Malays pull their punches - for now

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THE FEDERAL Reserve Unit, Malaysia's riot police, are not a body of men whom one would normally describe as camp. At the sight of their distinctive red helmets, crowds of anti-government demonstrators break up and scatter. They carry long wooden truncheons and go into battle banging them on riot shields, like perspex war drums. But for a moment last week, at the National Mosque of Malaysia, the FRU showed a surprisingly thoughtful and sensitive side.

It happened after Friday prayers, when several thousand Muslims lingered in front of the Mosque. The crowd chanted "Allah is Great", and demanded the resignation of Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister, and after half an hour the riot police moved in. They charged up the stairs and across the plaza, but at the entrance to the Mosque itself they were stopped. As every Muslim knows, before entering the inner sanctuary, you must take off your shoes - but what were the FRU to do, strapped into their clunking body armour? Interrupting their charge, they fumbled in their pouches and carefully pulled brightly coloured slippers over their combat boots. The Federal Reserve Unit stormed the National Mosque of Malaysia wearing pink bootees.

It has been a dramatic week in Malaysia - and embarrassing for the Queen, who found herself in the midst of it. But it has not been a violent week. Seven days after the arrest of the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, participants on both sides of the struggle are pulling their punches. There have been crowds on the streets and they have chanted and jeered, but they have not thrown stones or started fires. There have been raids and arrests and widespread detention without charge under the notorious Internal Security Act.

Yesterday evening, police turned water cannon on noisy demonstrators. But, for all their roughness, Malaysia's civilian police are mild compared to the security forces of Indonesia or Burma. As for the mob: the only victims were a row of upset litter bins. While it is tempting to make comparisons between Dr Mahathir and President Suharto, who was forced from power in the spring after massive riots and demonstrations, Kuala Lumpur in September is a very different place from Jakarta in May. So far, at least when the police come storming in, they still cover up their shoes.

None the less, by Malaysian standards, it has been a remarkable and alarming time. Until little over a year ago, the country was a success story: a small former colony of 20 million ethnically diverse people, which had transformed itself into a model for developing democracies all over the world. Malaysia had steady economic growth and a strong sense of national identity, symbolised by prestige projects - the world's tallest building (the Petronas Twin Towers), the world's highest flagpole (in Kuala Lumpur's Freedom Square) and one of the developing world's proudest, most combative and most articulate leaders - Dr Mahathir.

Even after the Asian currency crisis last year, Malaysia did not suffer the indignity of handouts from the IMF, like Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea. During 17 years in power, Dr M, as he is respectfully and warily known, was a masterful autocrat who had the respect of most Malaysians. Then, in a bizarre and unexpected announcement at the beginning of this month, he suddenly sacked Anwar Ibrahim, his deputy and finance minister and the man whom he had personally chosen to be his successor.

One of the puzzles of last week's protests is what exactly they amount to. In some ways, they are a proxy for simple court politics, the struggle between an old and long-serving leader - Dr Mahathir is 73 - and his ambitious and impatient 51-year-old deputy. More broadly, they are a struggle between two generations of Malaysians, and two styles - the aggressive, often touchy, nationalism of Dr M and the cosmopolitan, internationalist outlook of his protege.

Officially, they are about sex - the government insists Mr Anwar will soon be prosecuted for an array of lurid sex crimes, though he has still not been charged and no convincing evidence has so far been presented.

But in the last week the protests have begun to look increasingly like something else - the early stages of a People Power movement, a struggle of the kind which in the last 15 years has toppled autocrats and dictators in the Philippines, South Korea and Indo- nesia. This has been Mr Anwar's claim, although the authenticity of his desire for "reformasi"(the slogan which his supporters have borrowed from the students in Jakarta) is questionable: during his six years as the country's second most powerful man he showed little concern for human rights and freedom of the press.

Having achieved levels of education and wealth unknown to their parents, the argument goes, Malaysians are no longer prepared to tolerate Dr M's paternalistic style - especially now, as times are getting hard. "For decades we were sacrificing a great deal of social and political rights just to promote growth," says Param Cumaraswamy, a lawyer and former president of the Malaysian Bar Association. "Suddenly people wake up and find that the economy has gone down and that we are not allowed to speak up."

The question is whether Malaysians want change badly enough to risk what they achieved so far. The answer depends on another crucial ingredient in Malaysia's complex politics: race. In Jakarta, the tension between poor native Indonesians and the rich minority of ethnic Chinese generated terrible scenes in May. Dr M's great achievement, in a country with a far larger Chinese and Indian population has been to empower and enrich the indigenous Malays. The last time large crowds demonstrated in the streets of Kuala Lumpur was during the race riots of 1969, and the fear of ethnic violence still flickers beneath the surface of much Malaysian thinking.

In Indonesia, people reached the stage where life was so bad that they stopped caring. Malaysians may decide that, so far, they still have much to lose.