Anwar's moment of truth or consequence
By Shawn W Crispin, Asia Time Online
Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim is headed either for the premiership or prison, depending on how highly anticipated political events play out in the weeks ahead. His opposition alliance made important gains at March general elections, breaking the ruling United Malay Nasional Organization (UMNO)-led coalition's two-thirds majority hold over parliament and wresting control over five of the federation's 13 states, including the country's main economic territories.
Anwar's ban from politics on a corruption conviction expired in April and since he has aggressively upped the tempo of the opposition alliance he nominally advises but de facto leads. He has boldly predicted his alliance will have secured enough parliamentary defections to topple Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's coalition government and form his own administration by September 16. Anwar's formal return to politics is a key precondition for those defections to commence and all eyes now are on the upcoming August 26 by-election at Permatang Pauh, where Anwar is contesting and widely expected to win a parliamentary seat recently vacated by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.
Against that script, the attorney general last week formally charged Anwar with sodomizing one of his former personal aides, charges he has characterized as a conspiracy and similar to the accusation he was convicted and incarcerated for in 1998 after falling out with then-prime minister Mahathir Mohammad. (Sodomy is a criminal offense punishable by 20 years in prison in mainly Muslim Malaysia.) Anwar contends his opposition alliance aims to promote more democracy and racial equality, though a hard-line Islamic party included in his coalition raises critical questions about that assertion. There are also questions emerging about his willingness to accept establishment UMNO politicians into his supposedly pro-reform camp.
Incumbent Abdullah was elected in a 2004 landslide on a similar pro-democracy, pro-reform platform, but was handed a strong democratic rebuke at this year's polls due to widespread perceptions he failed to live up to those reform promises. In a wide-ranging interview with Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor Shawn W Crispin, Anwar explains why his democratic drive to power is different.
Asia Times Online: Many see the political situation in Malaysia now as strikingly similar to the events in 1998 that ultimately led to your demise and incarceration. How is the situation different this time?
Anwar Ibrahim: It is generally similar, but the political environment allows for more space now, I would acknowledge that. In 1998 it was clearly more authoritarian and the measures crude and very dictatorial. But on the issues of governance, economic management and corruption, it is worse. I'm talking about internal institutions, how they are being used to benefit those in power and make others vulnerable against the might of the ruling clique.
ATol: The latest sodomy charges brought against you are widely seen as politically motivated. What happens next if you are convicted and sentenced again?
Anwar: Well, if sanity prevails, and there is the barest minimum respect for the rule of law, no one would expect me to be charged - but I have been charged. It is unlike in 1998-99, when it all came as a surprise and no one had the courage to say anything beyond that. As you must have seen the medical report [of the alleged sodomy victim] is already in the public domain. Which means the whole basis of the charge is now flawed and could only be done under the instructions of the ruling elite and the prime minister in particular. I believe both the prime minister and his son-in-law, who we know for a fact now, is deeply involved in this whole episode.
Now even the second medical report by the panel at the general hospital also affirms the fact, ruling out any possibility of assault or sodomy, whether forced or consensual. So it's not only a general perception the charges are political, but is conclusive and clearly an attempt to smear my personality and to try to derail our reform agenda towards democracy and my candidacy in the upcoming by-election.
ATol: As those allegations come unraveled in the public domain, some now see worrying parallels to the run-up of the 1969 race riots, when opposition assertiveness escalated into street violence which saw ethnic Chinese targeted and killed by ethnic Malays. What is the risk that UMNO resorts to stoking ethnic passions to foment social unrest and uses that as pretext to crack down on your movement?
Anwar: The ruling UMNO has launched strong racist attacks and propaganda, accusing me initially of being pro-American and now as pro-Malaysian Chinese and a betrayer to the Muslim and Malay cause, but they have not succeeded. At the March 8 elections they tried to do that, but the transformation, the political change in the five states [that voted for the opposition] has gone on very smoothly and we have survived almost five months now. Looking back to the tragic experience of the race riots of 1969, you had the formation of a ruling government that was essentially Malay versus a predominantly Chinese or non-Malay opposition. Now that you have a very strong multi-racial opposition, they cannot use the race card.
ATol: What is the risk the government attempts to bait your supporters into some sort of street melee which allows them to crack down on the pretense your movement has undermined racial harmony and social stability?
Anwar: Yes, you can see the political leadership's increased rhetoric of Malay survival and Malay supremacy. And in the last few days the prime minister made the clearly irresponsible remark that the slowdown or downturn in the economy is due to Anwar. This is the main news in all the government-controlled media, that Anwar is responsible for the economic downturn. This, of course, can be played up continuously and therefore you are a threat to stability and the national economy, giving them the option to use draconian measures against you, including the Internal Security Act (which allows for detention without trial.)
