Tuesday September 14, 2004

The winds of change in Malaysia

By Maxine Hon

Six years ago this month, Malaysia was plunged into its greatest political and social upheaval since the riots of the late 1960s. Now, that saga's closing chapter has apparently been written.
Whether by intent or serendipity, Malaysian authorities released from prison former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim exactly six years to the day he was sacked from the Cabinet, giving an almost poetic end to one of the most engrossing dramas in recent Malaysian history.
And what a drama it has been. At the height of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, Malaysia found itself in the midst of a political crisis somewhat similar to the one taking place then in neighboring Indonesia. Indeed, the events unfolding in Indonesia leading to the downfall of Soeharto were the main inspiration for the Malaysian reformasi movement.
But the course of history then diverged widely in the two countries. Instead of biting the dust, Malaysia's strongman Mahathir went on to crush his opponents, put them in jail and lead the country for another five years -- all against the background of conspiracy theories, sodomy trials, DNA tests on mattresses, police-inflicted black eyes and other shenanigans that made Malaysians take to the streets in unprecedented protests and also earned the country instant notoriety around the world.
Yet in less than a week, Anwar's sodomy conviction has been overturned and judges are even now considering his appeal against his conviction for corruption. Should they also overturn that conviction, nothing will stand in the way of Anwar's return to politics.
Will he or will he not go back to politics -- that is the inevitable hot topic of the moment. But really, the more important question may be, what does this last week mean for Malaysia?
If there is one thing the recent events have proved, it is that Malaysia is definitely changing -- and it would seem for the better. The attention may currently be focused on Anwar, but when the dust settles it will reveal a Malaysia that is evolving in very interesting directions.
Most of this new momentum for change must be credited to incumbent Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. Many observers had initially written off the soft-spoken and gentlemanly Pak Lah as "weak" or merely a puppet of Mahathir. But in the year since he took over from the longest-serving leader in Southeast Asia, Pak Lah has asserted himself quietly, but confidently, and has shown that he is more than capable of living up to the task. In this, he has been helped by a strong mandate, buoyed by a landslide victory in the general elections in March and an easy win in a recent by-election in opposition heartland.
Pak Lah campaigned on a promise to root out corruption, and while there have been complaints that this promise has yet to be fully fulfilled, there has also been some nascent evidence of reform. Without shouting out slogans against Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism from the tops of mosques and the streets of KL, the new administration has moved to tackle corruption in some very tangible ways, including trying for corruption a high-profile businessman who had remained untouchable previously.
The release of Anwar Ibrahim will serve to ring the changes even more firmly and remind people that Pak Lah's style of government is very different from the previous administration: Notwithstanding his great vision for Malaysia and his ability to pull off numerous hat tricks in the face of intense criticism and derision, there can be no doubt that Mahathir was an authoritarian figure who had no qualms about emasculating the judiciary and ruthlessly quashing the inconvenient opposition.
What with going after the big cronies of the old days, allowing the judiciary to once again function independently of the government, and releasing the "public enemy number one" of the last administration, Pak Lah is now effectively distancing himself from that legacy.
It appears that Pak Lah's arrival on the scene will help correct some of the excesses and imbalances of the past and even make some reformist headway into the future. A "kinder, gentler Malaysia" may be in the making. In pushing such an agenda, Pak Lah may well rob Anwar of his most valuable political ammunition -- that of being able to cast himself in the role as the only reformist hope for Malaysia.
As we have seen in the last few days, Anwar is still able to draw out thousands of well-wishers and supporters and command international media attention. But whether this goodwill automatically translates into votes at the ballot boxes remains to be seen -- his own party has not done particularly well in the last few years. If the government continues on its current course of gradual but tangible change, this will probably go down very well with Malaysia's largely middle-class population.
With the economy booming once again, people are even more unlikely to want to rock the boat. Pak Lah may thus have found a winning formula here -- after all, Malaysia has never really shown much penchant for violent change and upheaval.
Amidst the new political realities in Malaysia, Anwar may well have to go back to the drawing board e fits in, if he is seriously contemplating a return to the political fray.

The writer is a Malaysian freelance journalist.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"