As Asia's longest-serving leader - and its most outspoken opponent of Western interference - gave an eagerly anticipated speech to his ruling party general assembly yesterday, some 2,000 delegates were expecting Mahathir Mohamad to say how he plans to reverse an alarming slide in their UMNO party's popularity.
Instead, they were treated to a 90-minute diatribe on Malaysia's "enemies" at home and abroad. "Foreigners who once colonized us," said Dr. Mahathir, "who have done nothing to help us, these foreigners have no good intentions.... They hate Malaysia, especially the current leadership, and hate it extremely."
Twenty years after he assumed power, Mahathir is on the back foot, lashing out at opponents - real or imagined - of his policies and trying to combat the growing assertiveness of the leading opposition party, Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS).
Mahathir was scathing in his condemnation of PAS, which now controls two northern Malaysian states and has succeeded in winning over a growing number of disgruntled former United Malays National Organization supporters. He said that PAS was cheating ethnic Malays by telling them that to join the opposition was to become a true Muslim.
It's the possibility that UMNO could suffer severe losses or even surrender its 44-year grip on power in the next election - due by 2004 - that has sent tremors through the party and provoked calls in some quarters for Mahathir to step aside.
But while Mahathir and others pay lip service to the need for reform and an end to the corruption in the UMNO hierarchy, punishment is being meted out to the opposition. The counter-strike got under way in earnest in April, with the detention of 10 opposition activists under the Internal Security Act (ISA), a move which attracted strong criticism both at home and abroad, and has triggered a fledgling public campaign to have the ISA repealed. The US State Department said the ISA had been used to prevent the detained men - all members of the National Justice Party - from exercising internationally recognized rights of free speech and assembly. Six of the activists are now under detention without trial for up to two years at a prison camp in northern Malaysia. Four others were held for weeks before the High Court ordered their release.
Mahathir is unapologetic. "There are people in this country who would like to see Malaysia plunge into the kind of turmoil that they see in other countries," he told a news conference yesterday. "Because they cannot win in elections, they thought they could bring down the government through demonstrations. Now, we don't consider street demonstrations as very democratic."
Home Minister Abdullah Badawi also denies that the ISA - introduced in the 1960s to combat communist subversion - is an anachronism. "It's the view of all Malaysians that the precondition to the success of our development efforts is that Malaysia must be peaceful and [have] political stability, and that security is guaranteed."
Many observers beg to differ. They point out that the men being held in the remote Kamunting prison camp include two of the prime minister's most outspoken critics. Mohamad Ezam Noor and Tian Chua are senior figures in the Keadilan (National Justice) Party, and closely linked to Mahathir's jailed former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. Mr. Anwar was detained, initially under the ISA, in 1998, and sentenced to 15 years for corruption and sodomy. US-Malaysia relations hit a low point that year when then-Vice President Al Gore expressed support for the Malaysian reform movement at an APEC meeting.
On Thursday, Ezam Noor's wife, Bahirah, was among a small group of protesters who attempted to present a petition to Mahathir demanding the men's release. Guards quickly hustled the women away before they could hand the document to him.
Chandra Muzaffar, Keadilan deputy president, and himself an ISA detainee in an earlier clampdown on the opposition in 1987, says public opposition to the law is growing. "Nowadays, you have much more public involvement in this issue - signature campaigns, petitions, and so on. It's very heartening."
The government justified the latest arrests by saying the men detained had been plotting a wave of violent antigovernment protests. But Gorbalakrishnan Nagapan, who was held in solitary confinement for 51 days, says he believes the reasons for his detention were quite different. "There was not even a day when they interrogated me regarding weapons, street demonstrations, or what they claim." According to Mr. Nagapan, the aim of his police interrogators was to turn him against his Keadilan colleagues and to act as a spy for the security forces. He says such tactics suggest a leadership in desperation.
"I believe this is just a first step by Dr. Mahathir, who is willing to do anything to survive in his position as prime minister.... Unless he uses the ISA he can't stop the awakening of the people."
On Thursday, the prime minister said that his hopes of stepping down in 1998 had been dashed by circumstances - the Asian financial crisis and the turmoil surrounding Anwar's dismissal. "Some people would like me to disappear, disintegrate, other people still insist that I should stay around. And if you listen to the debate [at the UMNO assembly today], there's still quite some support for me."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor