Anwar Ibrahim’s choice of a University College London lecture hall for his speech this weekend on behalf of the Al Gore Foundation: “The Struggle for Justice and Democracy in Malaysia”, was hardly coincidental.
He was appealing to the young and to the future leaders, on a platform of reform and a clean government.
Anwar is an international politician. In fact, he has been often criticised for his ability to forge relationships across religious and racial divides.
At the packed hall on the night of Oct 29, he ably communicated with the varied London crowd. The audience was impressed at his knowledge and being able to quote from the Classics, the Quran, Thomas Jefferson and De Toqueville.
But the speaker drew a laugh when he self-deprecatingly pointed out that six years in prison “gives you plenty of time for reading”!
I myself was reminded of Winston Churchill, who gained his own intellectual education through reading during four years of interminable evenings, stuck out on military duty in the backwoods of 19th Century India. Tough times can make you or break you.
Anwar gave a wide-ranging and non-scripted speech. But his focus came from what he revealed to have been lengthy conversations earlier in the day with the newly-elected leader of Tunisia Hamadi Jebali.
Jebali’s moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, had just won the country’s post-Arab Spring election. Jebali is clearly a delightful role model for the man who wants to lead Malaysia. A Muslim who has received the support of the majority of his people by pledging tolerance and equality towards all, whatever their race or religion – all following a largely bloodless revolution.
The passion in Anwar’s speech came from his anger towards the constant accusations by those currently in power in Malaysia that he is betraying the majority, because he also wants to see justice for the minority.
The concept of rule by the majority, but respect and equal opportunities for the minority is, he reminded us, at the heart of justice and democracy, his subject of that evening. It is clearly also his ambition for a modern Malaysia:
“Yes, we are better than Zimbabwe and yes we are better than Burma”, he conceded “but I hope that in Malaysia we aspire to more than just that!”
It was a statement that might also have been appealing to De Toqueville’s own core analysis of progress in the matter of democracy, which the 18th century French political writer famously termed as “the Revolution of Rising Expectations”.
Malaysians want more
Malaysians are now expecting more than law and order and calm streets, Anwar suggested. They are demanding to be treated not as children or slaves, but as grown adults with the freedom that entails.
“Let me say what I want to say and feel free to go home and disagree” was his message. Let people have the freedom and dignity to choose what to believe.
It was a gamble. Has Malaysia reached that point in history? That intangible moment when genuine democracy starts to take hold, as opposed to the limited, pretend democracy that Anwar described exist in Malaysia today?
Anwar clearly hopes so and he was taking comfort in the developments in Muslim countries across the Middle East. The audience chortled as he pointed out that when Tunisia shook off their own dictator, the Egyptians next door had pronounced that they were a different system and it wouldn’t happen to them.
When Hosni Mubarak went, the Yemenis said they would not be affected. When Yemen went, the Lybians asserted that Muammar Gaddafi could never be prised from office. Now Gaddafi has gone, the Malaysians are insisting that matters are very different with Barisan Nasional!
Everyone must change
But Anwar did also seem to impart the lesson that will, determination and effort among ordinary folk, including those sitting in that hall, would be needed if change were to come.
Are too many Malaysians just too resigned and too indolent? It will be interesting to see, but Anwar made it plain that he has a clear and considered understanding of the fundamentals of democracy and justice, which would be needed to bring those institutions to Malaysia in fact and not just in name.
His own experiences with the judicial system and in opposition politics facing BN’s economic grasp over the country have clearly been educative. He urged the students before him not to be intimidated and controlled by corrupted institutions. In fact, he related the extraordinary lengths to which BN would abuse their power to attempt to sabotage his and other pro-democracy speaking tours.
In Indonesia, even in Melbourne, Australia, letters will go out to Malaysian students warning them that if they showed up at the speech, their grants and scholarships would be cancelled. What could be more symbolic of Malaysia’s fundamental lack of democracy?
