"The Leopard," Giuseppe di Lampedusa's celebrated novel about the crumbling feudal order in 19th century Sicily, made famous the line, "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." That pretty much sums up the predicament of Malaysia's ruling elite today.
The sodomy trial of Anwar Ibrahim drags on in Kuala Lumpur, with the opposition leader's freedom and political career hanging in the balance. But the true significance of this anachronistic case does not depend on the outcome in the courtroom. The political assassination of Mr. Anwar aside, Malaysia is witnessing the death throes of a political machine that has run the country for over five decades. Mr. Anwar is a skilled politician who holds together an unlikely alliance of opposition parties — his conviction would certainly be a blow for the prospect of real political pluralism in Malaysia. But he also serves as a vessel for wider social forces and a disenchantment with the country's leadership. Another figure would surely take his place at the head of the reform movement.
The ruling coalition was founded on the principle that the three main races — Malays, Chinese and Indians — participate in politics through their own parties. Coupled with an elaborate system of affirmative action, this has allowed the United Malays National Organization to maintain a lock on power by protecting Malays from the winds of competition. After the opposition made unprecedented gains in the March 2008 elections, desperate tactics were called for, hence a rather tired repeat of the homosexuality charge first brought against Mr. Anwar a decade ago, now dubbed "Sodomy II" by a skeptical public. The government has denied that the trial is politically motivated.