Could well be, given the political setbacks Anwar Ibrahim has recently suffered
Asiaweek 21 Aug 1998
By Assif Shameen and Zoher Abdoolcarim
SINCE ANWAR IBRAHIM BECAME deputy prime minister of Malaysia in 1993, he has been first in line to succeed PM Mahathir Mohamad. Sure, the two - mentor and protégé - are very unalike. Mahathir's politics are nationalistic, his manner is blunt and his instincts that of a streetfighter. Anwar's outlook is global, his style smooth and his bent more a philosopher's. True, too, they have publicly sparred on ways to tackle the current economic crisis. But the accepted wisdom has been that Anwar should logically follow Mahathir. The older man's legacy is that he pulled Malaysia into the modern age. The younger's destiny, so goes this thread of thinking, is to steer the nation in the next century. If Mahathir, 72, is Malaysia's past and present, then Anwar, 51, is its future.
Forget it - it's not a done deal. In past weeks Anwar's stock has fallen as fast as the Kuala Lumpur bourse - to the point he is even fending off talk about him stepping down. During an Aug. 7 press conference on debt restructuring, a reporter asked Anwar (who also holds the finance portfolio) about speculation he was resigning because of recent political setbacks. Anwar laughed off the question: "These rumors [have been] going on for some time. I don't know whether this is good news or disappointing, but there is no basis [for them]."
Won't resign? Probably so. "No basis"? That's being disingenuous. Foreign news organizations, including Asiaweek, have repeatedly reported on the differences between Mahathir and Anwar, or, at the very least, between their supporters. The Malaysian press has hinted at the bad blood. The standard response by the authorities has been to deny any animosity and to condemn such reports as a mischievous, even conspiratorial, attempt to undermine government and country. But the story will not go away because the principal players won't let it.
Flash back to June, when the annual assembly of the United Malays National Organization took place. UMNO is the most powerful party in the ruling national coalition. Leading it means leading the country. Mahathir and Anwar are PM and Deputy PM because they are respectively president and deputy president of UMNO. In a speech to the assembly, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, head of UMNO's vocal Youth wing and a widely acknowledged Anwar ally, attacked cronyism and nepotism. Mahathir, who has wealthy friends and sons, seemed to take Zahid's words personally and slapped him down.
Zahid may have been fronting for Anwar, who has since appeared to distance himself from the Youth chief. Such a move could eventually hurt the deputy PM's own power base. The word among Zahid's boys is that Anwar can't be trusted to back you even when you do his dirty work. Zahid himself may now find it more difficult to retain his post in the next UMNO elections to take place by the end of 1999. (By contrast, Mahathir is known to stick by his loyalists - sometimes to a fault.)
There have been other signs of Anwar's declining influence. Mahathir has named party treasurer Daim Zainuddin to the cabinet with special responsibility for the stalled economy, which should come fully under Anwar's purview. Daim, Anwar's predecessor at finance and Mahathir's closest confidant, already heads a crisis task force.
Pressure is being brought to bear on the proudly independent central bank. Asiaweek has learned that governor Ahmad Mohamed Don and assistant governor Murad Khalid - both college-mates of Anwar - are likely to step aside in coming months. The same may happen to Munir Majid, chairman of the Securities Commission and another Anwar friend. They would not be the first Anwar followers to take a hit. The editors of the top two Malay-language newspapers and the head of operations of TV3, the largest private TV network, have resigned. The trio are linked to Anwar. "Their removal is the biggest setback Anwar has had since he became deputy PM," says an associate.
Anwar has also been subject to a vicious smear campaign. The starkest illustration is a Malay book called 50 Reasons Why Anwar Can't Be Prime Minister, which accuses the deputy PM of various sexual indiscretions, among other things. Anwar has denied all the allegations, got the courts to halt distribution and filed suit. On Aug. 12 the author was charged with malice over one of the many allegations he had made. But the gossip is unlikely to disappear overnight if only because word about the book has already spread so wide. "The [entire matter] is a sword over us," says an Anwar backer.
Why have things come to such a pass? After all, it was Mahathir who brought Anwar, once an anti-government activist, into the UMNO fold and orchestrated his climb. And for a period last year, the PM even gave Anwar a taste of what the top job is like. Mahathir took two months' leave and named Anwar acting PM, prompting strong speculation he would be retiring sooner rather than later. The change in mood has to do with both Mahathir and Anwar. The PM, who is in good health despite multiple-bypass surgery in 1989, has since declared he won't quit as long as the economic crisis persists - years by the government's own admission. "Mahathir is in no hurry to go anywhere," says onetime cabinet member Shahrir Samad, "so everybody has to adjust their own expectations."
None more so than Anwar, whom Mahathir's acolytes view as a younger man in too much of a hurry. They assert that Anwar's people held a flurry of meetings early this year to determine if it was feasible for their boss to take on Mahathir next year, seizing advantage of his possibly weaker standing because of the recession. The response of Anwar's camp: no way - the meetings were merely discussion groups to debate the economy and the plight of Malays. Says Kamaruddin Mohamed Nor, a state assemblyman who supports the deputy PM: "Anwar is ambitious, but I don't think it was ever his intention to challenge Mahathir next year."
Tell that to the prime minister. "Mahathir by nature expects enemies, challenges, conspiracies," says a former senior minister. "He can be paranoid." The two previous deputy PMs under Mahathir each lasted five to six years before dropping out. So history is not on Anwar's side.
What are his options? Insiders say Anwar considered three. First, resign from his government posts and take on Mahathir in the party next year. Second, remain in office and follow his conscience by articulating his opposition to policies he thinks are detrimental to Malaysia's long-term interests - risking being sidelined by Mahathir or even sacked. Third, eat crow, declare his support for Mahathir, retain his post in UMNO next year and wait for the PM to quit - eventually.
Anwar has chosen the last path. During the June assembly Anwar pledged loyalty to Mahathir, and on Aug. 11 ruled out any contest for the UMNO presidency next year: "Compared to the PM, I am just a student; I cannot fight my teacher."
Who just might be giving him a lesson. The buzz is that the PM may call general elections anytime beween October to late next year. One theory holds that Mahathir would remove Anwarites from government bodies, eroding the deputy PM's support prior to the UMNO ballot. Someone might then challenge Anwar. He could still win, but he would be enfeebled.
In the event he were ousted, the markets - which much prefer Anwar's prudent approach to monetary and fiscal matters over Mahathir's expansionary tendencies - may well go berserk. That's one of the few cards Anwar has left to play. Then again, Mahathir has consistently told the outside world to stuff it. What's certain is that Anwar is now no longer the unquestioned heir-apparent.