Malaysian Malaise - Poor Prospects for Democracy in Anwar Ibrahim’s Legal Woes


To be sure, the headline “Malaysian Court Upholds Opposition Leader’s Sodomy Conviction” is not necessarily shocking in its own right. This is, after all, the era in which political figures being caught up in purportedly lurid sex scandals is now almost cliché. But setting aside that opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s “crime” is an activity that many do freely around the world, the drama’s deeply troubling nature stems from the unpleasant message it sends about the progress of Malaysian democracy—namely, we shouldn’t hold our breath. To fully understand Mr. Anwar’s woes, we look to 1998. Malaysia, like most of Southeast Asia, has only begun to recover from the Asian financial crisis that destroyed markets in 1997. As finance minister, Anwar was responsible for deftly navigating the Malaysian economy out of dire straits. He did so by taking a fat IMF loan, and acquiescing to all that came with it, a decision that earned him international praise and domestic enemies. Differences over monetary policy caused a rift between Anwar and then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Until then the two had enjoyed a mentee-mentor relationship, though Anwar was already seen as something of a liberal, while Mahathir had earned himself a reputation for being an anti-Western, anti-Semitic dictator fond of curbing civil liberties.

Later that year, the first in a series of “poison-pen” letters appeared, denouncing Anwar as corrupt and a “sexual deviant,” which is illegal under the antiquated section 377 of the Malaysian penal code—a colonial relic. Initially, Mahathir denied the charges, but the tide was beginning to turn against his protege.

During the 1998 General Assembly of the United Malays National Organisation (UNMO), the Malaysian ruling party, Ibrahim Ali, a staunch supporter of Mahathir, lashed out against Anwar. Ibrahim, a UMNO Supreme Council member, reiterated allegations that Anwar had participated in illegal sexual activities and was guilty of corruption. Shortly after, UMNO Youth Leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi alleged Anwar’s involvement in corrupt activities, including nepotism. A book entitled 50 Reasons Why Anwar Cant be Prime Minister was even released.

Around the same time, PM Mahathir began to suspect that Anwar harbored ambitions to challenge his, by that time, 17-year rule. Anwar’s rapid political ascendancy, from Minister of Culture in 1983 to Minister of Education in 1986 and finally to higher offices (Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister), made the likelihood of betrayal all too real.

The Prime Minister’s personal suspicions, paired with Anwar’s limited support among Malaysian political elites, inspired Matathir to launch an investigation of the supposed “sexcapades.” Ultimately, Anwar was fired from his posts and expelled from UMNO.

In the days that followed, Matathir enjoyed immense support from political leaders and the national press. Proponents claimed there must have been overwhelming evidence against Anwar for such drastic measures to have been taken; even if such evidence was not forthcoming, the nation should trust its leader. But not all Malaysians were convinced.

The Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, founded by Anwar after his graduation from university, quickly criticized the developments against Anwar as a political conspiracy. Muslim Youth leader Ahmad Azam Abdul Rahman said, “There are some people with political interests who thought the ascension of Anwar as PM would affect their political [lives].”

Another subset of Malaysians soon realized Anwar’s situation didn’t gel with their political beliefs, and questioned the legal process by which the case was brought. A Malaysian human rights group was quoted as saying, “Mahathir owes the people of Malaysia a lot more than a smorgasbord of [...] allegations.”

After being fired, Anwar found himself in court. The trial dealing with corruption charges ended in 1999 and resulted in a guilty verdict. Anwar was ordered to serve six years in prison. A year later he found himself in court again to be sentenced for sodomy, receiving an additional nine years.

Anwar served nearly six years in solitary confinement, but was released in 2004 after a sympathetic judge reconsidered the veracity of the evidence against him.

Image by Lucy Jakub

When his five year ban from politics expired, Anwar returned to parliament in 2008, leading a coalition of opposition parties as the head of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), which won a third of parliamentary positions and several state governments. He set to work carving away the ruling coalition’s base by luring away minor parties. There were rumors that he would be the next prime minister, but there were also rumors he had sexually assaulted his young male aide Saiful Bukhari. Anwar Ibrahim went back to court.

This time, in the case that became known as “Sodomy II,” few believed the allegations against Anwar and most dismissed them as politically-motivated. First, it was found the aide’s testimony was inconsistent with the charges. Though Saiful alleged the relationship was non-consensual, Anwar was charged under section 377B dealing with consensual sexual “misconduct.” In addition, the aide was never charged for his role. The prosecution’s credibility was further undermined when it was revealed Saiful had an apparent connection to certain government ministers and had even been seen with Prime Minsister Najib Razak.

Anwar was found not guilty on January 9, 2012, more than two years after Sodomy II started. Some argued that this trial was just as politically motivated as the first, but the government let him go because of its stable position with respect to the electorate. Though initially unpopular, Najib somewhat endeared himself to liberals when he repealed the Internal Security Act that had allowed police to detain Anwar indefinitely. He also ended an affirmative action policy that had been intended to address discrimination historically experienced by the Malay ethnic majority, but in practice resulted in rampant corruption and economic inefficiency. In 2011, before Sodomy II was over, The Daily Beast reported, “Najib has gone so far that, even if Anwar is acquitted, the ruling coalition [Barisan Nasional (BN)] might genuinely triumph in the 2013 parliamentary elections.”

