Saturday, September 13, 2008

Opposition-led rule in Malaysia looking likely


Less than a year ago, Malaysians would have sniggered at any suggestion that former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, crushed by a sodomy charge in 1998, could make a political comeback.

Today, nobody laughs when Anwar claims he will become prime minister. He appears to be firmly on track to attract enough defectors from the ruling coalition ranks to secure a parliamentary majority and form Malaysia's first opposition-led government since independence in 1957.

Most analysts believe Anwar can pull it off, if not by his self-imposed deadline of Tuesday, then sometime next month.

It would mark another remarkable turnaround for a man once considered a star of Asian politics, only to be toppled 10 years ago and imprisoned on a conviction of having sex with a man, a crime in Malaysia. The conviction was overturned in 2004 but he now faces another sodomy charge. Anwar has strongly denied both cases, claiming they were intended to kill his political rise.

The ruling coalition has been weakened by dissent against Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and Anwar is capitalizing on that disarray. Abdullah lost much of his clout after presiding over the government's worst ever election results in March, plunging one of Southeast Asia's most stable countries into political turmoil.

Abdullah faced renewed public anger on Friday after his government arrested an opposition lawmaker, a journalist and an anti-government blogger under a law that allows indefinite detention without trial. Tan Hoon Cheng, a reporter for the Chinese-language newspaper Sin Chew, was released Saturday after being questioned by police.

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar said the arrests were necessary to prevent racial conflict, but Anwar said they were meant to "engineer an atmosphere of fear and instability."

Anwar needs 30 defections for his People's Alliance to form the next government.

"His chances have increased by 100 percent," said James Chin, a political science professor at the Monash University in Malaysia's largest city, Kuala Lumpur. "Getting 30 to me is not a problem. I don't doubt they will jump if the conditions and benefits are the right amount."

Still, there are serious doubts as to whether Anwar can hold together his three-party coalition of leftists, Islamists and liberal freethinkers, or fulfill his sweeping promises including dismantling a controversial affirmative action program that favors the ethnic Malay majority in jobs, education, housing, business and a host of other areas.

Many Malays see the program as their birthright. Most ethnic Chinese and Indians see it as state-engineered discrimination.

The Malay-dominated National Front has ruled Malaysia — often hailed as a moderate Islamic nation — continuously for more than 50 years. The coalition has maintained its legitimacy by claiming it alone can share out the nation's resources in a way that satisfies all ethnic groups.

That myth was shattered in the March 8 general election when Anwar stitched together his unlikely coalition on a platform of equality for all races. Together they won 82 seats in the 222-member Parliament, up from 19, as well as control of five of Malaysia's 13 states.

If 61-year-old Anwar forms the next government, it would amount to a political earthquake.

He says he will restructure the affirmative action program to focus on the needy, regardless of race; free the judiciary and the media from government interference; and guarantee religious freedom and civil liberties.

"It is not very difficult to be a better government, to control corruption, to be more just. That is quite easy. The more challenging task is to change the course of the economy," he said in a recent interview.

A major shift promised by Anwar would be a change in the way the government awards public contracts. At present the contracts can only go to Malay-owned companies, but even there the decisions are made arbitrarily.

This has been an obstacle to a free trade agreement with the U.S., which wants the contract process to be transparent and open to foreigners.

But Anwar has set his sights very high, and some foresee not reform but instability. The political outlook has rattled investor confidence, weakening Malaysia's currency and stock markets.

Still, his promises strike a chord not just with Chinese and Indians but with Malays who feel the benefits of affirmative action have gone only to a well-connected elite.

The system was devised soon after Malaysia suffered spasms of racial violence in 1969 and was intended to keep the peace by making all ethnic groups dependent on government patronage.

But analyst Chin said Anwar would temper any resentment among his fellow Malays by giving them dominance in government.

"There may be isolated protests but it won't turn into a full-scale uprising by Malays," he said. "Anwar knows the game well."


Malaysian Seeks End to Decades of Firm Rule

By Thomas Fuller, The New York Times

By the most obvious yardstick, this country of 25 million people is a democracy: Malaysia has held regular elections since independence from Britain five decades ago.

Yet during that time power has remained in the hands of one coalition, the media has remained slavishly pro-government, the courts have often hewed closely to the government line and critics of the country's leadership have been detained without trial in periodic crackdowns.

Now Malaysia may be on the brink of a liberal, more democratic era.

The governing coalition is facing the very real possibility of losing its grip on power to the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who says he has enough votes to bring down the government and might do so as early as this week.

Mr. Anwar promises that if he become prime minister, he would not only scrap laws that muzzle criticism, but also upend the father-knows-best style of government and end a longstanding policy that favored the country's majority Malays over other ethnic groups.

"I think we're on an irreversible trend of democratization because it's coming from the bottom up," said Sivarasa Rasiah, a human rights lawyer and one of many opposition members elected to Parliament in March.

If Mr. Anwar succeeds in taking over the government, his actions could have implications far beyond Malaysia.

A onetime Islamist student radical, Mr. Anwar has emerged over the past decade as one of the leading proponents of the idea that Islam and liberal democracy are complementary. He has cultivated friendships with leaders who share his views in Turkey and Indonesia, and he has built bridges to the West.

He once served as a catalyst for the increasing religiosity among Malaysia's Muslims. Today he walks the fine line between the secularism of the country's Constitution and the demands by some Islamic forces, including those in his own coalition, for socially conservative policies.

Mr. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who once mingled with the very establishment he is now challenging, was re-elected to Parliament in August.

As he and his allies in the opposition gained increased political backing over the past several months, the government under Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has begun to strike back. In July, Mr. Anwar was charged with sodomy for the second time in his career in a case that a large majority of Malaysians surveyed in opinion polls say reeks of politics. And several newspapers have been warned about stepping out of line.

On Friday, a member of Parliament for the opposition, a newspaper reporter and a prominent antigovernment blogger were detained under the internal security act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial. Syed Hamid Albar, the home minister, told reporters on Saturday that the blogger and Parliament member had been detained for inciting ethnic tensions but that the reporter, who was released Saturday after 16 hours, was only questioned about her reporting on a recent controversy involving a member of the governing party.

The governing party has leveled accusations of corruption in the opposition's campaign to win over defectors: Khairy Jamaluddin, one of the party's most articulate members, has denounced what he calls "underhanded tactics," saying members of Parliament have reported being offered money and positions of power in a future government, a charge the opposition denies.

Last week, the battle between the government and opposition flirted with absurdity. First, the governing party dispatched about 50 government lawmakers to Taiwan for what it called an agricultural "study trip," which appeared to be an attempt to stop them from crossing over to Mr. Anwar's side.

On Friday, opposition lawmakers followed them to Taiwan, checking into the same hotel in the hopes of convincing would-be defectors to take the leap.

Mr. Anwar initially vowed to bring down the government by Tuesday, saying he had written commitments from enough lawmakers to force the government's collapse. But he now concedes that the governing coalition's move to send lawmakers to Taiwan could succeed in drawing off some support, forcing him to delay his bid for power.

The changes that Mr. Anwar has proposed could change Malaysia substantially and fast.

"All the draconian, oppressive laws must go," Mr. Anwar said in a recent interview.

He promises to repeal Malaysia’s toughest laws that give the government the power to detain opponents without trial, ban unauthorized protests, bar students from participating in politics and keep the news media in line by requiring newspapers and magazines to apply for annual publishing permits.

He would also free all “political prisoners.”

Perhaps most explosive, he said he would end many special privileges for his own ethnic group, the Malays, who are given a variety of advantages, including discounts on houses, exclusive rights to government contracts and a reserved quota of stock-market shares. The privileges have angered the country’s two other main ethnic groups: Malaysian citizens of Chinese and Indian descent.

It was that anger, directed at the ethnically mixed governing coalition, that helped the opposition win just under half the popular vote, by far the best showing for the opposition since independence.

Mr. Anwar contends, and many experts agree, that most of the special privileges are enjoyed by a minority of Malays connected to the governing party. Still, it remains to be seen whether Malays will accept Mr. Anwar’s proposal of policies based on need, not ethnicity. Ethnic tensions have flared in the past, notably in 1969 when at least 200 people were killed in race-related violence.

Mr. Khairy of the governing party argues that Mr. Anwar is moving too fast by proposing to scrap the country’s harshest laws: Malaysia needs them to guard against ethnic strife, he said in an interview.

“We are a maturing democracy,” Mr. Khairy said. “These issues, to me, still need a lot of debate. We need to continue the way the Abdullah administration has done it, which is to reform gradually.”

At least as challenging as balancing the rights of ethnic groups would be managing the struggle between those who prefer a secular government and those who want a wider application of Islamic laws for Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the population.

In a recent interview in his sparsely furnished office, Mr. Anwar apologized to a visitor for the heat and stuffiness; he keeps the air-conditioning off during Ramadan because fasting from sunrise to sunset gives him chills.

But he criticized the decision of the Prime Minister Abdullah to suspend Parliament during Ramadan. “He thinks he’s representing himself as a good Muslim,” Mr. Anwar said. “I think it’s reactionary.”

“If you want to fast, go ahead,” he said. “But go on with your life. If you fast and it causes productivity to drop there’s something wrong with that.”

Some Muslim groups have called for greater punishments for apostates, those who leave the religion, and stronger enforcement of social laws like keeping unmarried couples chaste.

While Mr. Anwar clearly has a strong following, many Malaysians, especially those in the elite who have much to lose if the opposition takes power, question his sincerity and wonder whether a leader who has gone through so many permutations in his career can be trusted.

Mr. Anwar rose to prominence as an Islamic student radical before joining the governing party and eventually becoming deputy prime minister. But he is perhaps best known for his sudden downfall in 1998 shortly after challenging the prime minister at the time, Mahathir Mohamad, for power.

Mr. Anwar was detained under the internal security act, beaten, given a black eye by the chief of police (who lost his job over the episode) and sentenced to 15 years for sodomy and abuse of power in trying to cover up the sodomy allegations. In 2004, the country’s highest court struck down the sodomy verdict and released him, citing faulty procedures by the prosecution, but the judge, in a highly unusual statement, said he believed that the sodomy allegations were true anyway.

Like the charges in the first trial, the latest charges of sodomy, which were lodged by a 23-year-old campaign aide, are considered highly politicized. The deputy prime minister, Najib Razak, a chief rival of Mr. Anwar’s, initially denied that he had anything to do with the case but then admitted that he had met with Mr. Anwar’s accuser before the allegations were made public.

Salehuddin Hashim, a high school friend of Mr. Anwar’s who is now the secretary general of his party, admits to doubts about Mr. Anwar’s past, especially his years in the governing party. Even the party’s leaders admit that money politics and corruption are rampant within the party’s ranks.

“Anwar wasn’t a paragon of justice or virtue,” Mr. Salehuddin said. “He was part of the racket.”

But he said that six years in prison changed Mr. Anwar and made him more sensitive to injustices in Malaysia, a relatively prosperous country with one of the highest levels of income inequality in Asia.

“It’s a credit to Anwar that he managed to galvanize people into focusing what they are unhappy about,” Mr. Salehuddin said. “He personalized injustice.”

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