The elections of March 2008 offered the faint promise that after decades of sectarian race-based politics, Malaysia’s political culture may have finally evolved beyond personality cults and hero-worship, say Farish Noor. But latest development carry a negative note to it in the sense that it has returned Malaysian society back to the older mode of personalised politics where the cult of leadership and political heroes is paramount.
Malaysia is once again in the news and the headlines worldwide have featured the story of Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister and de facto leader of the Pakatan Rakyat (Peoples’ Pact) alliance Anwar Ibrahim being accused of sexual misconduct – as he was in 1998.
During the turbulent years of 1998-1999 when Malaysia was caught in the midst of the Asian financial crisis and the meltdown of the ‘Tiger economies’ of Southeast Asia, Malaysia’s problems were compounded by the dismissal and subsequent arrest of Anwar Ibrahim, who was accused of abuse of power and sexual misconduct by his erstwhile mentor, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The controversy then took an enormous toll on the public’s confidence, and after he was finally released many a revelation has come to light about the questionable manner in which he was investigated, prosecuted and jailed. For the past few years, the judicial and governmental institutions of Malaysia have been slowly trying to rebuild their image and win back the confidence of the public, until this happened.
This time round, Anwar has once again been accused of sexual misconduct by a young party worker. A police report has been filed, and the Malaysian police have stated that a proper investigation will take place in due course. Anwar’s supporters have been quick to react, claiming that there have even been rumours that Anwar’s life is in danger. Over the weekend, Anwar took refuge at the Turkish embassy – a move that entangled Turkey, an important ally of Malaysia, and attracted the attention of the world media. In less than 24 hours, news of the developments in Malaysia became headline news worldwide.
At this stage, it is simply too early to predict how this latest episode in Malaysia’s on-going political drama is going to play itself out. Conspiracy theories abound in Malaysia and the Malaysian public has long since grown accustomed to believing in rumours rather than the mainstream media, for the latter have been all but discredited in the eyes of many. Once again, Malaysian society is polarised, and opinions are bound to differ as to what the truth really is and where it lies.
The reaction of Malaysian government leaders has been to assure the public that a fair and open investigation into the allegations will take place, though many Malaysians have grown wary and weary of the ways in which such investigations can and have been politicised in the past, as was the case during the first round of investigations on Anwar when he was accused of improper conduct in 1998.
Anwar’s supporters, however, insist that the accusations against Anwar are yet another plot to discredit the man who is seen by millions of Malaysians as the icon of change and reform, and the herald of a new Malaysian society. In the words of Latheefa Koya, one of the leaders of the Youth Wing of the People’s Justice party (PKR): “this is a repeat of a political conspiracy to derail the possibility of taking over the government by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance led by Anwar”.
Having crossed the political rubicon, however, one thing is certain: whatever the assurances given to the Malaysian public that the investigation of Anwar will be conducted openly and fairly, this latest controversy will undoubtedly lead to a massive show of support for Anwar who was seen as the victim of a political conspiracy ten years ago. Malaysians are therefore bracing themselves for more demonstrations of support and vigorous public debate in a public domain already overcrowded with controversial issues and political landmines such as the equally hot controversy surrounding the murder of the Mongolian model Altantuya, which has dragged the name of many important politicians and leaders of the ruling Umno party.
At a time when Malaysia is forced to deal with a global economic crisis of mammoth proportions, which has already incurred a significant political cost to other neighbouring states like Indonesia, this latest scandal is just one other straw on the back of a camel strained beyond endurance. The question therefore is this: Can Malaysia withstand yet another repeat of the persecution of Anwar like the one that took place in 1998 and which split the nation in half? Following Anwar’s detention in 1998 the elections of 1999 witnessed significant gains for the Islamic opposition party. Following the recent elections of March 2008 ,where the opposition parties finally managed to deny the ruling coalition its two-thirds majority in Parliament and where the opposition managed to gain control of five state governments, it is clear that the mood has clearly swung in favour of the opposition.
Should the investigation on Anwar give any signs of bias this time round, many analysts expect the public’s dissatisfaction with the Barisan-led government to increase rather than decrease, thereby adding to Anwar’s popularity and appeal to the masses.
But in one other crucial respect, this latest development also carries a negative note to it in the sense that it has returned Malaysian society back to the older mode of personalised politics where the cult of leadership and political heroes is paramount. For decades Malaysian politics has been configured and defined by strong leaders whose dominant personalities ruled over the land and whose figures loomed large over the Malaysian landscape. The elections of March 2008 offered the faint promise that after decades of sectarian race-based politics, Malaysia’s political culture may have finally evolved beyond personality cults and hero-worship.
Now that Anwar is back in the limelight and grabbing the headlines for all the wrong reasons, it would appear as if the movement for change is once again forced to address the plight of a single leader – at a time when the country is facing the challenge of an economic slowdown and when international financial agencies like Morgan Stanley has indicated that some RM330 billion (US$ 90 billion) has been dissipated from Malaysia through corruption. Malaysians seem to relish scandals and controversy to no end, but many Malaysians are also asking whether such scandals are a convenient way to distract the public’s attention from the harder real issues of daily governance and Malaysia’s economic survival in the future. For now, however, Anwar’s plight will ensure that the dominant theme of Malaysian politics will return to the narrative of heroes and martyrs, temporarily at least.