On January 9, Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister and current opposition leader, was acquitted on charges that he sexually assaulted a male aide in the summer of 2008. A boisterous crowd of 5,000 people gathered outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court in a strong show of support. It was the end of a salacious trial that had lasted two years.
The outcome was not anticipated. Anwar himself said he went to court with his toothbrush and medicines in hand, anticipating a guilty verdict and possible prison sentence of up to 20 years. He had already spent six years of a 15-year prison sentence in solitary confinement after he was charged in 1998 and convicted in a trial widely perceived to have been politically motivated. The sodomy conviction was dismissed on appeal in 2004.
Confidence in the independence of Malaysia’s judiciary has not increased much since then. Such highly politicized cases involving senior political figures are widely believed to be decided by Putrajaya, the seat of government. Judges merely act as messengers. Given that the latest charges against Anwar surfaced just after his opposition coalition scored historic victories in Malaysia’s 2008 elections and just days after the accuser met with then Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, an air of conspiracy permeated the entire proceedings. It was therefore not surprising that everyone expected Anwar to return to jail.
International monitors highlighted irregularities in the conduct of his trial. Observers confirmed the mishandling of DNA evidence, coercion of witnesses and the abuse of process and procedure. A vicious campaign in the state-controlled media tried to shape public opinion about Anwar’s presumed guilt and alleged homosexual tendencies. Anwar enjoys strong political support from Malaysia’s conservative Muslim heartland. A guilty verdict presumably would have alienated him from that base. The mere perception of guilt could be just as damaging.
Anwar’s defense team vigorously attacked the premise of the prosecution’s case with the help of medical and forensic experts from Australia. In the end, Judge Zabidin Mohamad Diah, who had all but endorsed the prosecution’s case in June 2011 in a 90-minute statement, delivered his final verdict in just 45 seconds. He stated that the possibility of tampering with the DNA evidence adduced in the case made it difficult to convict.
The brevity of his decision hit those crammed into the small courtroom by surprise. As the judge exited in haste, there was a moment of silent disbelief before the decidedly pro-Anwar crowd erupted in rapture. A few minutes later, news spread through the crowd outside and across the Internet via postings to Twitter and Facebook.
Anwar wasted no time in taking advantage of the verdict. Minutes after the acquittal, he tweeted, “In the coming Election, voice of the people will be heard and this corrupt government will be toppled from its pedestals of power.”
There is no doubt Anwar and his opposition coalition have benefitted tremendously from the outcome of the case. In speaking at rallies across the country that have attracted tens of thousands of supporters, Anwar makes frequent references to a Malaysian Spring where the people will claim their democratic rights from a government mired in corruption, cronyism and nepotism.
Elections are not due in Malaysia until the spring of 2013. However all signs indicate that they will be called by Prime Minister Najib by summer this year. For Najib, the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, to remain in power in the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, he needs to regain control of a two-thirds majority in Malaysia’s 222-seat parliament. In 2008 under the former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, the ruling coalition lost its two-thirds majority for the first time to the nascent People’s Alliance coalition in a spectacular electoral upset. The upshot forced Badawi out of power and brought Anwar into parliament as the opposition leader. If Najib is unsuccessful in regaining the lost ground, he is likely to face the same fate as his predecessor as hardliners in UMNO move to replace him with a more effective leader.
Najib has staked his premiership on a reform agenda designed to modernize and liberalize Malaysia’s economy, fight corruption and repeal some of Malaysia’s more repressive laws including the draconian Internal Security Act. In some respects, his agenda has taken the wind out of the opposition’s sails by championing issues that were fodder for the opposition’s criticisms of the government. However, many of Najib’s reform initiatives have been stalled by right-wing elements in his own party averse to change. After three years in office and with only superficial results to show, Malaysians and international observers are beginning to lose faith in the prospects of a successful outcome to Najib’s reform efforts.
Heading into elections, Anwar, a master orator, is on the campaign trail with youthful energy. A typical night has him driving to and from a constituency reaching pockets of Malay, Chinese and Indian communities at five or six different events. Rallies culminate near midnight drawing anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 watchers. Anwar works the crowd with a flurry of wisecracks and exhortations, imploring his audience to vote with their conscience in the next election.
Some argue that Anwar is mostly preaching to the converted; fence-sitters usually do not bother to attend late night political ceramahs. Anwar counters that, saying a new generation of young voters from all of Malaysia’s ethnic groups is coming to hear him speak in unprecedented numbers. Malaysia’s election commission has reported that up to a million new voters have been registered since 2008 – suggesting that the Malaysian electorate has evolved significantly in a few short years.
The lack of media coverage makes such relentless campaigning the only way for the opposition to get its message out. The major print, TV and radio outlets are all subservient to government decree. Favorable coverage of opposition rallies is tacitly prohibited and opposition-friendly editors and news anchors are frequently censured or pushed out of their positions.
Malaysia has one of the most vibrant online and social media spaces in Asia. Throw a stick in the air and it’s likely to hit someone who has a blog and tweets fervently about politics and public policy. While the online media wavers from being neutral to pro-opposition, Internet penetration in rural Malaysia remains relatively low. Reaching out to all those groups to combat relentless government propaganda takes considerable effort.
In the wake of the trial, the government has shifted its strategy from personal attacks against Anwar to questioning the opposition’s ability to lead a government. The ruling coalition has been in power since 1957 – never having lost a single election. It campaigns on the premise that only it knows how to govern on account of its five decades of incumbency; a change in government would be catastrophic for the country. The opposition, it claims, makes outrageous promises of paying off student loans and lowering fuel prices, but has no idea that such populist policies would be ruinous to the country’s finances.
“This is a recipe for economic disaster. One need not be an economist to figure out that this will destroy the economy,” Najib was quoted as saying by a state news agency in January.
The opposition counters by highlighting its record since winning control of state governments in 2008. In Malaysia’s two most prosperous states, the People’s Alliance has built a track record of reducing corruption, attracting foreign investment and creating jobs. Both states have registered budget surpluses and have taken dramatic steps toward promoting more openness and transparency. State ministers have recently been required to publicly declare their assets – a move that has drawn positive reactions from the public. Ministers at the federal level and in some states have yet to disclose their wealth.
The opposition’s greatest weakness remains demonstrating the cohesiveness of what many describe as a political coalition of convenience. Anwar, leader of the Justice Party (PKR) seems to be the only glue holding together the secular and Chinese- dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Malay-dominated Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). Once in government, some predict that internal squabbles among the three parties over the imposition of sharia, the dismantling of race-based affirmative action policies and how to maintain a balance of power across the different ethnic communities will render the new government ineffective.
The government has made much hay of the fractious nature of opposition politics. The opposition cannot be entrusted to manage the affairs of the nation when it is incapable of managing its own internal affairs, goes the critique.
In response, the People’s Alliance points to its record of governing and to several published documents, including an Orange Book, which lay out the areas of agreement on the aims and intents of policy. It asserts that it has reached consensus on 80 percent of issues and is diligently working to reach accord on the remaining 20 percent.
In March 2008, there were an exceptionally small number of people who anticipated that the opposition could win more than a few seats in parliament. The opposition ended up quadrupling its representation and taking over six of Malaysia’s states and territories. This year Malaysian politicos are skeptical again, predicting that while the opposition might make modest gains, it would still not be able to wrest control of the government away from the ruling party. Time will tell. But with Najib in retreat and Anwar now on the offensive, this should be yet another interesting year in Malaysian politics.
Aasil Ahmad is a freelance photographer and writer based in Washington DC and Chicago. He is also a co-founder of Votifi.com.