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Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Jamil Maidan Flores: Anwar’s Rebound



In October 1998, then-Foreign Minister Ali Alatas of Indonesia made a quick, unpublicized trip to Kuala Lumpur. His mission: to convey to Malaysia’s leaders the deep personal concern of then-Indonesian President Habibie at the beating that former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim had suffered in police custody. According to Alatas, Habibie was extremely worried because he knew of the frailty of Anwar’s health. 

A longtime and close friend of Alatas, then-Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, gave him firm assurance that no more physical harm would be inflicted on Anwar. 

Today, Anwar’s health is presumably much improved and his political fortunes are once more on the rise. 
Before his fall from grace in 1998, he was a heartbeat away from becoming prime minister as Mahathir Mohammad’s undisputed heir apparent. But in the face of the Asian financial crisis, as concurrent minister of finance, Anwar moved to dismantle what he considered to be Mahathir’s crony capitalism and extravagant showcase projects. Mahathir promptly fired him. The prime minister’s sympathizers charged Anwar with corruption and sodomy and secured a court verdict that would put him away for 15 years. 

Yet even as he served time behind bars, he was a force in Malaysian politics, his name a battle cry for the political opposition nominally led by his wife, Wan Aziza wan Ismail. 

The Malaysian High Court overturned the sodomy verdict in 2004, and because he had served the sentence for corruption, he was released from prison. In 2008, though still disqualified from running for office, he led the opposition to an election victory that for the first time deprived the United Malays National Organization-led ruling coalition of its two-thirds majority. Taking responsibility for the rout, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi stepped down in favor of Najib Razak. Several times Anwar tried but failed to cobble together a new majority in Parliament. 

About a month ago, to the surprise of Anwar himself, he was acquitted of a second sodomy charge that could have put him in jail for 20 years and banished him from politics forever. That opened the way for him to contest the national leadership with Najib in elections likely to be held in a few months instead of next year, when they are actually due. 

Najib is worried about the party polls of the UMNO later this year. He could lose party leadership as many of its leaders see his moderation as political weakness. Moreover, by next year the global economic crisis will have inflicted its contagion on the Malaysian economy. Bad for any ruling party. Hence the call for early elections. 

It will be a contest between two reformists with contrasting styles. Using a gradualist approach, Najib has increased transparency and accountability in government and liberalization in the economy. Anwar stands for sweeping reforms that would do away with Malay privileges denied Chinese and Indian Malaysians. He seeks immediate repeal of the hated Internal Security Act and a more robust fight against corruption. 

Anwar’s reform agenda is revealed in his lectures. Last week he gave a lecture before the Islamic Students Association (HMI) in Bandung, but no text of that lecture is available. I managed to get the text of his lecture in August last year at the University of the Philippines in Manila — on Jose Rizal, the martyred Philippine national hero, and Ninoy Aquino, whose murder on the tarmac of Manila International Airport in August 1983 began the end of the Marcos regime. Anwar is much admired in the Philippines as an authority on Rizal and his impact on Asian history. 

This lecture compared his imprisonment to that of Rizal and Ninoy and praised their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the good of their people. I had the impression that Anwar was bracing himself for his own supreme sacrifice. He was anticipating a guilty verdict in his sodomy trial. 

Had that happened, the events that followed could have paralleled Philippine events after Ninoy Aquino’s murder. With Anwar martyred by a long jail sentence, the opposition would unite behind his wife, who would then become prime minister — just as Ninoy’s widow, Cory Aquino, was elected president a couple of years after Ninoy’s martyrdom. 

But the Malaysian court was not aware of the script: it acquitted Anwar. Bereft of a unifying martyr, the Malaysian opposition, an assortment of mostly small parties, will find it difficult to campaign in concert. Anwar still has the political momentum but Najib has vast resources at his command. 

Which reformist will prevail? Soon enough, Malaysian voters will make their choice. 

Jamil Maidan Flores is a poet, fiction writer, playwright and essayist who has worked as a speechwriter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992.



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