Another Trial for Malaysia

Farish A. Noor

Posted Jul 16, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Another Trial for Malaysia

By Farish A. Noor

The trials and tribulations of Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim continue, and history seems to be repeating itself time and again in the country. Ten years after the infamous trial where he was accused of sexual misconduct and abuse of power, Anwar Ibrahim is once again being investigated for charges of sexual misconduct with a man who was a member of his party, the People’s Justice Party (PKR) of Malaysia.

On 16th July Anwar was arrested just after he had given his testimony before the country’s Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA), and on his way to give yet another testimony at the Police Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. A deadline had been set at 2.00 pm for him to show up at the police office, and though he was already on his way there he was apprehended near his home before the deadline had expired.

Anwar has since been arrested under the laws of section 377a of the Malaysian constitution that stipulates that ‘abnormal sex’ is a crime. Yet Malaysians have grown somewhat weary of the use of this law as the last time it was put to work was in 1998, when Anwar was also accused on ‘abnormal sex’. The trial that followed his arrest in 1998 was a shambolic affair that brought low the reputation of the Malaysian judiciary and security services; and the icing on the cake was the assault on Anwar that led to him being produced in court with bruises on his face and the infamous black eye that has been captured for posterity by the world’s media. Malaysia’s legal institutions suffered the biggest blow to their credibility as the court case that followed was scrutinised in detail by Malaysia-watchers the world over.

Today, things have changed and moved on: In 1998 Malaysia’s political crisis was sparked by Anwar’s arrest and the mobilisation of the masses by his political supporters who used tools like the internet and alternative media. Malaysia then had less than a million internet users, and Anwar’s nemesis Dr. Mahathir was at the peak of his popularity.

Malaysia today has moved on with nearly 12 million registered internet users and the creation of the most well-connected, well-informed and politically savvy electorate in its history. Furthermore the present government does not have half of the support that Dr. Mahathir enjoyed in 1998, with the ruling coalition being badly weakened after the election results of 2008. Anwar, on the other hand, is at the peak of his career and popularity; and many feel that this arrest was yet another attempt to prevent him from leading a popular movement to change the government.

On the night before his arrest, Anwar was seen on TV in a live debate about oil prices with a senior politician, Shabary Cheek. For Malaysians all over the country, this was perhaps the first time they had seen Anwar live on TV and allowed to speak his mind freely since his fall from grace in 1998. And the results of the debate were expected: Local polls suggested that the Malaysians saw Anwar as the winner of the debate and that his arguments were convincing.

Anwar’s arrest could therefore not have come at a worst time for the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The question on everyone’s lips is: How will this latest scenario play itself out in Malaysian politics, and what will be the results in the near future?

For a start it is unlikely that Anwar will be released anytime soon as there are fears that he will once again mobilise his supporters and call for massive demonstrations all over the country. But in jail Anwar is as effective an icon for the opposition and a magnet for those disaffected and disillusioned with the government of Prime Minister Badawi.

Prime Minister Badawi has in turn given assurances that the investigation into Anwar’s case will be done fairly and Anwar will be safe. Such assurances are, however, going to be held to account by a Malaysian public that is no longer prepared to accept the irregularities of the earlier trial of Anwar in 1998. This time round, every single step of the investigation will be watched by discerning Malaysians and the wider international community, and the expansion of Malaysia’s civil society and the internet means that every minute detail of the investigation will be made public.

Perhaps the only thing that can save Anwar, Badawi and Malaysia in the long run is an investigation and trial that is absolutely objective, transparent and accountable. For even the slightest hint of bias or irregularity will add credence to Anwar’s claim that the accusations against him are part of a political plot to prevent him from returning to politics; a fact that was stated in his closing remarks during his televised debate where he stated that he intended to contest at a by-election soon.

For now, the ball seems to be in Anwar’s court and it is he who stands to gain the most from his arrest. Whether in or out of jail, Anwar has resumed his status as martyr and public hero. While this may work in the favour of Anwar and other politicians in the country, other serious issues like economic and institutional reform have been sidelined once again. But this time it is not just Anwar and his reputation that is on trial, but also that of Malaysia and Malaysia’s legal and judicial systems as well.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.