Dr. Mahathir Mohammad is stepping down as Prime Minister of Malaysia in October, after about twenty-three years in power. His former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, still has to stay in jail for another nine years. Or does he? Rumours have been circulating around Malaysia this year about a possible reconciliation between Anwar and the ruling party, if not between him and his ex-boss. As “evidence”, people have jumped on Mahathir’s public statement that Anwar’s fate does not depend on him anymore but on the “new leadership” of the country.
It may seem odd that Malaysians have to feed on scraps like this to sustain our political imagination, but this is how Malaysia works. It’s how Malaysia has always worked. Malaysian politics has dubiously always been built around cults of personalities, be it in the ruling party or in the political opposition. And a lot of the time, this is how the Malaysian public performs intellectual analyses – by synthesizing political rumours with officially sanctioned information centered around various public personalities.
Nearly five years after Anwar’s sacking and subsequent jailing, many things still look the same in this country. The ruling party and the opposition are still engaged in a project of mutual excoriation as infidels. The Malaysian government is still pursuing its aggressive and authoritarian policy of modernization. The Islamist opposition is still denouncing all of these efforts as “un-Islamic”. Public debate is still couched in language that appeases the country’s Malay and Muslim sensitivities.
Some things have changed, though. But what, exactly?
In 1998, I was not in Malaysia. I was studying in Australia for my Bachelor in Engineering. While Malaysia was gasping and stuttering under the tidal wave of the regional financial crisis, I was getting quite dazzling results at university. I endeavoured to be a model student – focused and successful in my academic studies, with a respectable social life on the side. True, the Malaysians overseas knew we had to tighten our belts a little bit, but we felt extremely lucky that we did not have to go through what our Indonesian friends were going through. When Suharto stepped down, we felt a little bit nervous but we still couldn’t see anything like this happening in Malaysia.
And then came Anwar’s sacking in early September.
I was doing an assignment on my computer that night, and I was also logged on to the Internet. I remember a Malay student friend of mine in Melbourne informing me of this through an online message. She was in utter despair. Her hero had been sacked. I was curious more than anything else. I was never really a fan of Anwar, and I wanted to know exactly why he was sacked.
It turns out he was sacked for corruption and sodomy. I remember I tried just continuing on with my assignment after I had read about this. I remember being very hurt. I could not imagine how anyone could be publicly humiliated in such a manner. I found myself in a very difficult position. I never really liked Anwar, and I never thought much of his Islamisation programmes when he was in power. I found that I couldn’t voice this to some of my friends who became Anwar’s fervent supporters. However, I also could not imagine how such horrible laws could be used to silence and humiliate anyone. I found that I couldn’t voice this to my friends who remained Mahathir’s fervent supporters. Most of my other friends refused to discuss the subject. I was scolded every time I tried to bring it up. There was definitely fear in the voices that scolded me. It was alarming, how people just started aligning themselves behind either personality, or buried their heads in the sand, when I felt very deeply that there was more at stake than this. Soon, I began to feel as though every inch of my scalp was in flames from trying to make sense of it all alone.
And then we started to read reports of a reform movement, which called itself Reformasi and was mostly aligned to Anwar, taking shape in Malaysia. The Australian media gleefully predicted the eruption of violence and disorder in Malaysia. Watching the news in Australia, I felt that the Australian journalists were behaving no differently from their Malaysian counterparts; they were playing into each camp’s cult of personality instead of engaging in some much-needed analysis.
It is fair to say that I was disgusted with just about everyone at this point in time. I was disgusted with the ruling party for so publicly and proudly attacking someone’s human rights in this way, with Anwar and his supporters for their slick manipulation of the Western media and for hijacking human rights language to suit their own agendas, with the Reformasi movement for being so shortsightedly personalist in their agenda, with the Islamic extremists for so cunningly manipulating the situation to their own advantage, with the Western media for its smugness and shallow journalism, with the Malaysian media for its cowardice and shallow journalism, with ordinary Malaysians for keeping quiet, with myself for everything I could possibly be angry about.
I was also incredibly disgusted at and frightened of two particular sections of the Malaysian penal code that were used to discredit Anwar. Section 377B states that “whoever voluntarily commits carnal intercourse against the order of nature shall be punished with imprisonment of a term which may extend to twenty years, and shall also be liable to whipping.”
And exactly how does the Malaysian constitution define “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”? According to Section 377A of the penal code, “any person who has sexual connection with another person by the introduction of the penis into the anus or mouth of the other person is said to commit carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”
Interesting, isn’t it? I’m sure heterosexual couples occasionally engage in fellatio and anal sex, too, but this law was used specifically to demonize a very particular community – a marginalized community, already voiceless and living in the shadows of society. It is also interesting that the constitution then has nothing to say about women – not about oral sex performed on women and not about non-heterosexual women. Not only that, it appears as though every Malaysian has to worry about the State suddenly barging into their bedrooms during moments of great intimacy.
