Malaysian democrats brave thunder for rich prize of Penang

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Holidaymakers staying in the high-rise beach hotels of Batu Ferringhee, Malaysia's main tourist destination, yesterday found themselves caught up in the most intensely fought battle of the country's election campaign.

Curious visitors in shorts and sandals were among the crowd opposite the Holiday Inn, watching the Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, demonstrate why he is rated one of Malaysia's finest political orators.

In a mixture of English, Malay and Chinese, punctuated by the hiss of free soft drinks being opened, Mr Anwar urged his listeners to vote for "order and stability" in the shape of Penang's Chief Minister, Koh Tsu Koon, who stood beside him in a silk batik shirt. Mr Koh is universally acknowledged as a nice guy but something of a wimp; Mr Anwar's answer was to quote T S Eliot and the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tze in praise of humility. A brilliant performance, it was witnessed by no more than 300 people, tourists included. A couple of miles away, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which cannot afford much in the way of campaign literature, let alone soft drinks, managed to lure at least three times that number to a ceramah (political rally) in pitch darkness, thunder and rain.

The problem for the DAP is that such meetings are virtually the only means it has of getting across its message. It has no access to the government-dominated press and television, and is banned from holding large-scale rallies.

Five years ago it was allowed to use public halls - now it has to hold meetings outdoors. At the start of the campaign, the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, gave an open-air dinner for 50,000 "friends" on the Esplanade in Penang. The DAP was refused permission to hold a similar gathering, and the party leader, Lim Kit Siang, is being investigated for addressing an unauthorised rally there.

Penang, Malaysia's most cosmopolitan state and the only one in which Chinese voters predominate, is the DAP's main stronghold. The party is going all-out to wrest the state assembly from the National Front, the collection of ethnic parties that controls all Malaysia's states bar one, and is expected to regain a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. Mr Lim, a veteran trade unionist, has switched constituencies to take on Mr Koh in what will be the most closely watched result tomorrow night.

The frequent appearances of Dr Mahathir and Mr Anwar in Penang emphasise the political damage that would be suffered by the loss of the richest state, where more computer semiconductors and disk drives are produced than anywhere else in the world. Voters are being warned that a DAP victory could mean "disruption", and the party is being accused of threatening race riots if it loses.

The DAP says the government cannot afford to cut off Penang, but the deputy leader, Karpal Singh, admits: "The National Front's scare tactics have had an effect on Malay voters." The Penang electorate, however, is Malaysia's most sophisticated, so it is the only corner of the country in which the election is producing anything like genuine political debate.