Malaysia's Opposition Continues to Defy Sultan

Malaysia's political furor shows every sign of growing more heated, with the chief minister of the tin-rich state of Perak, Mohd Nizar Jamaluddin, continuing to defy Sultan Raja Azlan Shah's order to vacate the Perak statehouse after a coup engineered by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and the United Malays National Organisation.

The ouster of the Pakatan Rakyat government in the state, one of the country's richest, has thrown Malaysian national politics into turmoil, with additional rumors that the Kedah government, also controlled by the Pakatan coalition led by national opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in the wake of elections last March, could be wobbling as well. Anwar has threatened a national barnstorming tour of rallies to stir his opposition forces into action.

The big concern for the country is how deeply the political chaos will affect the economy. Ratings agencies and political risk analysts have been concerned about the country ever since the March 8 elections resulted in the loss of five states and the two thirds majority that the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition, had enjoyed for 50 years. The widening political crisis appears to guarantee continuing instability.

With the country heavily dependent on exports, particularly electronics products and commodities, it is highly exposed to the global economic downturn. While government economists have predicted a 1.5 percent year-on-year gross domestic product growth rate for 2009, at least one investment bank has predicted the country would slip into recession. The government is coming under increasing criticism for being slow off the blocks with an economic stimulus package while remaining preoccupied not only with the threat from the Pakatan opposition but infighting within UMNO itself.

Now there are concerns, however, whether the unwieldy Pakatan coalition, made up of the fundamentalist Malay Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, the largely Chinese Democratic Action Party and the moderate Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat headed by Anwar, is simply coming apart. There appears to be little synergy in it except for a mutual desire for power in any case.

Anwar and the Pakatan forces have been stymied in their accusations that Najib and UMNO had acted dishonestly in luring opposition members back to the Barisan Nasional, the national ruling coalition. Anwar himself had been working assiduously – and largely unsuccessfully -- prior to last September to attempt to woo Barisan members to cross the line to vote for him as prime minister.

Sunday in Penang, Democratic Action Party stalwart, Karpal Singh broke with Anwar and other coalition leaders including Lim Kit Siang, the leader of his own party, saying their inconsistent stand on party-hopping had thrown the coalition into disarray, and adding Anwar was unfit to lead the opposition.

In Perak Sunday, as many as 5,000 members of the youth wing of UMNO as well as numerous ethnic Malay non-government organizations rallied peacefully if loudly as a complicated dynamic has begun to evolve. Malaysia's sultans, who had been steaming gently toward irrelevance as a political force, have suddenly become a tool for UMNO to use to get at the opposition.

Interestingly, UMNO factions organized a demonstration last year against the Sultan of Terengganu after he rejected their choice of chief minister, Idris Jusoh, and picked another UMNO official, Ahmad Said, instead. Nonetheless, Mingguan Malaysia, a Malay language newspaper owned by UMNO, said in an editorial that "never in the history of the country had any Malay so openly defied and humiliated a Malay ruler like Nizar. If this was Thailand or any Arab country, anyone who humiliated the royalty would have faced immediate punishment including from the public."

For the moment at least, Malaysia's always-touchy racial makeup between majority Malays and a sizeable and rich Chinese minority has thus been subsumed into a complicated struggle between ethnic Malays themselves, with PAS and PKR on one side in the beleaguered government – or ousted, depending on whom to believe – and UMNO on the other.

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The Chinese and Indian minorities remain concerned that eventually the infighting will turn on them. But the situation "has turned into an intra-Malay squabble, with Malays loyal to the monarchy being instigated to rise up against Nizar, who has openly defied and insulted the sultan," said a top UMNO insider. Added to that, Karpal Singh, a long-time stalwart in the opposition Democratic Action Party, threatened to sue the sultan, swinging more Malay sentiment against the opposition.

The Perak squabble started last Monday, when two state representatives, Jamaluddin Mohd Radzi and Osman Jailu, both of Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, resigned from the coalition. The two were followed by two others, leaving the assembly in a 28-28 tie. There were widespread reports, none with any proof attached, that those jumping ship had been promised rich rewards.

In any case Azlan Shah immediately announced that the government had lost the confidence of the body and ordered Zambri Abdul Kadir to form a new UMNO-led government.

Thousands of Pakatan followers, furious at the reversal, rallied at a mosque a kilometer or so from the Sultan's palace. Riot police had to be called, firing tear gas to disperse them.

Nizar continued to defy the sultan, holding an executive committee meeting over the weekend at the chief minister's official residence to seek to do the state's business as usual, among other things approving the extension of leases for industrial plots to 99 years.

The Perak coup has largely turned around Deputy Prime Minister Najib's fortunes after a full year of reverses and widespread concern about allegations over his own affairs, partly allegations that he was somehow involved, however peripherally, in the sensational murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu in October 2006, and other issues.

After the Barisan Nasional's relative drubbing in national elections last March, its candidate was soundly beaten in the by-election that brought Anwar back to electoral politics, and it lost a second race in January in Terengganu to an opposition candidate. In particular, UMNO appeared to be nearly paralyzed by infighting between forces aligned with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and those backing Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Badawi was vanquished late last year and Najib took over as UMNO leader, a prelude to becoming prime minister after party elections scheduled for this March. However, many saw him as indecisive, particularly Mahathir, who continued to criticism him in his blog, Che Det.

However, says one analyst in Kuala Lumpur, "In the eyes of UMNO, Najib is a hero for now. But for other non-UMNO Malaysians, they may view this as a pyrrhic victory. Najib may not have endeared himself to Malaysians who consider crossovers as immoral. But you know that Malaysians also have short memories."

Sunday was the traditional Indian Thaipusam holiday in Malaysia, with a public holiday scheduled for Monday. Rallies on both sides are expected to continue.