ATol: You fear the situation is heading in that direction?
Anwar: I don't fear, but I feel the public must be alerted.
ATol: How confident are you in the cohesiveness of your multi-racial opposition alliance? There were recent reports that the Islamic PAS party, a member of your coalition, was in talks about joining an alliance with UMNO.
Anwar: We will continue to face teething problems, not unlike the government coalition where it is all subdued and not open to the media. In our case, we all practice democracy and our discourse is publicized in the media. I don't deny the fact that we will have to deal with this though. But if you look at the five states we now rule, we've hardly had any real problems. Secondly, among the leadership - you know most of the meetings are coordinated by me personally - we have had regular meetings and resolved most of these issues, even the most contentious issues about an Islamic state, apostasy and others.
ATol: How certain are you that you have the numbers to form a new government by September 16. You've made the claim, but how firm are the guarantees you have received from potential defectors?
Anwar: I first need to work on the first hurdle of winning the by-election. We are still dealing with a system questioning the eligibility of my candidacy, with questions over the conduct of the election commission, the use of the security apparatus. Particularly you notice that the inspector general of the police is personally involved [in managing the by-election], even though he has a personal vendetta against me. So we don't want to underestimate any of these forces. Anyway, we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars [that] will be thrown into that small constituency. Many have made as a precondition of any defection of MPs to our side that I have to be in parliament. I am optimistic that they will keep their word and once I enter parliament you will see some change. So right now we are still very much on track.
ATol: What qualifications do you require of defectors and isn't there a risk with an avalanche of defections that your supposedly reform-minded government will actually be full of establishment UMNO politicians?
Anwar: We take a very open position. One, they have to agree on the reform agenda of freedom and democracy, our new economic agenda, an independent judiciary, a free media. Second, we welcome all except those clearly involved in major corruption cases or abuse of power which would make it rather untenable for us to defend that they subscribe to these clear policies.
ATol: Before your incarceration you were widely seen as one of Asia's rising political stars and your political rehabilitation has now taken nearly a decade. Are yours, as some critics allege, the politics of revenge or the politics of genuine reform?
Anwar: What else could they say? I've said since 2004, "malice towards none" - this is [Abraham] Lincoln. I think we have to move on. It is almost impossible to pursue an agenda for change if we are stuck in the past. This does not mean that the billions that are gone must not be returned. But at the personal level, even those who assaulted me to near death, I have forgiven them and this has been made public. Unless they kick me again, then that's something else.
Even against Mahathir - he goes on lamenting about the issues and it all seems endless. Although his attacks against Abdullah Badawi are more vicious, he said in the event I take over as prime minister he would prefer to leave the country because I am not only close to America, but because I protect the Hindus and the Christians and whatever. His testament helps me to a degree, as people see me as fair to the Muslim cause, Christians and Hindus.
ATol: On Abdullah, do you see him as weak and does Malaysia need a strong leader to manage the transition to more democracy?
Anwar: Not a strong leader in the sense that you need to be authoritarian, but you must have a clear vision and policies. Obviously, you must be prepared to shift when necessary. Abdullah is clearly incompetent and corruption is more endemic under him. Nothing has happened. Look at the royal commission on the judiciary: no further investigations; the case is closed. The same tainted corrupt judges are still there. Look at the police force - I would say we used to be proud of the judiciary and police at one time, but look at them now. Now the top brass is just like a stooge for politicians and those in political office and not respected for their professionalism.
Look at the state of the economy - just compare it to the 1990s. The 1990s were not the ideal, although I was part of it, but certainly if you compare the 90s to now you have neither the policies nor direction. The management of the economy is haphazard. They announce a policy today, withdraw it the following day ... Not only do they lack concern for the poor, but also for the direction of the economy.
ATol: When Mahathir first rose to power in 1981, his first big bang policy was the promulgation of a nationalistic "buy British last" campaign. Assuming you rise to power next month, as you have predicted, what will be your first big bang policy?
Anwar: I have made it very clear that the economy must be corrected. Which means we must do away immediately with cronyism, procurement and contract policies that favor sons and son-in-laws and family members. That's why you find [the prime minister's] son-in-law has launched a very vicious personal campaign against us. With a clear policy the Malays, Chinese and Indians within the country will have more confidence in the system. And with this in place I'm very optimistic we will be able to attract back foreign direct investments back into Malaysia.
ATol: As a former finance minister, you once had access to the national accounts. Do you think there is a pressing need for more transparency over how state-owned oil giant Petronas and the national Employees Provident Fund (EPF) are run?
Anwar: Yes. I would say the general management of Petronas is satisfactory. But they are being directed how to disburse funds and priorities are made under political instructions. So it therefore has to be held accountable to parliament. Petronas is a national company and you can't have a national company beholden to only one man, the prime minister. It breeds suspicion. So with the EPA; huge funds we are talking about. It must be very professionally managed. You can't use the EPA funds to prop up markets of your choice, or companies in your own stable, or invest according to strategies decided by the prime minister or his Cabinet.