The most amazing thing about all of this is that hardly anyone came to the defense of the gay community in Malaysia. The ruling party was already happily engaged in the demonizing of homosexuals, especially homosexual men. But the so-called Reformasi movement hardly did anything to tell the State to butt out of our sexual choices. Instead of asking the ruling party how any of this was relevant to the sacking of this man, they chose to put him higher up on a pedestal and deny that someone as religiously upright as Anwar would ever do anything so filthy.
But in Malaysia, hardly anyone would deny the fact that there are quite a few middle-class, educated and upwardly mobile gay Malaysian men around. Whether or not the general Malaysian public is agreeable to this kind of sexual diversity is another question altogether. In fact, many Malaysians find it downright disgusting. However, the more perplexing thing is that a lot of these middle-class, educated and upwardly mobile gay men chose very early on to throw their support behind Dr. Mahathir, and not Anwar.
Either because of their fear of Anwar’s brand of Islam, or their agreement with Mahathir’s brand of modernism, or both. Of course, these men could never come out and openly say they were gay. They know their place in Malaysia, but they are still happy to defend these little pockets of freedom that they can still enjoy, like keeping good jobs in exchange for invisibility – something they did not think they would be able to enjoy under Anwar’s brand of Islam.
Thus, it felt as though all my fears about Malaysia one day heading towards disintegration and destruction had finally hatched. I felt as though it had been utterly futile, trying to wrestle with the hands of time. It was finally, inevitably approaching midnight before the very day of destruction.
Anwar was arrested very swiftly after igniting the Reformasi movement. Everybody knows about the black eye he got while under police custody. Everybody knows about the trial that everybody (bar the Malaysian government) called a sham. Everybody knows Anwar went to jail.
I’m not quite sure, though, if everyone is completely clear about Anwar’s Islamist past. In the 1970s, Anwar was quite a prominent Islamist student activist. During this period, he was detained for two years under the Internal Security Act (ISA), a law that allows for detention without trial. By the early 1980s, he was the leader of the Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM). In 1982, a year or so after coming to power, Dr. Mahathir succeeded in getting Anwar to join his ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). In one fell swoop, Dr. Mahathir not only consolidated his ruling party’s Malay Muslim identity, but also boosted his own Islamic credentials. The following sixteen years would see an intricate duet of Mahathir’s ethnic Malay nationalism and Anwar’s Islamism shape the nation.
Anwar ascended the political ladder very swiftly. Before long, he was made education minister. During this time, he aggressively pursued the Islamisation of knowledge in Malaysia. When I was going to school at this point, the tudung (the Malay word for hijab) began to gain prominence amongst Malay women students. More than ever, the emphasis on the public academic curriculum was on Islam. It was a peculiar phenomenon, though. In public, the education minister talked about openness and democracy. In education institutions, however, the approach was far more dictatorial. And this was by people who were firmly in support of Anwar’s “ideals”.
Very soon, Anwar was made finance minister. Before long, he became Deputy Prime Minister by ousting Ghafar Baba, Mahathir’s deputy at the time. Many Malaysians, a lot of them urban Malay Muslims, rejoiced at Anwar’s ascension to the throne. But there were many of us who began to feel an as yet unfamiliar discomfort in our bellies. The clock was already ticking very loudly, counting down to the hour of midnight. But how can one hear the ticking of the clock when one has swallowed it all without question or objection?
Anwar was sentenced to two jail terms – six years for corruption, and nine years for sodomy – to be carried out consecutively. Hence, in theory, Anwar has to spend a total of fifteen years in jail. It is important to note that when he was sentenced, the judge decreed that his jail terms would only commence from the first day of sentencing. This was the cause of some public outcry, because prior to sentencing, Anwar had already been locked up for seven months.
Anwar lost his appeal on the corruption conviction, and is now in the process of appealing the sodomy conviction. This year, many Anwaristas began reminding people that Anwar should have been able to walk free on bail on the 14th of April, based on the completion of his first jail term. However, Anwar is still in jail, with his bail application hearing set for the 14th of July.
Why the 14th of July? Nobody can be quite sure. But two years ago, six Reformasi activists were arrested under the ISA. Most of them were members of the National Justice Party, Anwar’s opposition effort via his proxy, Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is also his wife. In Malaysia, the Home Ministry can detain a citizen under the ISA only up to a period of two years, after which the person is either charged in court, released unconditionally, or has his or her detention renewed. During previous administrations, the Home Ministry has thought nothing of arbitrarily extending detention orders upon expiry, hardly even bothering to charge people openly in court for their “crimes”. However, the Reformasi Six were all released a fortnight ago.
Nobody really knows why the Home Minister, who is also the current Deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, did not renew the detention orders. Could it be because of international pressure, chiefly from the parliaments of Denmark, Britain, the Netherlands and Japan? Could it be because Mahathir, via Badawi, wants to look good before he finally steps down? Is it because these activists are no longer threats to “national security”? One bit of interesting trivia here is that the Home Ministry has never renewed the two-year detention orders for any political prisoners arrested under the ISA during Mahathir’s administration.
Mahathir’s delegation of responsibility for the fate of Anwar to Badawi is also a reflection of the state of affairs in Malaysia – a political prisoner’s fate lies not in the hands of the judiciary, which according to all logic should be the ultimate body that decides on something like this, but the executive arm of government.
