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Anwar Ibrahim

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Malaysia: A Second Chance

Mahathir Mohamad was always a curious character. He was prime minister of Malaysia for 22 years, and although he did not enrich himself many of his cronies did very well from corrupt practices that he did little to curb.

He was a ruthless authoritarian who had his own deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, jailed on a trumped-up charge of sodomy when Anwar called for economic and political reforms in 1998. But he preserved Malaysia’s basic democratic institutions when ethnic resentments threatened to overwhelm them, and he left the country in good shape economically when he retired at the age of 75 in 2001.

It’s unlikely that he ever imagined he would be returning to power at the age of 92.

Like Mahathir, his successors in office came from the United Malays National Organisation, a party claiming to represent the Malay half of the population that has dominated every ruling coalition since 1957. He criticised them from time to time, but he remained a loyal member of UMNO until the flagrant corruption of the last prime minister, Najib Razak, drove him to quit the party in 2016.

Najib’s thievery was big and brazen. $4.5 billion disappeared from a state investment vehicle called 1 Malaysian Development Berhad (1MDB) on his watch, and $700 million of it ended up in his bank account. (He said that it was a gift from a friend in the Middle East.) Many other people in his government also got large sums of money, but only Najib bought a hundred-metre yacht complete with helicopter pad and movie theatre.

The theft began shortly after Najib won the 2008 election, and by the 2013 election so many Malaysians were aware that something was seriously wrong that the opposition coalition, led by Anwar Ibrahim (who had been released from jail in 2004), got a majority of the votes. It didn’t win the election, however, because Malaysia’s first-past-the-post election rules gave Najib’s coalition more seats.

By now the US Department of Justice and the FBI were going after $1.7 billion of 1MBD money that had been spent or hidden in the United States – “The Malaysian people were defrauded on an enormous scale,” said Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe – but Najib just carried on as before.

When Anwar Ibrahim’s support continued to grow, Najib had him arrested, tried on another sodomy charge, and jailed for five years in 2015. The following year Mahathir Mohamad quit the ruling party because he was “embarrassed” by the corruption, and popular protests began in the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Najib didn’t even blink.

Last year Najib dismissed his own deputy and the attorney-general for making critical comments about the scandal, and in January the new attorney-general he appointed declared him free of any guilt over the affair. That was when Mahathir Mohamad’s patience ran out, and he declared that he would lead the opposition coalition against Najib in the 2018 election.

He promised that he would immediately get a royal pardon for Anwar Ibrahim if he won, and would hand over the government to Anwar within two years. Although nobody quite trusted him, enough voted for him anyway, and the Malay-dominated coalition led by Najib lost power for the first time in the country’s history.

Mahathir has already sprung Anwar from prison, and the American, Swiss and Singapore authorities are all eager to help him track down where the stolen money went. He even thinks he can recover most of it. And Najib Razak has been ordered not to leave the country pending further investigations into his fortune.

A happy ending to the tale, but there is one more service Mahathir could do for his country, and he is the only person who can do it. Only he has the prestige, and now also the power, to end the special legal position enjoyed by his fellow Malays.

Malays are, on average, more rural, less well educated and poorer than the other half of the country’s population (Chinese, Indian and indigenous people). In an attempt to improve their lot and win their votes, successive Malay-led governments have granted them large educational and commercial privileges.

Perhaps special access for Malays to Malaysia’s crowded universities should remain, although it is irksome to better-qualified students of other groups who are frozen out. But the rule that allows only Malay-led companies to bid on most government contracts is holding the entire economy back and has the main source of corruption for the past six decades. Mahathir could and should kill it.

The four-party coalition he leads includes many Malays but is not dominated by them. At 92, he has no future political ambitions and can afford to annoy the entrenched clan of Malay ‘businessmen’ who live off padded government contracts.

