May 15, 2003

Malaysia: Weddings and worries

By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - It was Malaysia's wedding of the year. A who's who of Malaysian society mingled with foreign diplomats from a string of countries. The only problem was that the father of the bride was the country's most well-known prisoner.
Nurul Izzah Anwar, 23, the eldest daughter of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, married chemical engineer Raja Ahmad Shahrir Iskandar, 26, a distant relative of the royal family in southern Johor state, last Friday. Nurul, a spirited political campaigner in her own right, was thrust into the limelight along with her mother Wan Azizah Wan Ismail during the heyday of the reformasi movement unleashed upon Anwar's ouster in 1998.
A final-year student in electrical and electronics engineering in university, Nurul met her partner, then a student in the United Kingdom, while she was on a speaking tour in London four years ago.
Until the last few hours before the wedding ceremony, uncertainty prevailed as to whether Anwar, who had from April 14 begun serving his second jail term - this time for nine years - would be allowed to give the bride away.
If anyone had any doubts as to whether the ruling elites still regard Anwar as a threat, the manner of the prisoner's arrival at his residence in Kuala Lumpur's leafy Bukit Damansara area should have dispelled them. A convoy of police vehicles and dozens of security officials escorted Anwar to his home on Friday afternoon for the traditional Muslim ceremony, prompting one commentator to quip that the jailed politician had as many bodyguards as his onetime mentor, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Hundreds of reformasi supporters and journalists jostled to get closer to Anwar, who was wearing a neck brace.
Earlier that morning, he had appeared in court to seek bail pending the outcome of his sodomy conviction.
The wedding reception the next day, attended by prominent opposition leaders, business tycoons, and reformasi stalwarts, was no ordinary affair. Significantly, diplomats including those from Norway, Kuwait, Ireland, Singapore and the United States, as well as the chief presidential advisor in the Philippines, were also present. A few politicians from Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), including a cabinet minister, made heads turn.
Not to be outdone, Mahathir himself addressed a crowd of 40,000 UMNO supporters on Sunday night at the Merdeka (Independence) Stadium to mark the party's 57th anniversary. The premier returned to a familiar theme: pointing to a foreign threat and the need for Muslims to remain united to ward off potential colonizers.
He pointed out that when Iraq was threatened, many Muslims conducted hajat prayers but Iraq was still invaded. "Does this mean that God did not hear our prayers?" he asked. He said Muslims should ask themselves what they done to change their fate. "The answer is nothing. Muslims are still backward in defense matters. Muslims are divided. We are enemies with each other."
The threat of colonization was even greater today, said Mahathir, noting that although Malaysia was not yet a target, Western powers had "already criticized us for not being democratic, not protecting human rights and not having press freedom".
His rallying call for Muslims to be united may be seen in the context of a divided local Muslim community, many of whom were disturbed by the treatment meted out to Anwar, a former Islamic youth leader.
Even as Anwar was allowed a brief taste of freedom, a couple of his supporters detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) were allegedly assaulted last Friday at the infamous Kamunting Detention Camp a couple of hours' drive north of Kuala Lumpur. The Abolish ISA Movement (GMI), comprising more than 80 non-governmental organizations, has sent a memorandum to the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia urging the body to probe the incident.
Activists said they had received reports alleging that independent film producer Hishamuddin Rais and Keadilan activist Tian Chua had been assaulted by security personnel at the camp last Friday after a series of grievances and arguments at the camp boiled over. The duo were allegedly assaulted by some 30 security personnel in anti-riot gear who had raided Tian Chua's room to seize a computer. GMI chairperson Zaid Kamaruddin said Kamunting officials had repeatedly ignored Tian Chua's request to bring a laptop computer to his room to facilitate his doctoral thesis work.
The camp commandant has denied the assault allegation, stating that the inspection of the dormitory was a "routine block search".
Tian Chua and Hishamuddin are among half a dozen prominent reformasi activists still under ISA detention. Their two-year detention orders expire next month, but there is concern that their detention may be further extended. The ISA review board has already recommended their release, which the Federal Court last year described as having been made in bad faith - but so far to no avail.
Meanwhile, a senior official of Gerakan, a component party in the ruling coalition, has openly backed the country's human rights commission's call for the repeal of the ISA. Toh Kin Woon, a state executive councilor in the northern state of Penang, raised eyebrows when he endorsed an anti-ISA memorandum in his personal capacity, pointing out that there were other laws that could protect national security.
The heightened edginess over Anwar and the reformasi activists - along with the recent brouhaha over a series of mildly critical articles on Malaysia in Britain's Economist magazine - reflects UMNO's insecurity about life after Mahathir. The uncertain succession scenario, analysts say, could lead to factional struggles. It also reflects concern that the Malay ground is still divided and that this could be aggravated if the economy remains listless, as is likely to be the case.
Mahathir has once again maintained that he is stepping down in October. Analysts and observers are speculating that the next general election could be held as early as the end of this year or the first half of next year - ahead of the UMNO party elections in the middle of next year. The nervousness and tetchiness displayed in recent days and the rallying calls for "Muslim unity" can be expected to continue.