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Malaysia

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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.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 12 and 13. (“In any…motivated”; and “Barely…risky”)

Obama in Asia: The Elephant in the Room

By Gwynne Dyer

Poor old Tony Blair is condemned to spend the rest of his life trying to justify his decision to help George Bush invade Iraq. He was at it again recently, insisting that the threat of Islamist extremism is the great problem of the 21st century. Western countries, he said, must put aside their differences with Russia and China in order to “cooperate” in the fight against radical Islam.

President Barack Obama, however, is tending to his real priority in world affairs: deciding whether the US-China relationship will be one of cooperation or conflict. Not that that is the stated purpose of his current Asian tour. Officially he is discussing a free-trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with three countries that have already joined the negotiations (Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines) and one that probably soon will (South Korea).

It’s a very big deal. The twelve countries on the Pacific Rim that are currently in the negotiation – Canada, the United States, Mexico, Peru and Chile on the eastern side, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand on the western side – account for nearly 60% of global GDP and over a quarter of world trade. But there is an elephant in the room (or rather, not in the room): China.

China is  the second-largest economy in the world and trades extensively with almost every member of the Trans-Pacific  Partnership (TPP) – but it is not part of the negotiations, or at least not yet. If it is kept out permanently, many consequences will follow.

None of the twelve governments negotiating the deal has said that it wants to exclude China. The usual formula is to say that China would be welcome to join if it can meet the standards of financial transparency and equal access to domestic markets that are being accepted by the TPP members – but of course it can’t, unless the regime is willing to dismantle the controls on the economy that it still sees as essential to its survival.

Keeping China out of this planned free-trade area, the biggest in the world, is economically attractive to the current members, and especially to the United States and Japan: the TPP would give  US and Japanese companies preferential access to Asia’s markets. But the real motive driving the deal is strategic: they are all worried about what happens when China’s military strength matches its economic power.

The Chinese regime insists that it has no expansionist ambitions, but it has alienated most of its neighbours by pushing hard on its extensive claims to islands in the East China Sea (the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diayoyu Islands)  and to seabed rights in the South China Sea (where it has disputes with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines). They all want to nail down US support, including military backing, if those disputes flare into open conflict.

The US is willing to oblige. Even before leaving on his trip, President Obama publicly assured Japan that the US military commitment to defend Japan included the islands claimed by China. He will doubtless give his hosts in South-East Asia comparable assurances in private about American support in their seabed disputes with China. The TPP is not a military alliance, but it definitely has military implications.

That is not to say that a great-power military confrontation in Asia is imminent, let alone that China is really expansionist. What drives the process, as usual, is more likely to be the threat that each side sees in the power of the other.

Asked in a recent BBC interview about President Obama’s decision to shift US naval forces from an equal division between Atlantic and Pacific to a 60:40 ratio in favour of the Pacific, retired Major-General Xu Guangyu, former vice-president of the People’s Liberation Army Defense Institute, replied: “How would (the Americans) like it if we took 60 percent of our forces and sailed up and down in front of their doorstep?”

Then Xu added: “We want to achieve parity because we don’t want to be bullied. It will take us another 30 years.” That’s no more than anybody else wants, and it’s hardly imminent.

Former US Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley was expressing essentially the same sentiment when, commenting on Obama’s trip, he said that “Many traditional allies…value a strong US presence in the region to balance against an assertive China.”
In other words, it doesn’t take evil intentions to produce a tragedy. In any case, it’s not likely to happen soon. The point for the moment is that the strategic balance in Asia is what the US cares about most, not the Middle East or even Russia.

The United States still drops drones on the heads of various bearded fanatics in the greater Middle East, but they are just a nuisance, not a real strategic threat.

Washington has just sent 600 American troops (600!) to reassure allies in eastern NATO countries that are worried about Russian intentions, but it doesn’t really anticipate a new Cold War with Moscow, nor would it feel really threatened if that happened. Russia is not the old Soviet Union, and the US defence budget is ten times Russia’s.

The real strategic game is now in the Asia-Pacific region. Which doesn’t mean that it’s any less futile and dangerous than it was in the old days.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 11. (“None…survival”; “The US…implications”; and “Then…imminent”)

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.

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

 

 

In the Name of Allah

8 January 2010

In the Name of Allah

By Gwynne Dyer

In the late 80s, when I was in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a friend suggested that I drive out into the desert near Jubail to see the oldest extant Christian church in the world. And there it was, surrounded by a chain-link fence to keep casual visitors and foreign archaeologists out. Experts who saw the site before it was closed said that the church was built by Nestorian Christians, and was probably used from the 4th to the 9th century.

