Singapore — Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has embarked on what is widely viewed as a pre-election campaign to restore the tarnished image of himself and his administration. The opening round was a remarkable one-hour television interview late last month when Dr. Mahathir emotionally denied public allegations that he was corrupt and had used his position to become one of the world's richest men. He followed up with a nationwide speaking tour in which he railed against the economic, political, and religious saboteurs trying to bring the nation to its knees.
To most observers in the region, the strong inference is that Dr. Mahathir may decide to seek a fresh popular mandate by holding elections well before his current term expires in April 1987.
They say the political position of Mahathir's National Front administration -- an 11-party multiracial coalition -- is at its most precarious since 1969, when it just scraped home in elections. This is a dramatic reversal of fortunes compared to 1981, when Mahathir took control of the United Malays National Organization, the main party in the National Front, in a flood of popular enthusiasm.
He was the first prime minister of nonaristocratic origin, a trained doctor exuding dynamism and efficiency, and in a hurry to push Malaysia into the industrial age.
But, the premier's top aides say, Mahathir created too many expectations and moved too fast in trying to pull Malaysia into the ``major'' (industrial) league. The economy is now in difficulties, pulled down by falling prices for its key exports -- oil, rubber, tin, and palm oil.
A bid to switch to high technology hasn't turned out to be a reliable life belt. Foreign investors hard hit by poor business worldwide have been cutting back their operations in Malaysia.
Those hardest hit by the recession have vented their frustrations on the most visible target -- the government. This was probably inevitable given the concentration of power at the top. When things go wrong, the blame, as well as charges of corruption, go right to the top.
The corruption charges have gained ground because of a fiasco involving the state-owned bank Bumiputra, which lost $1 billion through bad loans. The government planned to keep confidential an investigation into the debacle, but had to backtrack under pressure from the public, which suspected top-level complicity in the dubious loan activities. Embarrassing revelations are widely expected when the report is made public on March 10.
At the same time, Mahathir's chief coalition partner, Tan Koon Swan, has been immobilized by his arrest in Singapore for alleged stock market manipulation. Mr. Tan heads the Malay Chinese Association, which claims to represent a third of Malaysia's 15 million people.
Mr. Tan's arrest may provide an incentive for two opposition parties, the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the Democratic Action Party, which champions Chinese and other non-Malay interests.
The Islamic Party, which champions a strict Islamic state, is keen to broaden its base through recruitment of other races, especially the Chinese. Recently, it has been the target of bitter attacks by Mahathir, who accused it of trying to incite racial hatred and break up the government. He has repeatedly reminded non-Malay audiences that the Islamic Party has always accused his organization of being a party of infidels for cooperating with non-Muslims.
The infidel issue is a touchy one, and has already led to violence. Last November, 18 people died in a pitched battle between police and armed followers of a revivalist preacher accused of encouraging a holy war against unbelievers and Muslim heretics in high places. The government has warned that there is a likelihood of more such incidents because of the incitement of religious passions by a radical fringe.
Dr. Mahathir has to walk a tightrope. Ostensibly he is committed to making Malaysia an Islamic state, but cannot go too far without risking his economic plans as well as alienation of Chinese and other minority voters on whom he depends for political survival.