Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's high-profile trip to Beijing on August 18-20 is much more than a diplomatic mission abroad. It is also a political mission aimed at a domestic constituency: The staunch Malay nationalist hopes his hobnobbing with China's leaders will snare the hearts and minds of ethnic-Chinese voters back home in the run-up to what could be the toughest general election of his 18-year rule.
Accompanying Mahathir is a 205-strong delegation of business people, of whom 193 are Malaysian-Chinese--reflecting their disproportionate role in the economy. The Chinese, who make up only 26% of Malaysia's population, also could have a disproportionate impact on the election, due by next June.
Because the firing and imprisonment of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has divided the dominant Malays, who have largely supported the ruling coalition in the past, the Chinese could tilt the balance in many constituencies (see chart). "In a situation where the Malay community is split, even a 10% or 5% non-Malay vote could make a big difference," says Francis Loh, a political scientist at the Science University in the northern state of Penang. That gives the Malaysian-Chinese a potentially decisive political role: Their votes won't unseat the ruling National Front coalition, but they may help to deprive it of the two-thirds parliamentary majority it has held for 30 years. "So the National Front is paying a lot of attention to the Chinese," says Kua Kia Soong, a former politician who's now the vice-principal of a Chinese-language college outside Kuala Lumpur. "It's a role they've never seen before."
Previous elections have witnessed big swings in the Chinese vote. Normally, about 30%-40% vote for the opposition, 30% support the National Front and the rest jump between the two sides. In 1995, 52%-55% of the Chinese voted for the National Front, thanks to the country's sizzling economy. But in 1990, following a recession, a split in the ruling United Malays National Organization and the widespread arrest of dissidents, only about 35%-40% of the Chinese supported Mahathir's coalition.
Many analysts and National Front officials believe that in the coming elections, the majority of Chinese will choose to return the ruling coalition--this time to ensure political stability. They say that older and wealthier Chinese fear that a strong opposition showing could derail the nation's recovery from its worst recession since independence. Others are said to be worried that votes for the opposition could prompt riots similar to those in Indonesia last year that resulted in the killing of ethnic-Chinese and the looting of their shops. Still others are believed to be concerned that a strong showing by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia could allow the opposition party to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state that would ban such practices as eating pork, drinking alcohol or gambling.
But because Malaysia has no tradition of holding opinion polls, nobody knows for sure how the Chinese will vote. "The Chinese aren't homogeneous, but they are stratified along class, gender and age lines," says Penang state legislator Toh Kin Woon, a former economics lecturer. Younger Chinese, in particular, may share the anger of their Malay counterparts over the treatment and police beating of Anwar.
"Generally young voters tend to be more anti-establishment because of the Anwar incident," says Koh Tsu Koon, Penang's chief minister. "Now younger Chinese may identify with younger Malays. It's an area of concern."
Interviews with a cross-section of Malaysian-Chinese confirm that the community is far from united behind the ruling coalition, which controls 84% of parliamentary seats and all but one state government. Many Chinese would like to reduce that giant majority and to vote in a stronger opposition to keep a check on the government. "We still need the National Front to rule, but a message should be given to their leaders that they're not God. They need to lose 30%-40% of their seats," says a Chinese property developer in his mid-40s who asked not to be named. "There's no way the opposition could win and run the government," he adds while munching chicken drumsticks at the tony Penang Club. "But the National Front should not be given a two-thirds majority. Let the opposition have a few more places and they'll develop from there."
The overseas-educated businessman is particularly irritated about the legacy of Malaysia's New Economic Policy, an affirmative-action programme introduced after the 1969 riots to help ease racial tensions. He feels that many of the privileges given to the bumiputras, or indigenous Malays--for jobs, home ownership, university places--should be phased out. "The state we're in," he says of the two-year-old economic crisis, "is because of the NEP. It created greed among the top echelons of the Malays. It's time that nonbumiputras are shown that they're supported." But a 70-year-old friend sitting with him at the club disagrees. "I'll vote for the status quo. Many things may not be equal, but it's not that bad that I can't walk the streets," says the retired businessman, alluding to the attacks on Indonesian-Chinese last year.
Dissatisfaction with the government is evident from the monied classes on the highly industrialized island of Penang to working-class and farming communities in the central state of Perak. "Most of the Chinese around here will vote for the opposition," insists Chai Khin Fong, 59, who runs a coffee shop in Kopisan New Village, 18 kilometres from the former tin-mining town of Ipoh. He says quite a number of Kopisan residents have lost their jobs, business is down 20%-30% and most of his customers reject Mahathir's explanation that currency speculators like American George Soros triggered the economic crisis. "You can't only blame people like Soros," he says while serving customers seated at battered tables. "The government also needs to bear a lot of blame."
How does Chai feel about the government's warnings that opposition party Pas could try to set up an Islamic state? "The National Front will lose some of its seats but it will still rule the country," he says. "So fears of an Islamic state don't come to mind." Chai is much more bothered by government restrictions on the opening of schools that teach in Chinese: "The number of Chinese students keeps increasing, but the number of Chinese schools is insufficient." He's also put off by the imprisonment of opposition MP Lim Guan Eng. Lim is serving 18 months for speaking out in defence of a 15-year-old Malay girl who was detained by police after charging that the former chief minister of Malacca had raped her. "I feel that's very unfair," Chai says.
Lee Then Choy also knows how he and his ethnic-Chinese neighbours outside the small town of Gopeng, near Kopisan, will vote. "For the opposition," says the 32-year-old fish farmer. The reason: The government has allocated to a company owned by the Perak state government the 1,090 acres (436 hectares) on which they raise fish, fowl and vegetables. The company will level their fields, build roads, put in electricity--then charge the farmers 10,000 ringgit ($2,630) an acre to reoccupy the land for 30 years. A company spokesman says the farmers have no legal title to the land, but Lee fumes: "Instead of giving the land to the people who work here, they give the land to a company that has no experience on the land. I feel ill-treated."
With the Chinese vote up for grabs, both the National Front and the opposition have been courting the community. Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, founder of the new National Justice Party, has had numerous meetings with Chinese community leaders to counter claims that Anwar's reformasi movement targets the minority. One of the opposition's biggest coups was the Federation of Chinese Associations' recent announcement that it would not campaign in the elections nor advise the Chinese how they should vote. This is a significant change of position: The federation had expressed support for Mahathir after he sacked Anwar last September.
Mahathir, meanwhile, hopes to use his trip to Beijing to consolidate support in Malaysia's Chinese community. The country's second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, used a similar visit in 1974, five years after bloody race riots, to let the Chinese community know that he had its interests at heart. A few weeks before his trip, Mahathir praised the Chinese for being more "rational" than the Malays in their reaction to his dismissal of Anwar. "Unlike the Malay voters who are very emotional, the Chinese voters are very pragmatic," he told a mid-July meeting of the Malaysian Chinese Association, a member of his ruling coalition.
However, that sort of political appeal to ethnic interests may have become outdated. Since the 1970s, the attachment of Malaysian-Chinese to their ancestral homeland has waned: Many older Chinese have visited China as tourists, while many younger Chinese have studied in the West. "For younger Chinese, China is no longer a political question. Younger Chinese view themselves as more Malaysian than Chinese," says James Wong, a columnist for Sin Chew Jit Poh, Malaysia's largest-circulation Chinese-language newspaper.
Asked about Mahathir's trip, a small-businessman in his 50s, who asks
not to be named as he sits in the coffee-shop in Kopisan village, says:
"It doesn't affect me. Mahathir is playing the Chinese card right