If he acts now, he would give the country a second chance to become what it could be: a prosperous, spectacularly multi-cultural Asian version of Switzerland (without the mountains, of course).
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 15. (“By now…before”; and “The four…contracts”)

Malaysia Without Anwar

Does democracy in Malaysia really depend on Anwar Ibrahim? If it does, Malaysia’s 30 million people are in trouble. Anwar is back in jail: at least five years’ imprisonment, and another five years’ ban from political activity after that. He says he doesn’t care: “Whether it’s five years or ten it doesn’t matter to me anymore. They can give me twenty years. I don’t give a damn.”

But of course he cares. By the time he’s free to resume his role as opposition leader, he’ll be at least 77. The People’s Alliance, the three-party opposition coalition that he created, can’t afford to wait ten years for him to be free. The real question is whether they can stay together without him as leader.

Malaysia is formally a democracy, but the same coalition of parties, the National Front, has won every election since 1957. In the 2008 and 2013 elections, however, Anwar’s coalition began to cut seriously into the National Front vote. Indeed, in 2013 the People’s Alliance actually got a majority of the votes cast, although the ruling coalition still won more seats in parliament.

But last Monday the Federal Court ruled that Anwar was guilty on a charge of sodomy (which is illegal in this Muslim-majority country) and sent him to jail. He had previously been acquitted of the charge, and many people in Malaysia suspect that the prosecutor appealed the case to move it up into the superior courts, which are more open to political influence than the lower courts. In other words, they’re getting him out of the way.

The first time Anwar was charged with sodomy was in 1998, less than a month after he was fired as deputy prime minister. He had risen to the country’s second highest political post with startling speed thanks to the support of long-ruling prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, but then he fell out with Mahathir (according to his own account) because of the latter’s lavish use of public funds to bail out the failing businesses of his children and cronies.

In any case, it was certainly in the ruling party’s interest to silence him. No need to kill him, though; jail would keep him just as quiet. Many Malaysians believed from the start that the sodomy charge was politically motivated.

Anwar was convicted (on extremely contradictory evidence), and sentenced to nine years in prison. But he was released in only five years, after the Court of Appeal overturned his conviction in 2004 – and immediately began trying to unite the opposition parties and create a coalition capable of challenging the National Front government that he had once served.

The People’s Alliance was successful enough in the 2008 election to frighten the government, and by the strangest coincidence a second charge of sodomy was brought against Anwar only a couple of months later. Once again the “evidence” was flimsy and contradictory, and on this occasion the man who claimed to have been “seduced” had actually met with Prime Minister Najib Razak (of the National Front) two days before he laid the charges.
The second sodomy case lasted four years, but Anwar was acquitted in 2012 on the grounds (as the judge said) that “The court is always reluctant to convict on sexual offences without corroborative evidence.” But the prosecutor immediately appealed the verdict, and last Monday Anwar was found guilty again.

The Federal Court judge said that the evidence against him was “overwhelming”, although it was exactly the same evidence that the lower court judge had dismissed as tainted and unreliable. Anwar is back in jail, and everybody in Malaysia is wondering what this will do to the hitherto unstoppable rise of the People’s Alliance.

The People’s Alliance is a curious coalition of two secular parties that want to end the system that makes invidious distinctions between citizens who belong to different ethnic and religious groups, and an Islamist party that wants to create an “Islamic state” in a country where only 60 percent of the population is Muslim. Anwar managed to hold these parties together, but the government clearly believes that without him they will fall apart.

Barely half of the people in Malaysia are actually Malays. Most of the rest are descended from Chinese and Indian immigrants who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the non-Malay population is doing much better economically than the original population. Most of the non-Malays are also non–Muslim, so the Malay population feels both exploited and threatened.

Ever since the horrendous race riots in 1969, therefore, the political system has been skewed to give Malays special advantages in education, government jobs, and various other areas. That naturally creates other resentments and other problems, and the People’s Alliance (or at least most of it) wants to end those special privileges. But doing that would be both tricky and risky.

If the People’s Alliance does not hold together without Anwar Ibrahim, all chance of ending the National Front’s seemingly perpetual rule will be lost. With it would be lost all hope of moving this complex country beyond the ethnic and sectarian divisions that have allowed the National Front to rack up thirteen consecutive election victories.