Its existence embarrassed the Saudi government, which prefers to believe that Arabia went straight from paganism to Islam. But it confirmed the assumption of most historians that Christianity was flourishing in the Arabian Peninsula in the centuries before the rise of Islam. So what did these Arabic-speaking Christians call God? Allah, of course.

I mention this because last week the Malaysian High Court struck down a three-year old ban on non-Muslims using the word Allah when they speak of God in the Malay language. The court’s decision was followed by firebomb attacks on three Christian churches in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday night, and on Friday protesters at mosques in Kuala Lumpur carried placards reading “Allah is only for us.”

Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the attacks on the churches, but he supports the ban on Christians using the word “Allah” in Malay and is appealing the High Court decision.

“We…have the right to use the word ‘Allah’,” said Rev. Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the Herald, the newspaper of the Catholic Church in Malaysia, whose use of the word in its Malay-language edition triggered the crisis. Parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang simply observed that “The term ‘Allah’ was used to refer to God by Arabic-speaking Christians before Arabic-speaking Muslims existed.”

Of course it was. Arabic-speaking Christians predate the rise of Islam by three hundred years, and what else were they going to call God? The word “Allah” is a contraction of the Arabic definite article al- and the noun ‘ilah, which means god. In parts of ancient Arabia it once referred to the creator-god (who was not the only god), but for a very long time it has meant the One God.

This Arabic word was imported into the Malay language by converts to Islam, which arrived in the region several centuries before Christianity. All ethnic Malays are considered to be Muslim under Malaysian law, but there are numerous Malay-speakers, especially in northern Borneo, who are Christian and not ethnically Malay. They also use the word Allah for God.

What’s the harm in that? Why are Malaysia’s Muslims so paranoid? The real paranoia, alas, is ethnic.

Malaysia is an ethnic time-bomb that has turned itself into a peaceful and prosperous country by a huge effort of will. The original population was mostly Malay, but under British rule huge numbers of Indian and Chinese immigrants were imported to work the mines and plantations. By independence, Malays were only 60 percent of the population, and much poorer than the more recent arrivals. They resented the past, the present, and the probable future.

After several bouts of savage anti-Chinese and anti-Indian rioting, the country arrived at its current, highly successful compromise. The Malays dominate politics, but the Chinese and the Indians thrive in trade and commerce – and most people understand that they are ultimately in the same boat, which is called Malaysia.

The state spends a lot of money to raise the living standards of the Malays, and gives them preference for university places and government jobs. They haven’t done badly out of this deal, but nevertheless they feel perpetually insecure. Since they are all Muslims, while few other Malaysians are, they also feel their religion is under threat. Some respond by being aggressively intolerant of minorities.

Not all Malays behave this way. Major Muslim organisations, including the Islamic political party, PAS, have agreed that the other “Abrahamic religions” – Christians and Jews – may call their God Allah in Malay. But it’s getting ugly, and it’s high time for the Malaysian government to stop playing along with the extremists.

It should take a lesson from the early Muslims of Arabia. Both the archaeological and the textual evidence suggest that most Arabs in northern Arabia and along the Gulf coast had already been Christian for several centuries when Islam first appeared in the 7th century. They were swiftly conquered by Muslim armies, but they were not forcibly converted.

As in all early Islamic empires, Christians had to pay higher taxes, but they were allowed to keep their property and practice their religion. It is highly improbable that they were forced to change the word they used for God. They did gradually convert to Islam, but the last Christian churches in the region probably survived into the early 9th century.

The Christians, Hindus, animists and others who make up 40 percent of Malaysia’s people pay higher taxes, in the sense that they subsidise the poorer Malay/Muslim majority. Few of them will ever convert to Islam, but they are not its enemy either. Malaysia has achieved a fragile but workable compromise that gives its people a good life. It should not endanger it so frivolously.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (“It should…9th century”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Note: I realise that this article may not be suitable for publication by papers in some Muslim countries, but I trust that it will not cause offence. If you need a reference on Christians in 4th-7th century Arabia, the best is a scholarly article by John A. Langfeld, “Recently Discovered Early Christian Monuments in Northeastern Arabia,” published in Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, 1994: 5: pp. 32-60. It is available online (Wiley InterScience), but you have to pay to view it.