ATol: So you would implement more transparency over both of these state institutions which many suspect are off-balance-sheet sources of government patronage? Anwar: Yes, it has to be a very professional team. It has to be very transparent.
ATol: Mahathir often used "we-versus-them", anti-Western rhetoric for domestic political purposes, but you on the other hand are seen as a good friend of the West. Is that a liability in the current political environment?
Anwar: We have strong views against the US's foreign policy, but it is still a very important trading partner. It makes no sense to be hypocritical to deny the importance of the United States. Look at China - they take strong foreign policy decisions, but they maintain very strong bilateral relations through trade and investments. Similarly, Malaysia must be more realistic in its approach. I have very strong views on Iraq. I believe the US must withdraw all its forces and be more fair and just in dealing with victims and the conflict. But it does not mean we must treat the United States as an enemy.
Do you want to engage with the United States administration? The answer is yes. I may not agree with their policies, but [engagement] is not only morally defensible, but it would help your own country, economy and credibility. There is always a tendency for dictators and authoritarian leaders to use the US as a pretext or bogey to cover the stench in their own backyard. Why is the economy not developing - because of the United States. Why is the corruption in the billions, why are you not managing your economy well, why is your judiciary not independent, why is your media not free - blame the United States. That's not defensible.
ATol: What about the US's counterterrorism polices in Southeast Asia and the Bush government's dangling of free trade agreements in exchange for intelligence cooperation in that sometimes abusive campaign?
Anwar: I have some reservations about that because the obsession with the war on terror could cloud the rational basis of our deliberations. I would not tolerate violence or perpetrators of violence or terror. But I don't see the policy as legitimate or effective for now. It's proven: look at South Thailand and South Philippines. I think [the US] should assist, yes. They should engage, I agree. But they should allow these countries in the region to evolve an effective mechanism for dealing and not as a war on terror. These are issues of poverty, marginalization, minority rights, dispossession. There are many issues, not just prescriptions from Washington that are particular to all.
I'm not soft on terrorism, that's not true at all. I believe in some very strong legislation. But I'm a democrat and I cannot agree with any legislation that calls for suspension of civil liberties or the writ of habeas corpus. To me these are contrary to the very spirit of the constitution and the US's bill of rights - though Bush has his own bill of rights.
ATol: Prime Minister Abdullah has said political ferment is weighing against the economy as well as foreign and local confidence. What message would you send to the foreign investment community about your movement and what change could they expect if you come to power?
Anwar: I made my position quite clear. We need to shift from the obsolete New Economic Policy [which favors majority Malays over minority Chinese and Indians] to a more vibrant, competitive Malaysian economic agenda. That means a market economy but tempered with a strong dosage of definitive justice.
ATol: That will require substantial dismantling because Malaysia has very much been a state-led economy throughout its recent development.
Anwar: Yes, but it has to be done very cautiously, in a sense that it shouldn't be destructive. It's economic policy or economic prescription with a conscience, to cite [economist Paul] Krugman. It's hard to be fair with a policy that protects cronies and that allows for endemic corruption. If in the process in a multi-racial society you find groups marginalized or the indigenous population feels insecure, they can be propped up through measures such as affirmative action. But it must be transparent and based on needs, not based on family connections. I think this is important for assuring [foreign investors].
Why do foreign companies, in regard to issues of litigation and dispute settlement, chose Hong Kong or Singapore and not Malaysian courts? We lose hundreds of millions of ringgit annually because of this. Can we do anything about it? Yes, by bringing back integrity in the judicial process.
ATol: To establish this more rule-of-law based system would likely require prosecutions for ill-gotten gains and corruption in the past. How backward looking would an Anwar-led administration be?
Anwar: We would have to be very cautious at this stage. It would require so many resources and energy. To give a lesson learned, we would probably concentrate on a few select cases that involved billions of public funds.
ATol: So no need for a truth and reconciliation sort of commission?
Anwar: Some do propose that. Of course ours were nowhere near the atrocities seen under [South African] apartheid, but there were atrocities and abuse nonetheless. Frankly, I'm more concerned with what to do, what to change to evolve Malaysia into a greater country and more vibrant economy.
ATol: Mahathir had his vision for Malaysia to reach developed country status by 2020. What is your vision?
Anwar: I'm not so ambitious. There was a joke when I was younger while debating among my socialist friends whether you distribute wealth or distribute poverty. I just want to make sure Malaysia cherishes its freedom, has a vibrant democracy and economy, and is a country that brings all races together to feel the benefit of the vast resources the country can offer.
source : Asia Time Online