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Malaysia courts its Chinese vote

In Monday elections, Asia's anti-West leader for the first time faces a

In most countries, a politician who pledges funds for better schools would win accolades from voters.

But here in this farming community in northern Malaysia, Yap Shui Fah sees the government's offer as dirty money.

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"We asked them for 18 years, but now they are in a dangerous position," says Mr. Yap, manager of a printing shop. "They want to give us a bribe."

In the run-up to general elections on Monday, the government is going all out to court Chinese like Mr. Yap, who make up more than one-fourth of the country's population of 22 million. It's an indication of how seriously Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad views the challenge to his 18 years of rule.

For the first time, the Chinese could be the swing vote in a country where the majority Malays have always voted as a block to keep the government in power.

The political equation changed this year during the sensational corruption trial and downfall of a charismatic Malay leader, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Outraged by what they saw as a betrayal of Malay ideals of civility, many now accuse Dr. Mahathir of other abuses of power, such as cronyism and corruption. Monday's election is seen as a referendum on Asia's longest-serving leader.

Anti-Western and proud of it

Mahathir leads the rallying cry in Southeast Asia for self-sufficiency# and seeks to minimize Western influence in the region. He is well known for railing against foreign news media and standing firm against such Western ideas as the International Monetary Fund's recent prescriptions for recovery during the Asian economic crisis. In September, Mahathir attributed longer-term economic success in Asia to the "Sinatra Principle," saying, "we have all done it our own way." The opposition coalition claims to be more pro-Western.

Meanwhile, the jailed Dr. Anwar, convicted of tampering with witnesses and standing trial on sodomy charges, has crusaded since his sacking in September 1998 against what he says are attempts by his former mentor to secure his own hold on power.

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In reaction to the high drama of the past year, Malays have joined a nationwide opposition coalition in increasing numbers. In Kedah, for example, nearly 20,000 Malays have defected from the ruling coalition to join the Islamic party PAS, part of the opposition coalition. "They are mad at the abuses of the existing government," says Che Had Dhali, a PAS official.

And although the Chinese have traditionally voted conservatively, the government is taking no chances. "We are confident of their support, but we want to be absolutely sure," says a senior official of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the ruling party.

Mahathir, on a visit to China earlier this year, lavished praise on the Chinese in Malaysia for helping build the country. This week, in a move that looked staged but the government says was scheduled before elections were called, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji paid a reciprocal visit to Malaysia.

"It will impress the older generation," says Wang Jun, the manager of Prosperous House, a Chinese antique shop in Kuala Lumpur, the capital.

For the younger generation, the prime minister has promised to consider long-standing demands made by Chinese education activists to increase the number of Chinese schools. He has also called off, at the last minute, mergers of many smaller Chinese banks into larger Malay ones, which had angered many Chinese.

For Yap, the printer, however, there are other opportunities in the changing political landscape. He has joined the opposition, the first multiracial party in Malaysian history.

Slim chances for the opposition

The four-party opposition coalition, Barisan Alternatif (BA), doesn't stand much chance. The ruling front has massive resources and political machinery, including control over the local news media, which the opposition complains have restricted coverage and prevented them from running advertisements.

But the opposition is driven by the idea of "justice," which for many of its leaders means creating a truly multi-racial country. Since the New Economic Policy was instituted by Mahathir almost two decades ago, education, business, and society have been split along racial lines. The NEP was originally an affirmative-action program to lift up the Malays from poverty. But opposition leaders argue it has been abused to create an ultrarich class of cronies, widening the gap between rich and poor.

"In the name of uplifting the Malays, they are allowing a small group of people to amass wealth and plunder the country," says Syed Husin Ali, an opposition leader.

No one would deny, however, that Mahathir has guided Malaysia from a backwater former British colony into a modern nation. Most Malays and Chinese will still vote for his ruling front. It is certain to win a resounding election victory.

Yap says that even if the opposition loses, it has at least challenged the status quo. "The idea of justice," he says, "will remain."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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