Tuesday, July 9, 2002

Anwar Runs Out of Options


Anwar Ibrahim waves to supporters as he arrives at the courthouse in Kuala Lumpur.
He may have been wheelchair bound, gaunt and pale after almost four years in prison, but Malaysia's former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim had lost none of his fire when he appeared in the country's highest court on July 10 to make a last-chance bid for freedom. In proceedings lasting barely 20 minutes, Chief Justice Mohamed Dzaiddin Abdullah announced the court had unanimously rejected Anwar's final appeal against his conviction and six-year sentence for tampering with a police investigation. In response, the 54-year old Anwar lashed out at his persecutors, calling the decision a "horrendous betrayal of the public confidence in the judiciary ... a perversion of the rule of law" and a plunge into "the pit of infamy."

Anwar, who is also serving a consecutive nine-year term for sodomy, repeated his assertion that the two trials were rigged on orders from his former mentor, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a charge the premier has consistently denied. With no avenue of appeal left barring a highly unlikely royal pardon, Anwar now seems fated to serve out his full sentence. With good behavior, his lawyer says, he could be released in 2009, by which time the political landscape should be transformed, Mahathir puttering happily in retirement, his successor firmly ensconced and Anwar himself simply irrelevant. But as his passionate court performance showed, Anwar is unlikely to go quietly into the night upon release. Malaysia doesn't conduct opinion polls, but some Kuala Lumpur pundits say large numbers of Malaysians remain uneasy about the conduct and fairness of the Anwar trials. "However much the ruling party tries to pretend he doesn't exist," says political science professor P. Ramasamy, "more and more people in Malaysia regard Anwar as a political prisoner. Until they deal with that, he will continue to haunt the government—and the country."

Wednesday, 10 July, 2002

Analysis: the Anwar saga's legacy

By James Wong Wing On in Kuala Lumpur

With the Federal Court upholding the judgement on former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, politics in Malaysia has seen a great shift in power which may last for years to come.
First and foremost is the reality that, barring extraordinary events or incidents, the former protege of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will be physically kept away not only from his family, but from his supporters and sympathisers for a long time.
For some, with the passage of time, the memory of Anwar Ibrahim, 54, will fade and his influence wane.
But love or loathe him, Anwar Ibrahim does not seem to be just another politician.
He possesses a stoically strong personality. He has a set of ideas that supporters and sympathisers believe offer an alternative to the "secular" authoritarianism of Dr Mahathir and its opposite extreme, namely the militant Islamism epitomised by Osama Bin Laden.
Above all, the fact that the Anwar saga has split opinions and stirred passions not only in Malaysia, but also overseas, is evidence of the personality and ideas of the man who was, and still probably is, seen as a political bridge between the world of Islam and Asia on one hand, and the West on the other.
The Anwar saga has also revealed the workings of almost every Malaysian institution, from the secret police to the ISA security law, courts, prisons, political parties, official mass media and the diplomatic service.
In response, Anwar Ibrahim's supporters and sympathisers have resorted to protests in the streets as well as in cyberspace. There have been legal battles, prayers in mosques, churches and temples, and direct appeals to people in public forums organised by opposition parties.
In short, the Anwar saga has, positively or negatively, made the Malaysian political system more transparent.
That has brought to the surface underlying anti-establishment forces in Malaysia.
In the 1999 general elections, for example, the once dominant ruling party, United Malays National Organisation (Umno), was dealt a blow by a massive swing of Malay/Muslim voters to the predominantly Malay/Muslim opposition coalition, the Alternative Front.
The Federal Court's decision sits against several backdrops which are potentially epoch-making in Malaysian politics.
One is the impending retirement of Prime Minister Mahathir, 76, who is loved and loathed in Malaysia, and who still prides himself on being a "democratic dictator".
Another is the potential instability inside Umno as a result of the ascendance of his designated successor, the relatively weaker Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, 65.
This will be especially important if there is a jostle for power among the three elected vice-presidents of the party and their supporters once Dr Mahathir leaves office.
A third issue is the rise of the more assertive, energetic and populist leadership in the Islamic Party of Malaysia, PAS, under Abdul Hadi Awang, 54, who took over last month after the death of the more moderate Fadzil Noor.
Muslims constitute about 60% of Malaysia's population. With their politics in a state of flux, the fear of Malaysia being "Islamised" - real or merely felt - among non-Muslims increases.
The political competition among different factions of the Malaysian Chinese population is also disruptive, if it is not managed with prudence and wisdom by their top leaders.
The political future of Malaysia, while still not a cause for alarm as in the case of Indonesia in 1998, is certainly a cause for active concern.

James Wong Wing On, 40, is the Chief Analyst for Strategic Analysis Malaysia (SAM) which produces the subscriber-based political report, Analysis Malaysia.