Triumph, perhaps, but to describe it as “genuinely” is a stretch. It was widely held that gerrymandered districts were to thank for BN’s victory, which despite being the smallest ever (the coalition received just 47 percent of the popular vote), allowed BN to secure 134 of 222 seats in parliament. Many noted that regardless of creative cartography, BN, by virtue of its long-lived incumbency, could and did mobilize a formidable political machine, deploying civil servants to dispense handouts and buy votes. Still, even these best efforts left Anwar’s coalition with a popular majority. In light of this strong showing, Najib launched a campaign to crack down on the opposition—Anwar was back in court.

In March 2014, Karpal Singh, Anwar’s defense lawyer and a sitting MP of the Democratic Action Party, was convicted under the nation’s 1948 Sedition Act, which Najib’s government had promised to nullify in 2012. The charge stemmed from a 2009 statement he made regarding his legal opinion of Anwar’s case. At the same time, the Court of Appeal overturned Anwar’s previous acquittal and delivered a five year jail term. The reversal came just days before Anwar was to be nominated to run in an important by-election for an assembly seat in Selangor, Malaysia’s wealthiest state.

As he had become accustomed, Anwar appealed the decision, taking the case to the Federal Court, Malaysia’s highest. It was here that on February 10 of this year, all five justices found in favor of the prosecution and ordered Anwar back to prison.

The events of February 10 were not unexpected, but that doesn’t mean Anwar Ibrahim’s saga isn’t exemplary of the ugliness of autocracy. By enforcing archaic laws to weaken a perceived threat, the allegedly independent judiciary used the rule-of-law as cover to pervert its spirit. Until Anwar and Karpal rose to power, section 377, the Internal Security Act, and the Sedition Act had rarely been invoked. Additionally, the speed with which the courts acted—not to mention the timing of its actions—raised more than a few eyebrows.

Through each trial, international press made fleeting references to the “obsequious” Malaysian national media, but stopped short of a more complete assessment. A cursory survey shows mainstream Malaysian periodicals tend to be intimately affiliated with the establishment, if not entirely run by it. This was even more true back in 1998, when newspapers toed the UMNO party line, defending Matathir’s decision to fire Anwar and have him expelled from the party. Yet, now that more people have access to the web, Anwar has enjoyed support among upcoming digital journalists, both locally and in the region.

To be sure, the new perspectives and opinions in the Malaysian media have not necessarily inspired government lapdog dailies like the New Straits Times to ease up on their unflaggingly pro-BN commentary. In response to the events of February 10, NST proclaimed, “It is difficult to read the judgment and not be convinced that the deliberation of the Federal Court had been thorough and fair,” adding, “the credibility of the complainant [Saiful]… has never been in doubt from the very first trial,” a patently false statement. Fortunately, political analysts have shown that today’s Malaysians are savvier and more discerning media consumers than they were, fourteen years ago, meaning unsubstantiated points of view are less likely to catch on.

The next election in Malaysia isn’t until 2018, at which point Anwar will still be in prison. Given the current discord within Pakatan Rakyat (PR), the three-party opposition coalition, it is uncertain whether the group will survive without Anwar’s leadership. In the past, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife, proved a capable interim. The future may depend on the continued political success of Nurul Izzah Anwar, Anwar’s daughter, especially in the event that the already 67-year-old icon become unable to mount a political comeback.

What happens to the opposition next is of the utmost importance for Malaysia, at least in the short term. In February, the South China Morning Post wrote, “Malaysia needs a viable opposition voice and the differences have to be overcome so that it can provide a check and balance to the government.” Such an occurrence would be something of a novelty in Malaysia, where one party (BN and its similar predecessor Perikatan) has dominated for the better part of six decades. Though Anwar Ibrahim is lauded as the most successful opposition leader since 1957, that he can’t seem to shake trumped up legal woes leveled at politically inconvenient junctures speaks volumes about Malaysia’s democratization progress.

Of course, competition is but one part of a democracy, and the case of Anwar has demonstrated other weaknesses, such as a lack of independence for the judiciary and the press. Whether or not these issues of institutional independence would actually be addressed by PR, the world may never get the chance to know, but given its leader’s personal experiences, the likelihood seems high.

One hesitates to say it, but Anwar’s ordeal is poetic: he has made a name for himself challenging the outdated, draconian and autocratic nature of the Malaysian state, and in doing so, became a victim of those very tendencies. Though not mentioned in mainstream international media, Anwar does have something to gain from this nightmare: legitimacy. Indeed, Anwar Ibrahim has already used his personal troubles to rhetorical advantage, asking The Diplomat, “Where do you go if you have a problem? Are you going to go to the courts? You will not get a fair trial. So I think what the authoritarian leaders fail to realize is that there is a limit to what people and the society can endure.” BN had better take note. •