The past few months might have shaken the self-satisfaction of Malaysia's long-serving prime minister, but he has given no indication he is ready yet to make way for his deputy.
Kuala Lumpur -
What a tumultuous period this past six months has been for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. When he left the country for a two-month working holiday in May, Malaysia was one of the world's fastest growing economies and a shining example for all developing nations. When he came back, he was greeted with a plummeting ringgit and a stock market that would soon rank among the worst performing in the world.
Malaysian and international investors alike expected the seasoned prime minister to steer the country back on course. A series of verbal attacks on speculators and several policy mistakes later, talk is rife about whether he is still fit to lead the country.
The western press has had a field day, pointing out his various blunders and touting his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, as the new and better man for the job. However, the 72-year-old prime minister still has the loyalty of all the component parties in his ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front). Even opposition party PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) has thrown in its support for his leadership.
Although there has been some grumbling among the corporate upper class - some billionaires have reportedly been reduced to millionaires because of crumbling share prices - Dr Mahathir is still wildly popular among the common folk.
True, the ringgit is 25 percent weaker against the dollar and the stock market has lost some 300 million ringgit (33.9 billion baht) in market capitalisation. But those who have been hurt most are the upper class. People who own stocks and who buy imported luxury goods. And, although they might criticise Dr Mahathir privately for some recent misguided policies, they know that it was he who made it possible for them to make it big in the first place.
In his 16 years as prime minister, Dr Mahathir has transformed Malaysia from an agricultural producer into a manufacturing powerhouse. Many still believe, even after all that has transpired, that if anyone can pull Malaysia out of the doldrums, it is Dr Mahathir. Among Southeast Asia's current leaders, Dr Mahathir is the only one who has fought a recession (in the mid-1980s) and won convincingly.
Explains one political analyst: the foreign press doesn't matter to the grassroots. The average folk don't have access to foreign newspapers or news wires. The largely compliant and supportive local press has been singing his praises, even as the foreign press wreak havoc on his credibility.
Besides, many of the ethnic Chinese and Indians in Malaysia still do not trust Mr Anwar, a former Islamic firebrand who was once jailed for his beliefs under the Internal Security Act.
It was under Mr Anwar's watch (as acting prime minister in Dr Mahathir's absence) that three women taking part in a beauty contest were arrested by officials from Selangor state's Islamic Affairs Department. The women, all Malay, made history by becoming the first Malaysians to be charged and fined for indecent exposure in a beauty contest. Upon his return, Dr Mahathir lambasted Islamic officials for abusing "the little powers" that they have.
Barely two weeks after the girls were arrested, government officials suddenly announced that an "Islamic Civilisation" course would be made compulsory for all university students irrespective of race or religion. The non-Muslim community was outraged, with opposition member of parliament Lim Guan Eng saying that the Chinese community saw it as an attempt to impose Islamic values on non-Muslims. "Mahathir would have taken a tougher stand against perceived acts of religious extremism," said Mr Lim.
Mr Lim points out that while Dr Mahathir has made some terrible mistakes lately, Mr Anwar has had his fair share of policy blunders as well. "As finance minister, he has to share the responsibility and burden for what has happened to our economy." This is something the foreign press has either overlooked or chosen to ignore, said Mr Lim.
It was during Mr Anwar's acting premiership that the nation's central bank, Bank Negara, spent billions of ringgit (reportedly up to 9 billion [108 billion baht at yesterday's rate]) in a vain effort to fight off speculators And, this was done when the ringgit was still at a comfortable level of around 2.55 against the dollar.
"Bank Negara's attempts at defending the ringgit was a big mistake. It should have let the ringgit find its own value," said the executive director of a leading local economic think tank who asked not to be named.
Last week Mr Anwar announced the 1998 budget - an instrument regarded by analysts and investors as the clearest indicator yet of Malaysia's willingness to address weaknesses in its economic fundamentals. Analysts have called it a lacklustre budget. Many said the measures were not nearly as tough as they had hoped.
Although the budget speech was delivered during the last hour of trading on Friday, the market reacted quickly sending the benchmark Kuala Lumpur Composite Index down 7.22 points to 794.80 points. The currency market suffered as well, with the ringgit ending Asian trading down 3.2750 from the previous day's close of 3.1770.
Although Mr Anwar has proven to be the voice of reason over the past few months, there are those who still have more faith in Dr Mahathir's ability to run the economy.
The Japanese, who consider Dr Mahathir an ally, are uncertain about how things would be like for them under Mr Anwar's administration. "Take the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), for example. We have no idea how committed he is to this concept," said a Japanese analyst working for a local securities firm.
The MSC is a 15km by 50km information technology zone aimed at leapfrogging Malaysia into the information age. Like many other ambitious projects, it was Dr Mahathir's brainchild.
"The basic difference between the two leaders is that Mahathir is a capitalist while Anwar is a social activist," said the analyst. "From a business point of view, we are more comfortable with Mahathir."
The analyst added that they were not even sure that Malaysia's "Look East" policy, initiated by Dr Mahathir shortly after he assumed power in 1981 and designed to win economic assistance from Japan, would go on after he leaves office.
However, Dr Mahathir has given no indication to date that he will resign any time soon. In fact, a senior Japanese adviser close to Dr Mahathir said that it looks like he will go on past 1999, if his health permits.
Dr Mahathir's party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the leading component in the coalition government, will hold its next election in 1999. Dr Mahathir is prime minister by virtue of the fact that he is the UMNO president.
The big question on everybody's mind lately is, will Anwar, who has played second fiddle for so long, mount a leadership challenge to Dr Mahathir in 1999?
Nobody knows for sure but analysts say if he does, he will be taking a big risk as Dr Mahathir has proven time and again that he has staying power. Dr Mahathir has endured and overcome a host of bitter battles against diverse forces such as the judiciary, the sultans, and the once popular Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a former finance minister who currently holds no cabinet position.
"There is a long list of people who had fought against Mahathir and lost. I'm sure Anwar has that list in the back of his mind," said Mr Lim.
The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. All rights reserved 1997