'Visionaries' challenge Malaysia PM: Elections to key posts in the ruling party bring defeat to old guard

Click to follow
SEVERAL leading figures in Malaysia's ruling party were swept aside yesterday by a group of young 'visionaries' whose leader, Anwar Ibrahim, could mount an early challenge to the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad.

Mr Anwar, 46, was confirmed yesterday as the new deputy president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, and whose party elections are more significant than general elections. The UMNO leader and deputy leader automatically become prime minister and deputy prime minister.

Allies of Mr Anwar, who had formed a slate with him called the 'Vision Team', captured all three party vice-presidencies despite thinly-veiled opposition from Dr Mahathir, 68, who said UMNO needed politicians and administrators who 'must be able to work as a team and not because they are from a team'.

Mr Anwar, the Finance Minister, began what is likely to be seen as a decisive shift in Malaysian politics when he announced in August that he would run against the incumbent UMNO vice-president, Ghafar Baba. It soon became clear that Mr Anwar would win handsomely, and Mr Ghafar dropped out of the contest. He has since resigned all his party and government posts and stayed away from this week's convention.

The gap in age and background between the two men shows the changes taking place in Malay society. Mr Ghafar is a one-time golf caddy who helped to draw up policies of 'positive discrimination' towards ethnic Malays after bloody communal riots in 1970, caused by resentment at the economic dominance of the Chinese minority. Although the 20-year New Economic Policy fell short of some of its targets, the Malays, who comprise just over half the 18 million population, have benefited from the general rise in prosperity. The economy has grown by more than 8 per cent annually for the past six years.

In the early 1970s Mr Anwar was an Islamic firebrand who spent 20 months in prison for leading anti- government demonstrations. He did not join UMNO until persuaded to do so by Dr Mahathir in 1982. His outlook is reflected in the New Development Policy, which took effect in 1991. This plays down privileges for bumiputras, or indigenous Malays, emphasising instead broader economic development and the eradication of poverty.

Dr Mahathir straddles the two camps - while he is the same age as Mr Ghafar, politically he is seen as having more in common with the modernists. Mr Anwar has been regarded for some time as his likely successor, but the Prime Minister has shown no eagerness to step aside, despite a heart by-pass operation in 1989. Although Dr Mahathir's authority remains immense, the party appears to have sent him a message in his 13th year in office that he may not be able to remain as long as he would like.