Many Malaysians are still in a bit of a daze about all this. When Dr. Mahathir announced his resignation last year, we felt that we were being bombarded with a few midnights too many. But now, he is more adamant than ever that he will step down in October and that his successor will be Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
In 1987, if you told any Malaysian that our next Prime Minister would be Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, they would have either exploded in laughter or run like crazy lest they be caught up in some politically triggered bloodbath.
During this year, Malaysia was going through an economic crisis – a phenomenon that many younger Malaysians have started to assume as a given in our country’s unfolding state of affairs. Mahathir’s leadership of UMNO was also severely challenged by Tengku Razaleigh. Among the people on Tengku Razaleigh’s side was the current Deputy Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Many people say that Mahathir would have lost the challenge if he did not command the unwavering support of none other than Anwar Ibrahim.
Mahathir may have eventually won the party battle, but his challengers were still gearing up for his downfall. During this moment of immense darkness for Mahathir, Malaysians were suddenly stunned with mass arrests of fellow citizens under the ISA. Not all of the politicians detained were from opposition parties – some were from the ruling coalition. Not all of the detainees were politicians – some were arts practitioners, educationists, religious leaders and women’s rights activists.
But the country was confused during this time. Whatever questions people may have had about these detentions were buried under the fear of racial riots. Why racial riots? Because somehow, somebody somewhere had started making the connections between the events of 1987 and the events of 1969, when the country was bathed in blood from “racial riots”. Strangely enough, until today nobody really knows what happened in 1969. And strangely enough, if you ask any Malaysian today about 1987, most won’t be able to recall anything about it. There could have very well been a midnight sun shining down on Kuala Lumpur in 1987. There’s a good chance nobody would have even noticed it.
Will 1998 succumb to the same fate as 1969 and 1987? I think it is haunting that I find it much more poignant and immediate to say “1998” than “the regional political and financial crisis”, or “the sacking of Anwar”.
Anyway, many people are now saying that Reformasi is exhaling its last breath. Anwar will be released and he will rejoin UMNO. The National Justice Party will be no more. Even the Reformasi Six are saying that Reformasi needs to be reinvented, implying that they, too, think it is becoming irrelevant to Malaysians.
But hang on. What happens if Anwar is released and rejoins UMNO? What kind of farewell present would that be from Mahathir to Badawi? Aren’t Badawi and Anwar enemies? What happens to the Islamic extremists, who have benefited so much from Anwar’s sacking and imprisonment that they are now bold enough to have come up with a “blueprint” for an “Islamic state”, which actually has the support of quite a few Malaysians? What happens to the true reformers, who from Day One were fighting for a just and democratic Malaysia?
And really, it is extremely difficult to dig up honest analyses on Malaysian history, let alone get the bare facts straight. Malaysian history, like any politically charged history, gets hammered very quickly to suit the whims of the actors involved.
With all that said, however, I think 1998 will not end up like 1987 or 1969. This is because, unlike previous upheavals in modern Malaysian history, 1998 ambushed all Malaysians with every possible bit of ugliness in this country that we could ever have been confronted with – lack of freedom of expression, no independence of the judiciary, no integrity of the media, Malay ethnic chauvinism, Islamic religious obscurantism, denial of sexual diversity and freedom of sexuality, corruption, cronyism, political despotism, unregulated capitalism, no participatory democracy. You name it; we were hit with it.
Thus, 1998 managed to politicize even someone like me. Someone with everything to gain by playing according to the rules. I am middle class, Malay, Muslim, male and I excelled in my studies. I do not gain anything by questioning the status quo. I could gain everything by supporting it.
But I have been forced to ask myself some difficult questions. True, I never counted myself as part of Reformasi with a capital “R”, and I never will. It is too politically expedient for me. And I’d feel wretchedly uncomfortable shouting pro-human rights slogans alongside an opposition party whose ultimate dream is to set up a state where they can sentence people to death for apostasy, cut their hands off for committing theft and stone them for committing adultery. But I cannot deny that I am now very much reform-minded. It was painful, the way I was wrenched from the national narrative that had shaped my consciousness. It was unbearable to finally realize that the events of 1998 were an effective rupturing of my country’s history and, hence, my own personal history.
But I also realized that it was not 1998 when the hour of midnight struck. Really, the hour of midnight had struck the moment my country was born. We’ve been stuck in midnight all these years. 1969, 1987, 1998 – these were just moments in history when the sky opened up wide enough for us to see that we were consumed by darkness. But the darkness has always been there. We’ve just been too afraid to bring ourselves to see it.
But this is what 1998 has done: it has made Malaysians like me long for daylight. Many more of us are afraid of the sunlight, like Holocaust survivors who, upon being set free and having the harsh light of sun beat down on them, slinked back into the familiarity of captivity and darkness. But I yearn for the light, and I am now starting to find other people who yearn for it, too. I have 1998 to thank for this.
The above article appeared in Muslim WakeUp of July 01, 2003