Award helps ex-Malay leader 'clean up his name'

By Thomas Fuller (From International Herald Tribune of Friday, August 19, 2005)

When Anwar Ibrahim travels through Malaysia, past the oil palm plantations and durian groves, his supporters, he says, greet him with signs saying, "Welcome Anwar Ibrahim, the sixth prime minister of Malaysia."
The current prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, is the country's fifth since its independence in 1957, so the message is clear: Anwar, the former deputy prime minister who spent six years in prison before being freed last September, is their hope as Abdullah's successor.
On Thursday, Anwar's supporters and staff won what they consider a major step toward that goal: A judge in Kuala Lumpur awarded Anwar 4.5 million ringgits, or about $1.2 million, an unusually large amount by Malaysian standards, in a defamation case against a writer who helped destroy Anwar's career.
The author, Khalid Jafri, who is now ill with diabetes-related complications, will probably never pay that amount for writing "Fifty Reasons Why Anwar Ibrahim Cannot Become Prime Minister," a book that was circulated at a political convention in 1998 and that led to a police investigation and ultimately prison for Anwar.
Anwar said in an interview that he did not want the money anyway. The judgment, Anwar said, was the vindication he had been waiting for.
"This one is really very sweet," Anwar said, adding that the judge in the case had acknowledged that Anwar had been the victim of a political conspiracy. "This proved my point from the beginning."
For several months, Malaysia has shown signs of remaking itself as a nation with a more open political ethos. And it would be tempting to conclude that Anwar's gradual rehabilitation as a political figure is part of this trend.
But even Anwar acknowledges it is too early to draw any such conclusion.
An aide to Anwar, Adlin Zabri, summed up the feeling of relief among supporters.
"Vindication is an understatement," Adlin said. "It's part of the slow process to clean up his name, to prove to the people that all these allegations are actually trumped up."
That process began last September, when a court overturned Anwar's conviction for sodomy and set him free. Earlier this month, Anwar won an apology from a former chief of police for beating him in custody in 1998 and giving him a black eye.
And yet the path to full rehabilitation still looks very long for Anwar. Perhaps the most telling reaction to the verdict Thursday came not from Anwar's camp but from the prime minister's office.
"The decision has pretty much come and gone here," said the official, who wanted to remain anonymous because he said he was not authorized to speak publicly. "This hasn't created the type of buzz that it might have created seven years ago."
Since his release from prison almost a year ago, Anwar has been described as a potential threat to the current ruling elite - but the emphasis has been on the word potential.
Anwar remains firmly outside the political machinery that has had a lock on Malaysian politics for the nearly 50 years of Malaysia's independence, a system where each major race has its own political party represented in a grand coalition.
Instead, Anwar influences Malaysian politics as a combination of statesman and dissident.
"Anwar is basically setting the agenda for the development of Malaysian politics in a broader perspective," said P. Ramasamy, a political science lecturer at the National University of Malaysia.
In recent weeks, Anwar has suggested what no major Malay politician has dared in the past: that the system of affirmative action for Malays and other ethnic groups be abolished.
"Affirmative action is no longer relevant; it is obsolete," Anwar said in the interview Thursday. "This was a vehicle to enrich a few families and cronies. How do you expect me to be associated with a party to strengthen the same oppressive and corrupt policies?"
The system, which dates to the 1970s, is unusual because it is affirmative action for the majority: Malays and other "sons of the soil" are given priority for everything from government contracts to university admissions.
The program is called the New Economic Policy, or NEP, and is meant to reduce the domination in business by ethnic Chinese Malaysians.
Anwar is gambling that his stance will appeal not only to Chinese and Indians, who feel they are being discriminated against, but also low-income Malays as well.
"This whole NEP was abused by certain groups of Malays," Ramasamy said. "I don't think there's any problem of convincing a lot of Malays that they are not the beneficiaries of the NEP."
Anwar is active within the Justice Party, which his wife formed while he was in prison. And he says he is still working with two other opposition parties, the Democratic Action Party and the Islamic Party of Malaysia, to challenge the policies of the ruling coalition.
"The problem is that the system is very oppressive," Anwar said. "There's a total media blackout. We are not seeing any signs that there will be free and fair elections."
He is also teaching a class this autumn at Georgetown University in Washington on Muslim-Christian understanding.
In the interview, Anwar compared the bitter history between Israelis and Palestinians to domestic Malaysian politics.
Asked whether he was ready to make peace with Mahathir bin Mohamad, the former prime minister who fired him, Anwar joked: "Was there a war?"
"As a policy I make peace with everybody," he said.