The businessman leans in close when he is asked if the struggle between Malaysia's leader and his deputy-turned-opponent is over. "No way, no way," he whispers forcefully, scanning the hotel lobby for inquisitive ears.
Malaysia - a country whose dynamic economy, relatively democratic politics, and well-managed ethnic diversity once presented the best face of Southeast Asia - now seems to be regressing. Authorities are arresting dissidents, warning people not to demonstrate against the government, and generating the sort of atmosphere where people think twice before they criticize Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad out loud.
There has been a great deal of political change in Asia during the past year, mostly owing to rising frustration caused by the region's economic crisis. Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand have all had a change of leadership, but Mr. Mahathir seems determined that the same thing will not happen here.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim sits in jail - the police will not say where - held incommunicado under an anti-Communist law that allows virtually unlimited detention without trial. Roughly a dozen of his associates are being held under the same law as the police enforce a widening crackdown against protest and dissent.
"What's important to me is what has happened to the institutions of state," says Chandra Muzaffar, a supporter of Mr. Anwar and a political scientist at the University of Malaya. "That's what really terrifies me." Describing the eroding independence of the press, the judiciary, and the police in recent years, Professor Chandra now sees the emergence of a "neofeudal political culture."
At the top of the pyramid is Mahathir, an expert technocrat who has been the driving force behind his country's success. He says he personally investigated what he calls Anwar's "vile" sexual behavior before concluding that his deputy was not fit to rule and firing him on Sept. 2. "Once the truth is known," Mahathir says, "everyone, including his best friends, will reject him."
Since his firing Anwar has loudly rejected such charges, assembling a makeshift campaign for "reformation" and calling for Mahathir's resignation. Tapping previously unmeasured currents of discontent, Anwar drew about 35,000 people into the heart of Kuala Lumpur Sept. 20 to demand change - the largest such gathering of Mahathir's 17-year rule.
Police arrested Anwar after the rally, saying Mahathir's onetime protg was promoting unrest and instability. Anwar's wife Azizah Ismail, a politically untested ophthalmologist, has since tried to lead this movement in her husband's place. But the police have called her in for questioning and sealed off the family's house - this month the scene of nightly speeches by Anwar - in what appears to be a campaign of intimidation. Yesterday, Rahim Noor, chief of the national police, said officers would "come down hard" on unauthorized political rallies, adding that 170 people had already been arrested for such activities.
For the moment, Anwar's attempt to turn out his mentor seems frozen, but the events of this month suggest a more profound transition is under way. On one side are Mahathir and the many Malaysians who support his nationalistic and paternalistic style of rule. They have deep respect for his historical accomplishments and for more recent decisions to buck international consensus by controlling Malaysia's currency in order to spur growth.
But Anwar - though he is sometimes labeled an opportunistic politician who operates more on the level of perception than substance - has elicited a popular desire for change. Many Malaysians support his promotion of a more liberal society, one where students are not banned from politics and police do not have nearly unfettered powers. Many people also say the charges against him are fabricated, contributing to the belief that the judicial system is more an instrument of politics than justice.
But Anwar's movement also worries people because he is at heart an Islamic politician and many of his most visible supporters come from the Muslim Youth Movement he used to lead. This country consists of a majority Malay population, a substantial minority of ethnic Chinese, and a smaller number of Indian heritage. Tensions among the groups have generated violence and rioting that no one wants to see repeated.
Anwar, says Michael Leifer, a Southeast Asia expert at the London School of Economics, "may be obliged to play the Islamic card, which could be very dangerous. It could spill over into race relations between Malays and Chinese."
A corporate lawyer shakes his head at the situation. "It's two monstrous egos at work," he sighs. "Unfortunately I have greater faith in the monstrous ego of the prime minister. I say 'unfortunately' because liberals like me should be supportive of Anwar."
The lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says he is worried that Anwar's tactics will lead to violence. "He needs more blood to vindicate his position" that Mahathir is an autocrat, the lawyer says. "[Anwar] will up the ante."
Mahathir, through the dominant ruling party he leads, the United Malays National Organization, controls the center of the political spectrum. That means Anwar must turn to middle-class liberals at one extreme and Muslims at the other. But where the liberals want a more open society, some Muslims want a more Islamic one.
While those goals are not diametrically opposed, they do make for a divided and motley movement for change. Anwar's most effective strategy may be to push his accusations that the prime minister has become corrupt, practicing the "crony capitalism" that hobbled the Indonesian economy. Some of his supporters believe he has accumulated evidence substantiating these charges that he will make public if he is brought into open court.
Police Chief Rahim promises a fair and open trial, although Anwar has not yet been formally charged.
Yesterday CNBC Asia broadcast a tape Anwar made before his arrest reiterating his corruption allegations. Mahathir, in a press conference, sarcastically dismissed the charges. "Of course I am remaining in power because of my cronies and my family," he said in answer to a reporter's query. "You can tell lies," he added with a shrug. "Go on, I don't care."
Not all Malaysian officials are equally blas about foreign press reports. Correspondents for international TV networks have been barred from transmitting video images of political protests related to Anwar from Malaysian facilities.