Malaysian leaders' split deepens nation's problems

For the past five years, Malaysia's ``2 Ms'' have been locked in a political partnership viewed as virtually inseparable. However, now that the relationship between Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy, Musa Hitam, is being dissolved, they seem certain to become arch-rivals for the national leadership, observers here say.

Last week, Mr. Musa left on a pilgrimage to Mecca, leaving behind an unexpected letter of resignation to take effect March 16. He is resigning not only as deputy prime minister and home affairs minister, but also as deputy leader of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the largest party in the multiracial ruling National Front coalition.

Musa's action has caused a split in the UMNO and added one more destabilizing element to a morass of political and economic problems confronting Dr. Mahathir. Musa's resignation brings to the surface a long-simmering feud in the Cabinet and party between supporters of the ``2 Ms.'' In recent months Mahathir has, in scarcely veiled terms, repeatedly accused Musa disloyalty and of harboring ambitions to replace him. Musa has denied the charges, claiming they stem from the machinations of rivals seeking his ouster.

Ostensibly, he is resigning because of Mahathir's lack of trust in him. But analysts also see the move as designed to put some distance between Musa and Mahathir, as the latter's political and economic problems get worse.

One element may be the release shortly of a government report on a scandal involving the loss of $1 billion in bad loans by the state-owned bank Bumiputra Malaysia. There is widespread speculation that the report, if it has not been severely censored, could prove embarassing for several Cabinet ministers and the government.

Political and diplomatic observers believe Musa decided to quit now in order to have freedom to launch his bid as an alternative political force with relatively clean hands. A general election is due in April 1987, but there is widespread expectation it will be much sooner -- possibly as early as this May.

Mahathir's star has been waning as problems have mounted. The economy is in serious difficulty, exacerbated by sharp falls in prices of key exports such as rubber, tin, palm oil, and petroleum. Racial divisions are reappearing. The Chinese and Indian minorities resent government policies that benefit Malays. In the Malay community, Islamic fundamentalism is also apparently a growing threat to stability.

The break also poses a potential problem for ASEAN, the six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to which Malaysia belongs. Malaysia's political struggle will be watched closely by neighboring Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand for signs that it could interfere with the drive to make ASEAN a coherent and powerful world force.

After a weekend emergency session, UMNO appointed a four-man team to follow Musa overseas in the hope of resolving his differences with Mahathir. But judging by the long list of policy and personality clashes in his resignation letter, this seems unlikely.

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