Malaysia's top opposition leader resigns

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After 30 years as Malaysia's top opposition leader, Lim Kit Siang stepped down after his strongest supporters, the ethnic Chinese, voted against him and his party at the general elections.

After 30 years as Malaysia's top opposition leader, Lim Kit Siang stepped down after his strongest supporters, the ethnic Chinese, voted against him and his party at the general elections.

But later in the day, senior officials of his Democratic Action Party, convinced him to stay on in a less influential role as the party's national chairman. Lim had been the party's secretary-general.

Lim was handed his first defeat as a politician in Monday's parliamentary elections when the predominantly Chinese electorate in the northern Penang state rejected him as their representative by a razor-thin 104 votes.

The unexpected setback effectively deprives Lim, a member of Parliament since 1969, from issuing any more of his barbed attacks in Parliament against Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir's ruling National Front coalition retained power by grabbing 148 of the 193 Parliament seats.

"I accept full responsibility for the party's defeat in the 1999 general elections," Lim said in his resignation letter. "The DAP suffered a catastrophic defeat with our traditional non-Malay and Chinese supporters abandoning the party."

For decades, Lim's greatest source of strength was the nation's ethnic Chinese minority, which comprises nearly 35 percent of the 22 million population. He won his first Parliament seat in 1969 backed by Chinese votes.

But in the most recent election, DAP's leaders were toppled as ethnic Chinese voters deserted the party, concerned by DAP forming a coalition with the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS.

Lim, who has never commented on his religion, has insisted that the partnership was a necessary gambit to attempt to thwart Mahathir's 14-party coalition of a two-thirds majority.

Most ethnic Chinese in Malaysia are either Buddhist or Christian.

Mahathir, leader of this Southeast Asian nation for 18 years, took advantage of the alliance to repeatedly warn that PAS would crush the religious freedoms largely enjoyed by the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities in Malaysia.

His message to the fence-sitting voters was fortified by a barrage of full-page advertisements, as well as one-sided reporting and editorials in the predominantly government-friendly newspapers, warning of chaos, instability and the ascendancy of radical Islam.

The political broadside worked: It provoked the greatest migration of Chinese votes from the opposition into the fold of Mahathir's ruling coalition.

Lim faced a huge backlash for choosing to cooperate with the orthodox Islamic party, which retained the northern state of Kelantan and for the first time won another state, neighboring Terengganu.

PAS more than tripled its representation in Parliament, clinching 27 seats, while DAP won only 10 seats.

"The Chinese, who are a pragmatic lot, would rather do business with a known entity that's been in power for decades than with a party full of Islamic ideologues," said Ng Kam Weng of the Kairos Research Center, a social think-tank in Kuala Lumpur.

In his resignation letter, Lim said the elections resulted in a Parliament where 75 percent of the seats were dominated by Muslims.

"Malaysia is set on a very uncertain and perilous future," he said.

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