Malaysia's Malaise

A tropical nation of coconut and palm plantations that spreads down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore and then over to Borneo, Malaysia has been a relatively tranquil country. Its 22 million people are harmony-makers, not headline-makers.

But pushed too far by their masters, the Malays can unexpectedly erupt, like their domestic water buffaloes. In fact, the region gave us the phrase "run amok." British colonizers knew it well.

Such political eruptions have taken place in neighboring Philippines, Burma, and Indonesia since 1986. They were sparked when authoritarian rulers mistreated political dissidents. Now Malaysia has its own mistreated dissident. Will it be the next to blow? Or can this regional pattern be broken?

The dissident is Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and once a bright light in East Asia. He dared to speak out against Dr. Mahathir's decisions during the region's 1997-98 financial crisis. For that, he was tried for abuse of power and, later, sodomy. Few people believe the charges.

On Aug. 8, Mr. Anwar was harshly sentenced in court, leaving him to face 14 years in prison. Such despotic actions have polarized the Malays, swelled the ranks of a radical Muslim party, and reduced foreign investment.

Even Singapore's senior leader Lee Kuan Yew says Mahathir, a former dentist who has ruled for 19 years, has paid a heavy price for his handling of the Anwar case.

Since its independence from Britain in 1957, Malaysians have learned how to handle tensions between the dominant Malays and the ethnic-Chinese business class. Lately, they've been coping with an increasingly militant Islamic orthodoxy.

Mahathir unwisely has created a political crisis that now might ignite these national tensions. He should let Anwar go and plan a peaceful transfer of power.

Mahathir has created a healthy economy during his rule. Now it's time he leave behind a healthy democracy.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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