Nevertheless, that may be what happens. In the real world, cunning and ruthlessness often beat idealism and enthusiasm.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 12 and 13. (“In any…motivated”; and “Barely…risky”)

Malaysia: Sodomy and Democracy

12 January 2012

Malaysia: Sodomy and Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

Anwar Ibrahim is an unusual man in two respects. One is that the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia is probably the only senior politician in the world to have been charged with sodomy (which is a crime in Malaysia). Not only that: he was charged with sodomy twice, in trials ten years apart – and the charges were dismissed both times. The last time was just last weekend (9 January).

The other unusual thing about Anwar is that he has managed to build a real opposition alliance in Malaysia, which may well end the ruling party’s half-century grip on power in the forthcoming elections. As you might expect, these two facts are not entirely unrelated.

The reason that the National Front coalition has ruled Malaysia ever since independence in 1957, even though Malaysia is a democracy where you would expect an occasional change of government, is fear. Many Malaysians of all ethnic groups fear that the National Front is the only thing that keeps the lid on the bubbling pot of ethnic resentments.

For many centuries the dominant ethnic group in the country was the Malays, but under British rule a huge wave of immigration from China and the Indian sub-continent reduced the Malays to only 60 percent of the population. Almost all of the Malays were Muslim; few of the others were. But the bigger problem was that the Malays ended up much poorer than the newcomers.

In 1969 there were bloody riots in Kuala Lumpur that killed at least hundreds of people, and perhaps as many as 2,000.

The country was already growing fast economically (it has averaged 6.5 percent annually for the past fifty years), and all the ethnic elites were terrified that more violence would kill the goose that was laying the golden eggs. So they made new rules that would placate the angry Malay majority by giving them priority in employment, education, business, and access to cheap housing and assisted savings.

Those rules are still in effect, and the National Front, Malay-dominated but embodying leading members of all communities, won eight successive elections because its “New Economic Policy” (which was really about race) was seen as the only formula for domestic peace. However, time passes and circumstances change.

Malaysia is now a middle-income country where differences in income and education between the various ethnic groups have narrowed considerably. The National Front, after so long in power, has spawned a multitude of corruption scandals. And then along comes a Muslim, part-Malay politician who threatens the status quo.

Anwar Ibrahim began as a student leader demanding an even more privileged place for Malays and Muslims in Malaysia, but he has travelled a long way since then. Mahathir Mohamad, the autocratic prime minister who ruled from 1981 to 2003, picked him as a potential successor and rapidly promoted him to deputy prime minister, but then in the late 1990s they fell out.

Their quarrels were over issues like Mahathir’s toleration of corruption, but the basic problem was that Mahathir did not tolerate dissent. Anwar was dismissed as deputy prime minister in 1998, and immediately afterwards he was charged with corruption and sodomy. The aim was not only to jail him but to discredit him in the eyes of pious voters.

Anwar was jailed in 1999, but his sodomy conviction (based on highly implausible evidence) was overturned by Malaysia’s Federal Court in 2004. Having served five years on the corruption charge, he returned to politics, but now as the leader of the People’s Alliance, an improbable coalition of Islamic, Malay nationalist and ethnic Chinese parties. And in the 2008 election, the People’s Alliance won one-third of the seats in parliament.

So Anwar was immediately charged with sodomy again. Even fewer people believed it this time, and a week ago, quite contrary to expectations, a court threw the charges out. “To be honest I was a little surprised,” Anwar said afterwards. And now that he has emerged from that shadow, he stands a good chance of winning the election that must be held this year or next.

Thirty percent of the voters are undecided, and at least half the seats in the country are up for grabs. If the People’s Alliance wins, it will be because Malaysians of all ethnic groups believe that the “New Economic Policy” (which could be called the “New Ethnic Policy”) is an outdated relic that facilitates corruption, and prefer a government that treats all Malaysians the same regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

Then Anwar and everybody else will find out whether the country has really outgrown its ethnic obsessions.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8 (“Malaysia…quo”).



