15 Years of Solitude for Anwar…and for Malaysia?

An injustice is hard to tolerate in any civilised society

by Maznah Mohamad

nwar and azizah Anwar's incarceration may soon be forgotten by the majority of Malaysians who will see the whole episode as the mere result of a political feud that has little consequence on their daily lives.

But others will echo Param Cumaraswamy, UN Rapporteur who has described it as a " judicial injustice which is hard to tolerate in any civilized society."

For Anwar Ibrahim himself, he is as of now the obvious victim of a political endgame. But what is the source of Anwar's downfall and will his victimization lead Malaysia out of its current political quagmire?

UMNO's evolution under the tenacious leadership of Dr Mahathir had left behind a trail of destruction — a tainted judiciary, a servile media and an ineffectual parliament, among others. Anwar's demolition may not even be the final phase of this process.

UMNO's Crises

During Mahathir's tenure from 1981 till 1998, UMNO was ceaselessly plagued by crisis, either revolving around the issue of succession, control over economic largesse or factional differences over national policies. Under Mahathir, each eruption of intra-party conflict, was resolved through the amassing and concentration of greater power in his hands.

As a way of eliminating all potential opponents within the party, such as Musa Hitam in 1984 and Tengku Razaleigh in 1987, Mahathir inevitably found it expedient to emasculate the judiciary, control the media to the maximum degree and use the instruments of the state widely in his favour.

But why was the control of UMNO so fiercely guarded by Mahathir and leaders before him?

First, UMNO was not just a symbol of Malay political power, it was also an institution which controlled national wealth. When UMNO entered business in a big way leaders derived their power from the control over national economic largesse. Thus, despite Mahathir's exhortation of modernizing the economy, UMNO, under him remained to be one of the biggest patronage machines in the country.

Second, UMNO was the most successful vehicle in capturing the Malay consensus. From independence to the mid-1990s UMNO never suffered any severe electoral loss. Although PAS was a traditional but formidable adversary, UMNO was able to undercut its influence and consistently retained a monopoly over the Malay polity.

Enter and Exit Anwar

Perhaps Anwar's entry into UMNO in 1982 was unfortunate from the start. It was not a course which he himself had charted. It was planned for him - an expedient tactic which was conceived to consolidate Mahathir's own power within UMNO through winning over the resurgent Islamic forces.

But within ten years, and despite being a 'newcomer', Anwar had reached a stature 'dangerous' enough to enable him to wrest power from the party president himself, his erstwhile 'mentor'.

Rather than democratically succumb to a challenge from a former protégé, Mahathir chose to take the route of ouster and slander. But public reaction to this was virulent outrage which subsequently led Mahathir to expediently employ an even larger cache of state apparatuses to shut-out Anwar and his movement from the political scene.

Although Mahathir had amassed enough power apparently to control the judiciary, parliament and the media it was necessary now for him to move into a new phase. Anwar's expulsion was ultimately legitimized through raw coercive power as in the use of the police for control, surveillance and the brutal silencing of dissenters. As if to put an end to Anwar's political presence the judiciary handed down a verdict which seems to vindicate Mahathir's much-publicized allegations against his one-time heir apparent.

Tracing Anwar's Involvement in UMNO

When Mahathir came to power in 1981, he was circumspect about dealing with the Islamic resurgence among Malay youths and professionals in the mid-1970s. Thus, Anwar Ibrahim's entry into UMNO was viewed as a strategy for coopting this movement while containing it.

During this period Islam had evolved from simply being a cultural marker of Malay identity to being the basis for a renewed Malay 'nation' attempting to chart an independent course for modernity while maintaining elements of traditional morality. Instead of going against this tide, Mahathir appropriated this movement for UMNO's enhancement.

Mahathir even earned himself the label of being an Islamic modernizer since he appeared concerned about incorporating some tenets of Islam into his modernization programme, especially in the use of Islam as a means to discipline Malays.

Challenge of Islam "from below"

Despite Mahathir's and UMNO's vigorous promotion of Islam 'from above', there were still challenges by groups promoting an `Islam from below'. PAS, for example, remained as UMNO's main and resolute opponent in this regard. The party's historically consistent challenge to UMNO was always to up-the-ante on the ability of UMNO government to wholly and unconditionally enforce Islamization.

Another counter-elite group, which came to a point of challenging UMNO's power over Malays was the Darul Arqam, which was disbanded in 1994. Its leaders were arrested under the ISA and the movement was accused of practicing a 'deviationist' Islam.

After the banning of Darul Arqam, Mahathir became bolder in criticizing other shades of Islam which veered from his modernist vision. In one of his speeches, he attacked traditional Islam as being incapable of promoting multiculturalism, thus pushing for the idea that only his vision of modernist Islam committed to economic greatness could do so.

By 1997 Mahathir had reached the pinnacle of his popularity. He seemed to have successfully dealt with Islam and its integration into his developmentalist agenda, from the village level to the realm of international relations. To add to his fortuitous turn, PAS did not do well in the 1995 national elections despite retaining the Kelantan state government. Right up till late 1998, there appeared no strong alternative to UMNO's sanctioned Islam.

But by September 1998, Mahathir's successful engagement with Islam seemed to have come to an end. If his success began with the co-optation of Anwar Ibrahim in1982, its unravelling commenced with his ouster of Anwar in 1998.

Anwar's Politics

This is not to say that the source of the Anwar-Mahathir conflict was because of differences over Islam and Islamization. In fact this played a minor part in leading to the culmination of the split.

