Thursday, June 19, 2008

Anwar's teasers cloud credibility

Anwar's teasers cloud credibility
Cheong Suk-Wai
Jun 20, 2008
The Straits Times

KOTA KINABALU - THE hottest rumour in the East Malaysian state of Sabah earlier this week was that the Sabah Progressive Party (Sapp) - one among 14 members of Malaysia's ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) - had on Sunday decided to cross over to the opposition.

Rumour may soon become fact: Sapp's leader, former Sabah chief minister Yong Teck Lee, said on Wednesday that his party would table a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi when Parliament sits next Monday.

Datuk Yong added that Sapp might leave BN - but not necessarily for the opposition alliance of Pakatan Rakyat (PR). The alliance won control of five state governments in the country's general election on March 8, and managed to deny BN its customary two-thirds majority in the federal Parliament.

Yesterday, a source told The Straits Times that Sapp's Supreme Council will meet this morning to consider Mr Yong's actions and where it should go from here. Will other Sabah parties join PR?

Earlier this year, when PR drew up its wish list of the states it might capture, it had Sabah firmly listed. Sabahans were taken with PR's de facto leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's promise to give their state up to 20 per cent of its oil and gas royalties.

Former Sabah chief minister Harris Salleh had signed away 95 per cent of the royalties to Kuala Lumpur in the 1980s.

But strangely, Mr Anwar visited Sabah only on the eve of the elections. Sabahan lawyer Haji Ansari Abdullah, who heads PR's component party Keadilan in the state, told The Straits Times: 'Anwar could not afford the seven to eight hours needed to cover Sabah well.'

Mr Ansari, 54, said the former deputy premier's absence cost PR a lot of ground. On top of that, Keadilan's earmarked chief campaigner in Sabah, Dr Jeffrey Kitingan, was convalescing then after a terrible car crash last December.

Not surprisingly, on March 8, Sabahans handed BN 24 out of the state's 25 parliamentary seats. Since then, Mr Anwar has been claiming that Sabah alone could deliver almost all the seats PR needs to take over the federal government. It needs 30 crossovers from BN to accomplish that feat.

Many analysts are sceptical of Mr Anwar's claims. Sabahan political analyst Fui K Soong told The Straits Times: 'International circles do want to put pressure on the Malaysian government to change its ways, and they see Anwar as a good opposition leader. But they (don't want him) to fiddle with democracy by offering BN members benefits to cross over to his party.'

Significantly, the view that brokering crossovers is not kosher is shared by Dr Kitingan's brother, former Sabah chief minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan, who remains influential in state politics. 'It's not legitimate,' Mr Pairin Kitingan told The Straits Times.

Ms Soong, chief executive of the Institute of Strategic Analysis and Policy Research (Insap), said PR should not be too confident of Sabah's support. It received only 46 per cent of the popular vote, she pointed out.

Insap is the think-tank of BN's second-largest component party, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA).

Mr Anwar claimed last week that many MCA leaders, including a federal minister, would defect to PR. But MCA issued a strong denial last Monday and there has been no sign yet of any MCA MP preparing to jump ship.

There are, however, indications that some, including Mr Anwar's partners, are beginning to wonder if he can be trusted. His penchant for cat-and-mouse tactics is partly to blame for this doubt. Such tactics have left many wondering where they stand.

PR stalwarts, among them Mr Ansari, insist that Mr Anwar's six years in prison have changed him. He now listens intently and patiently to the views of others, PR stalwarts say.

But Datuk Liew Vun Keong, president of Sabah's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a BN component, is not so sure.

Mr Liew, who is also Malaysia's Deputy Trade Minister, said: 'I think (prison) has hardened him even more...I don't think it's healthy to have a political culture that is full of vengeance.'

Many among the Malay ground, especially in the heartland, are also doubtful of Mr Anwar. Where was he, some ask, when his wife, Keadilan president Wan Azizah Ismail, declared last Friday that Kelantan was the only opposition stronghold that would be made an Islamic state, if at all?

And why was he silent when Mr Lim Kit Siang, leader of the Democratic Action Party, a PR component, questioned the Sultan of Perak over his appointment of a Malay (albeit one with a Chinese mother), instead of a Chinese, as the state's first opposition chief minister?

Some Keadilan leaders have said that Mr Anwar's ketuanan rakyat (people's rule) is compatible with the pursuit of a Malay agenda. But his erstwhile right-hand man Mohammad Ezam Mohammad Nor told popular Malaysian political rag Siasah in April that he decided to return to Umno because ketuanan rakyat would bury ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) and threaten Malay interests.

Ketuanan rakyat plays well among minorities and urban Malays but not in the Malay heartland. Thus the constant (and perhaps necessary) trimming of sails, with Keadilan leaders suggesting that ketuanan rakyat is compatible with a Malay agenda after all. Such calibrations may give Mr Anwar and his party the reputation of being trimmers.

At least one PR alliance partner seems unhappy with Mr Anwar. In recent weeks, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) members have been bickering internally over whether or not they can trust the former deputy prime minister.

PAS gave up 18 constituencies for Keadilan to contest, they say, but received few political spoils in return.

For now PAS has held off querying Mr Anwar publicly, presumably to keep the eggshell alliance that is the PR intact. There have been media reports of PAS making overtures to join forces with Umno to ensure Malay-Muslim supremacy, but PAS information chief Mahfuz Omar has strongly denied this.

Meanwhile, despite the Sapp shocker, many Sabahans remain wary of Mr Anwar, not least because he still seems to have little time for them. He was to have held a rally in Sabah's capital Kota Kinabalu last Sunday. But he rescheduled it for this Saturday, and then postponed it again - indefinitely.

Some of his lieutenants are now saying that should he succeed in convincing enough BN MPs to join PR, most would come from West Malaysia, not Sabah.

That there is deep unhappiness in the state is undeniable. Sabahans are unhappy over their share of oil royalties and the influx of immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines. But it is unclear if they see in Mr Anwar a saviour.

Some, like architect Ho Jia Lit, who sits on the supreme council of BN component LDP - which has only one seat in Parliament - seem somewhat favourably disposed.

'At his age, Anwar is not so concerned about proving that he is good,' said Mr Ho, 'as he is proving that he can do good.'

For many other Sabahans, though, the jury is still out on that.

That there is deep unhappiness in the state is undeniable. Sabahans are unhappy over their share of oil royalties and the influx of immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines. But it is unclear if they see in Mr Anwar a saviour.

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