We are watching re-runs from Kuala Lumpur. It’s 1998 again. Then, Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, was catapulted from office to prison on sodomy and treason charges. The instigator then was the mercurial colossus of Southeast Asian politics, Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. Having initially welcomed Anwar as the prodigal son of Malaysian politics, he debunked him in a most conscious act of Saturnalia.
In the theatre of Malaysian politics, buggery is almost as serious as the charge of deviationism in Mao’s China. The statute books permit imprisonment for up to twenty years. Dr. Wan Aziza Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife, could only respond with characteristic stoicism as Anwar was not merely incarcerated but neutralised in Malaysian politics.
The vicious all-consuming father of Malaysian politics retired in 2003, aged 78. With Mahathir gone, Anwar could return. Released in 2004, the former deputy was still on ice, and could only run for office after five or so years.
It’s fine in Malaysian politics to talk about reform as long as a sense of inertia is maintained above the chatter of promised change. Splendid inactivity – one observes Malaysia’s current Prime Minister, the staid, dull Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as a case in point – suggests continuity. Change, marked by the dangerous word reform, suggests chaos, the disruption of gravy trains and networks of graft. Anwar’s mistake then and now was to violate the canon of inertia.
The ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional) was shaken by recent political showings by Anwar’s opposition alliance, the PKR. On 8 March, their hold on power suddenly loosened. The opposition alliance had broken through a barrier that seemed untouchable: reducing the sacred two-thirds majority held by the National Front in Parliament since 1957. Five of the twelve state legislatures were lost. The PKR then came up with a bold policy – to form a new Federal Government by 16 September.
Enter (some argue literally), the 23 year-old man who volunteered to work for the opposition during the tumultuous election earlier this year. He had been Anwar’s aide, and duly fronted with accusations of sodomy at the end of June. The charges were made public by Bakri Zinin, the federal police chief for criminal investigations.
Having seen it all before, Anwar fled to the Turkish Embassy, citing assassination fears. ‘I have been told that my assassination has not been ruled out as means to subvert the people’s will and bring an end to the transformational changes taking place in Malaysia.’ Istanbul, then accused of undue interference in Malaysian politics, hastily ejected the accused.
These political re-runs take place because the main party of Malaysian politics, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), has run out of ideas. It’s a despotism that has run dry of creativity, not merely in policy, but in dealing with rivals.
UMNO is naturally following the script: its members had nothing to do with it. That is the line peddled by Kelantan UMNO information chief, Alwi Che Ahmad: ‘Nobody from UMNO has anything to gain from trying to fabricate (accusations against) Anwar especially in the current political landscape.’ The only flaw in this statement is that UMNO has everything to gain by Anwar’s demise.
That was evident in 1998 itself when Anwar was declared, not merely to be a rampant sodomite with a penchant for chauffeurs, but a masochist: he had, for instance, mysteriously punched himself. Torture was vigorously denied: the Malaysian police has scrupulously ‘observed’ his rights in detention, but in truth had tried beating the suspect to a pulp.
Added to the mix now by his opponents is the suggestion that Anwar is America’s snitch. Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar recently gave a sense of how ‘impartial’ the government is on the subject of Anwar’s innocence: ‘Anwar is a snitch for America. Every time anything happens, he reports back to America.’ A character portrait of Anwar according to Barisan Nasional: a sodomizing snitch with masochistic tendencies.
The Malaysian authorities have run out of talented conspiracy scriptwriters – they can only revert to programs that were used during Mahathir’s time. The opposition are even mimicking them, accusing current Deputy Premier Najib Razak of having an affair with a woman before she was killed two years ago. Najib palmed it off: this was merely a sodomy diversion. Anwar remained the true star of the show. Malaysian politics has not merely run out of steam – it has run out of imagination.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He can be reached email@example.com.