The rift between him and Mahathir perhaps began in 1993 when Anwar contested against Ghafar Baba, the then deputy prime minister for the UMNO vice-presidency. Anwar's victory at this poll showed that he had mobilized a sizeable mass following, built up and patronized over a coterie of wealthy business interests, and gained control over several major newspapers and a television station within ten years after joining the party. Naturally, Anwar's meteoric rise became a threat to Mahathir and his loyal supporters.

legacyApparently he was also on a trail of exposing high-level corruption, hinting at a reform of the judiciary, enhancing socially distributive development and halting economically non-viable mega-projects personally favored and protected by Mahathir.

The control over national economic largesse was also split between Anwar controlling the Finance Ministry and Mahathir the Privatization Unit under his ministry and other strategic 'cash-cows' like Petronas and the Employees Provident Fund. By then, Anwar had also cultivated his retinue of favored business cliques who had to compete with Mahathir's own assemblage of business associates, including his sons. Later, when the 1997 regional financial crisis hit Malaysia, Anwar's and Mahathir's differences at handling the crisis further worsened the discord. This was to be the final presage to Anwar's climactic doom.

Bizarre Sex Charges

The expulsion of Anwar in and of itself, from his positions as deputy prime minister and finance minister, could have turned out to be less contentious. The people may countenance that it was the legitimate right of the prime minister to expel Anwar. It was actually the implausible sexual charges, Anwar's forceful arrest, and lethal assault in prison which stirred outrage over the episode.

Anwar's claim that he was the victim of 'conspiracy at the highest level' found even more resonance after he was subjected to trial proceedings which were claimed by international legal observers to be biased and politically-motivated.

The charges of his alleged sodomy affected sections of the Malay community in an emotive way. The underlying sense was that, Mahathir was not just doing this coup de grace on Anwar but upon a burgeoning Islam of which Anwar was one of its proponents.

The dissemination of this perception subsequently bred a virulent Malay antipathy towards Mahathir as evident by the growth of numerous Reformasi websites championing Islam and the Anwar cause while hurling intense opprobrium against the Mahathir government.

Prisoner of his Doing

When the Islamic outrage was unleashed, Mahathir became a captive of his own designs. After having courted the Islamic quarters to consolidate his own power, he is now being taunted by the same forces upon which he rode.

Mahathir took one of his biggest gambles when he tried a strategy of vilifying Anwar on moral grounds. The gamble was that if he were to succeed in foisting the charges on Anwar the result would be an imperiled opposition Islam. It would be weakened due to the inability of Malays to reconcile Anwar's alleged sexual misconduct with the 'noble' Islam he led.

There would be confusion and disillusionment among some sectors of the Malay population causing them to stay clear of strident movements and seek the comfort of establishment Islam.

In actual fact, the cleavage between the Malay secular elites and the Islamicized middle-class was already in the making since the 1980s. The bringing in of Anwar Ibrahim and his ABIM followers, the then new Malay middle-class (which had a deeper sense of Islamic identity) into UMNO created the eventual nemesis to entrenched party interests. In an interview given to some scholars ABIM members already saw themselves as "working underneath" and hoped someday "to become strong and replace the weak"

At that time Mahathir was more concerned about consolidating his power and undermining PAS to worry about the consequences of this awkward alliance. In return for support of his leadership the Islamic faction of UMNO was given broad leeway for an Islamization agenda at many levels—the law, financial systems, schools and everyday morality.

For two decades this had happened rapidly and without encumbrances. But Mahathir's attempts to reconcile a fundamentalist Islam with modernization found itself teetering when the rift between Anwar and him came to a head.

Malay Identity Politics

The Anwar Ibrahim issue triggered a mass perception of a besieged Islam which cost UMNO its unwavering Malay support in the last election and won PAS the distinction of being a viable Malay alternative to UMNO.

The internal feud which began as a contest over UMNO's leadership transmuted into a crisis of Malay identity politics and led to the reaffirmation of political Islam as a rallying point for Anwar's cause.

Anwar's elevated career within UMNO may well have been crafted through stock political machinations with few links to an Islamization agenda (some scholars have wondered whether Anwar was just ' a natural politician who simply seeks the logical route to power'). Nevertheless, his ouster jolted a public perception of him as embodiment of resurgent Islam which Mahathir had at one time expediently courted, but is now at war with.

Finally, the Harshest Blow

It appeared that after 19 years, UMNO's and Mahathir's strategy at outdoing rivals, consolidating power and enriching the party has finally reached a point with a horrendous outcome — the 15-year incarceration of Anwar Ibrahim for offences that are widely believed to be fabricated.

Anwar, like Henrik Ibsen's protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, in the 1882 play, An Enemy of the People has to deal with the awful truth about an inert majority which acquiesces to lies perpetrated by leading men and denies that there is a problem in society. Stockmann's words may have well been said by Anwar himself:

I will say no more about our leading men. And if anyone imagines, from what I have just said, that my object is to attack these people this evening, he is wrong — absolutely wide off the mark. For I cherish the comforting conviction that these parasites — all these venerable relics of a dying school of thought — are most admirably paving the way for their own extinction; they need no doctor's help to hasten their end.

And as for the silent majority:

"The most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom amongst us is the compact majority. The majority has might on its side—unfortunately; but right it has not… "

But will Anwar's years of solitude, where 'the strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone', also allow for an ignoble slide into either dictatorship or political chaos for Malaysia?

"Yes, my native town is so dear to me that I would rather ruin it than see it flourishing upon a lie…It ought to be razed to the ground, I tell you! All who live by lies ought to be exterminated like vermin!"