Embassy retracted threat
In Michigan, US, it had also happened at one of his own speeches, Anwar told us. The Malaysian Embassy had sent out the same series of threatening letters to students. However, freedom is keenly guarded in such places. A strongly-worded letter from the university dean, reminding the embassy their action was illegal, produced a hasty retraction.
The students were told they could attend, after all, and for the first time Anwar found hundreds of young Malaysians attending his lecture!
There were also plenty of Malaysians in the audience at University College, but by now this writer was beginning to wonder how many of them were students and how many of them embassy staff, taking down names!
Anwar addressed the latter by saying they were welcome to be there, but if they behaved in an intimidating fashion, there would have to be further recourse to the British “bobbies”.
He explained that earlier in the day, police had been called to his hotel to move on Malaysian “goons”, who had been parked for several hours outside.
NEP only for rich Malays
Anwar outlined the causes behind this repression… the fantastic corruption that has grown up around a ruling clique who have held power for over half a century – one of the oldest regimes in the world.
He outlined the excesses and the hypocrisy. A regime that could arrest and try to cane a young girl for drinking a beer, while the son of one of its leading figures has somehow come by with billions to invest in a whole beer-producing industry in Indonesia!
He defended his desire to dismantle the New Economic Policy (NEP), for which BN has tried to criticise him by saying he no longer wanted to favour Malays. The current arrangement, he pointed out, only favours a very few Malays, not the majority!
“The New Economic Policy is designed to help the richest Malays. But the poorest in Malaysia are the Malays.
“They say Malaysia is stolen by the non-Malays, but I am saying it is stolen by the Malay leaders – RM52 billion last year taken by ministers and their family members.”
The former finance minister exhibited his keen continuing interest in the management of the economy. He had produced a surplus in his last budget, which has not been achieved since he was sacked and sent to prison.
He had written off loans from the World Bank, but BN has subsequently gone back cap in hand – an oil-rich country posing as a developing nation.
Anwar pointed out the sickening corruption of the Agricultural Fund – or Agricultural Rural Transfer Fund, as it has been re-named. It is meant to help poor farmers, but who got the first grant? The first beneficiary was a son of a minister who received RM250 million.
“It is a crime. It is corruption,” thundered Anwar.
But, although he has raised the matter countless times in the so-called Parliament, no BN representative or ministry has provided a response. Deafening silence. As with the case of the threats to students, this story symbolised the depth of the sham that Malaysia’s “democratic government” has become.
“The fund which is meant to help the poor Malays is stolen and squandered by the Malay leaders”, repeated Anwar.
Therefore, their attempts to accuse him of taking from the Malays and giving to the Chinese, because of his call for equal treatment for all, was doubly deceitful.
They privatised rice, he explained further. This gave a monopoly control to one other BN minister, who promptly sold it to Hong Kong businessmen for RM128 million a year.
That is money being made out of poor paddy farmers, 95% of whom are Malays!
It was an eloquent and deeply felt plea for reform and for the return of honest administration in a country which we all know now tops the world’s corruption leagues.
Campbell must explain
Malaysia is lucky to have an opposition leader with such an incisive understanding of the problems the country faces and what is needed to solve them. However, those who pretend to be democrats and have hired Western PR agents to help them pose as such, will not give up easily.
During the questions session, one journalist asked what Anwar thought of Alastair Campbell’s denials of the stories that he was part of a Tony Blair team hired to brush up Najib’s world image? Anwar replied that he would like to hear more than a denial. He would like to hear what Campbell’s opinions are on the regime in Malaysia.
What does he think of their human rights, election rigging, imprisonment without trial, corruption and compromised judiciary? Maybe we will hear something on Twitter?
Meanwhile, those British in the audience came away from this formidable lecture with a fuller understanding of just how pervasive the repression is, in a country that pretends to be part of the free world.
Malaysians, hopefully, will be left with a realisation that the only way to defeat such oppression is to stand up to it and refuse to be treated like children any longer.- Clare Rewcastle Brown