru”, while Team B’s application for “UMNO Malaysia” was rejected. With the support of former Prime Ministers Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn, Team B registered the party as “Semangat 46” instead.

Having survived the political crisis at least temporarily, Mahathir moved against the judiciary, fearing a successful appeal by Team B against the decision to register UMNO Baru. He directed an amendment to the Constitution through parliament to remove the general power of the High Courts to conduct judicial review. Resulting the High Courts to only engage in judicial review where specific acts of parliament gave them the power to do so.

In response to this, the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Salleh Abas sent a letter of protest to the Agong. Mahathir then suspended Salleh for “gross misbehavior and conduct”, seemingly because the letter was a breach of protocol. A tribunal set up by Mahathir found Salleh guilty and recommended to the Agong that Salleh to be dismissed. Mahathir also suspended five other judges of the court who supported Salleh. The new constituted court dismissed Team B’s appeal, allowing Mahathir’s faction to continue to use the name UMNO.

At the same time as the political and judicial crises, Mahathir initiated a crackdown on opposition dissidents with the use of the Internal Security Act. The designation of administrators who did not speak Mandarin to Chinese schools triggered an outcry among Chinese Malaysian to the point where UMNO’s coalition partners the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Gerakan joined the Democratic Action Party (DAP) in protesting against the designation.

Mahathir initiated a crackdown under the police operation codenamed “Operation Lalang” where 119 people were arrested and detained without charge under the Internal Security Act. Although most of the detainees were influential opposition activist, including the leader of DAP, Lim Kit Siang and nine of his fellow members of parliament, Mahathir insisted that the detentions were necessary to prevent the repeat of 1969 race riots.

In early 1989, Mahathir suffered a heart attack, but recovered and lead Barisan Nasional (BN) to victory in 1990 election. On the other hand, Semangat 46 failed to make any progress outside Razaleigh’s home state of Kelantan.

1990 – 1998

The expiry of the Malaysian New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1990 gave Mahathir the opportunity to outline his economic vision for Malaysia. In 1991, he announced Vision 2020 where Malaysia would aim to become a fully developed country within 30 years. The goal of this vision is to reach an average economic growth of approximately seven per cent of gross domestic product per annum. One of Vision 2020’s features would be to gradually break down ethnic barriers. Vision 2020 was accompanied by the NEP’s replacement, the National Development Policy (NDP), under which some government programs designed to benefit the bumiputera exclusively were opened up to other ethnicities.

The NDP completed one of its main aims, poverty reduction with less than nine per cent of Malaysians lived in poverty and income inequality had reduced. Mahathir’s government cut corporate taxes and liberalized financial regulations to attract foreign investment. Malaysia’s economy grew by over nine per cent per annum until 1997 encouraging other developing countries to try to mimic Mahathir’s policies. Much of the credit for Malaysia’s economic development in the 1990s went to Malaysia’s finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim. In the 1995’s election, the government rode the economic wave and won the election with an increased majority.

1998 – 2003

By the mid-1990s, Mahathir’s power was under the threat of the leadership ambition of his deputy, Anwar. Anwar began to distance himself from Mahathir, openly promoting his superior religious credentials and appearing to suggest he promote loosening the restrictions on civil liberties that had become a hallmark of Mahathir’s premiership. Their positions slowly diverged, with Mahathir abandoning the tight monetary and fiscal policies urged by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Anwar was increasingly sidelined as Mahathir took the reins of Malaysia’s economic policy over the coming months.

On 2 September, Anwar was dismissed as the deputy prime minister and finance minister and was instantly expelled from UMNO due to the allegations of sexual misconduct circulated at the general assembly. On 20 September, he was arrested and placed in detention under the Internal Security Act. Anwar stood trial on four charges of corruption, arising from allegations that Anwar abused his power by ordering police to intimidate persons who had alleged Anwar had sodomised them. In April 1999, Anwar was found guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison. In another trial shortly after, Anwar was sentenced to another nine years in prison on a conviction for sodomy. This sodomy conviction was overturned on appeal after Mahathir left office.

While Mahathir had vanquished his rival, it came at a cost to his standing in the international community and domestic politics. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defended Anwar as a “highly respectable leader” who was “entitled to due process and a fair trial”. In a speech in Kuala Lumpur, which Mahathir attended, US Vice-President Al Gore stated that “we continue to hear calls for democracy”, including “among the brave people of Malaysia”. At the APEC summit in 1999, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien refused to meet Mahathir, while his foreign minister met with Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. Wan Azizah had formed a liberal opposition party, the National Justice Party (Keadilan) to fight the 1999 election. UMNO lost 18 seats and two state governments as large numbers of Malay voters flocked to PAS and Keadilan, many in protest at the treatment of Anwar.

At UMNO’s general assembly in 2002, Mahathir announced that he would resign as prime minister, only for supporters to rush to the stage and convince him tearfully to remain. He subsequently fixed his retirement for October 2003, giving him time to ensure an orderly and uncontroversial transition to his appointed successor, Abdullah Badawi. Having spent over 22 years in office, Mahathir was the world’s longest-serving elected leader when he retired. He remains Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister.

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