Malaysia: Deja Vu All Over Again

30 June 2008

Malaysia: Deja Vu All Over Again

By Gwynne Dyer

Reading the first reports about the accusations against Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, I had to check the date at the top of the page. Has there been a time-slip? Is this file ten years old? For Anwar to be accused of sodomy again, ten years after he last challenged the position of Malaysia’s prime minister and ended up in jail for sodomy (a crime in Malaysia), stretches the notion of coincidence to the breaking point.

Ten years ago the prime minister was Mahathir Mohamad, the long-ruling autocratic leader who had made Anwar his deputy prime minister. The two men fell out over economic policy and Anwar’s too-obvious ambition, so he was charged with corruption — and, for good measure, with sodomy. His credibility had to be destroyed, and so a former employee was persuaded to lay a complaint against him.

Anwar is a married man with six children. That does not mean that he could not be guilty of homosexual rape, but there were many questionable elements of the case, including the fact that he was beaten almost to death by the national chief of police in person after he was arrested. Nevertheless, Anwar was convicted and sent to prison. His political career seemed over.

Mahathir finally retired at the age of 78 in 2003, and the courts overturned Anwar’s conviction for sodomy the following year. He was freed from jail, but because the corruption conviction was not also quashed, he was still banned from running for office for five more years. The opposition coalition had come to see him as a leader, however, and his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, became the head of the opposition in parliament.

Then, early this year, Malaysian politics went into overdrive. In the March election, the ruling National Front lost the two-thirds majority in the national parliament that it had held for the past forty years, emerging with a narrow majority that could easily crumble if only a couple of dozen of its members defect to the opposition. As they well might, given the way Malaysian politics is played.

Both the ruling National Front and the opposition alliance led by Anwar are coalitions of parties representing Malaysia’s three main ethnic groups, Malays, Chinese and Indians. To some extent they are just the “ins” and the “outs” — many leading members of the opposition coalition, like Anwar himself, once belonged to the National Front, but were disappointed in their ambitions — but some of the opposition parties also want to overthrow Malaysia’s entire ethnic settlement.

The dominant population in most of what is now Malaysia is the Malays, a seafaring people who converted to Islam in the 15th century. Under British rule, however, huge numbers of Chinese and Indian workers were imported — and their descendants now account for 40 percent of the country’s 26 million people.

The immigrants quickly came to dominate the economy, while the Malay majority remained mostly rural, less well educated, and much poorer. Malay resentment erupted into bloody race riots that almost tore the new country apart in 1969 — and so the New Economic Policy of 1970 gave preference to Malays for government jobs and contracts, university places, and business licenses.

Malaysia has prospered greatly since then — but the National Front that was created to preserve this deal was always in power, and the country was not really a full democracy. Much time has passed, however, and last March’s election showed how much has changed. The new state government in Penang cancelled the Malay preference rule as soon as it took power last March, and in Kuala Lumpur last month Anwar Ibrahim claimed that thirty National Front members of parliament were ready to defect to his coalition, which would give the opposition a majority in the national parliament.

Moreover, the legal ban on Anwar’s participation in public life expired in April, and he was about to seek a parliamentary seat in a by-election. He might have been prime minister by September. It would have been a revolution in Malaysian politics.

Then suddenly last week, a 23-year-old man who volunteered to work for the opposition during the election earlier this year, and then became an assistant to Anwar, accused him of sodomy. Anwar immediately took refuge in the Turkish embassy, fearing that the next step would be assassination.

Anwar left the embassy again after getting a promise from Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi that he would not be harmed, but he could be arrested at any time. The National Front government, even if it did not set the whole thing up, certainly plans to let it play out. When Badawi was asked what he thought about Anwar’s denials, he said it “was common for an accused person” to claim he was innocent.

This is a very dangerous game. The blood and fire of 1969 seem far away from the prosperity of modern Malaysia, but it was the pro-Malay preferences of the 1970 deal that made it stable. Now that deal has to be reshaped into something less unfair to the minorities. Malaysia can do it the easy way, or the hard way. It may choose the hard way.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Both…settlement”; and “Moreover…politics”)