Tuesday September 14, 2004

The winds of change in Malaysia

The winds of freedom, it seems, are breezing through both Singapore and Malaysia these days. Just one week after newly appointed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised more freedom of expression for Singaporeans, Malaysia decided to release dissident figure Anwar Ibrahim from prison on Thursday.
The decision by the Malaysian Supreme Court to overturn the lower court's conviction of sodomy against Anwar was not totally unexpected. Ever since he took over the reins a year ago, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has shown signs of distancing himself from the more authoritarian policies of his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad. Last month, he launched a campaign against corruption involving people who at one time were close to Mahathir. It was simply a matter of time, therefore, for Badawi to address the question of Anwar Ibrahim's imprisonment six years ago, which was clearly politically motivated.
But most people did not expect the release to come so soon. The Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict because the allegation of sodomy was not supported by evidence presented in the lower court. While the court reached its decision without any interference from the Prime Minister, there is no doubt that such a ruling would not have been tolerated if Mahathir was still in charge. Everyone, including most Malaysians, knows that Anwar went to prison for challenging Mahathir.
Malaysians have two good reasons to celebrate over the Supreme Court ruling: the release of one of their most colorful and intelligent politicians, and the fact that the rule of law has finally taken root in their country.
The rest of the world, including we in Indonesia, can only rejoice at this positive development.
Malaysia's economic success -- undoubtedly a tribute to Mahathir's leadership -- cannot be sustained unless the country starts building the necessary democratic political foundations: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the rule of law, as well as credible free and fair elections.
The release of Anwar Ibrahim marks the beginning of the "reformasi" era in Malaysia. The next step should be the restoration of his good name and the removal of the restrictions banning him from politics until 2008. Malaysia must go through a period of reconciliation before it can move forward.
There is every reason to be positive.
Badawi is starting Malaysia's process toward democratization when the economy is on solid ground. He is not doing this out of economic pressures or foreign proddings, but more out of his own conviction that now is as good a time as any to do the job. And Malaysia is doing so in phases and with far less fanfare than what we did in Indonesia. Indonesia launched its reform movement at a time when its economy was falling apart in 1998. It was probably the worst time to begin and the country has continued to struggle to this day.
We in Indonesia wish Badawi and the Malaysian people success in their march toward greater democracy and the even greater prosperity that comes with it. The developments in Malaysia and hopefully Singapore too, can only be good for the Southeast Asian region.
Indonesia may be responsible for exporting the haze from our forest fires to Malaysia and to Singapore, but we can also take credit for some of those winds of freedom that have been blowing through Malaysia and Singapore.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"