Out of prison and looking to resume his political life, Anwar Ibrahim, the once and — he hopes — future heir apparent to Malaysia’s premiership, is gambling on returning to power by doing what has never been done before: confronting the country’s race-based politics and trying to break the 60-year reign of the ruling United Malays National Organization.
In the Malaysian racial balancing act, ethnic Malays have enjoyed targeted economic preferences for almost 40 years, ostensibly to ease once-tense relations with the prosperous Chinese minority. The government has refused to budge on the system but Anwar says preferences have failed and are contributing to rising tension.
“Certainly there is a growing tension which we have not seen since the late 60’s but the UMNO-led government is in a constant state of denial,” Anwar said in an interview with Asia Sentinel.
With that as a starting point, Anwar says he intends to seek the office that eluded him 10 years ago when he tangled with his one-time mentor, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He was ousted as deputy prime minister and jailed for six years on charges of corruption and sexual perversion that are almost universally regarded as trumped up. Since his release in 2004 following Mahathir’s retirement, Anwar has largely been outside Malaysia, lecturing at universities in the United States and maintaining that Mahathir’s government went after him to end his political career after he called attention to the endemic corruption in the party.
He returned last year, lambasting the Barisan Nasional, the country’s race-based ruling coalition, in well-attended public gatherings across the country. The coalition, he says, dishes out contracts to UMNO-linked businessmen, tarnishes the rule of law and deludes the ethnic Malay majority with promises of wealth via failed affirmative action policies.
Anwar, who turns 60 this year, has launched a media blitz in anticipation of his return to the electoral arena, giving interviews to anybody who wants to listen. He says he will contest the next election if it is held after April 2008. He is barred from politics until that time because of his prison sentence. Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who led a coalition of parties to victory in 2004, must call an election by early 2009.
Following disastrous race riots between the economically powerful Chinese minority and ethnic Malays that killed hundreds in 1969, the government instituted its New Economic Policy in 1970 to attempt to bridge the economic gap between the two races. The policies continue and increasingly draw criticism from opposition politicians and non-governmental organizations. Efforts to get the government to discontinue the preferences have come to a naught, incurring the wrath of Chinese and Indians who feel the government has helped the Malays enough.
But, Anwar says, the NEP must go simply because it has not looked into the economic well-being of the Malays but helped line the wallets of the ruling elite.
“There has been no trickle-down effect to the poor,” he says. “It’s been benefiting the government and leaders of the ruling UMNO and not the poor Malays.” He is certain, he says, that his message would be well-received by the Malays, who form UMNO’s grassroots support.
“For 30 years, UMNO has told the Malays that the NEP is to help them. But the crux is to the contrary. I will have to make the Malays understand a few hundred million shares have been taken by the ruling elite under the name of the NEP and that the poor Malays got nothing.”
In the NEP’s place, Anwar proposes a national policy which targets poverty eradication and promotes economic well-being irrespective of race. Academics warn the idea seems more feasible on paper, despite the fact that it is spearheaded by Anwar. Their argument is simple – it is an uphill task to get the Malays to understand the NEP was a failure. “The Malays would also want to maintain their superior status among the races,” says an analyst who declined to be named.
Certainly, some academics consider the NEP a failure. The policy gave rise to unequal development of the Malay community – the exact reverse of the policy’s intent. The plan created a small Malay bourgeoisie closely associated with the UMNO elite, disparagingly called the UMNOputra (a play on the Malay bumiputra, or sons of the soil) and a large working class. A Malaysian think-tank set off a firestorm in October by suggesting in a study that ethnic Malays now own an eye-popping 45 percent of Malaysia’s publicly listed corporate equity, far above the goal of 30 percent set by the NEP. The government insists that ethnic Malays control only 19 percent. The study was dismissed by UMNO leaders, who said it was intended to incite anger and confuse Malays. But other critics said what the NEP had done was to create a gilded and unproductive elite that take their education and jobs for granted while dong nothing for rural Malays.
While on the surface it looks as if racial harmony is maintained, tensions continue to brew between the three major ethnic groups. Ethnic Malays comprise some 60 percent of the population and the Chinese 26 percent, with Indians and indigenous groups making up the rest.
The Malaysian government has so far kept a tight lid on racial tensions despite ethnic clashes that periodically bring reminders of the murderous 1969 violence. In 2001, for instance, there were clashes between Indians and Malays in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, the capital city.
What exacerbates the tension further is the inability of the Chinese and Indians to question special rights and privileges accorded to the Malays. Debates on race relations are considered too sensitive in Malaysia. It remains a topic for heated discussion in tea stalls.
“This is the result of direct threats issued by UMNO. Non-Malays are strictly warned against talking about Malay rights, NEP, race relations and issues relating to Islam,” said Anwar.
UMNO has led the ruling coalition since independence from British colonial rule in 1957. Anwar is now a member of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) or People’s Justice Party founded and led by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. On the face of it, he appears to have virtually no chance of taking the premiership from outside UMNO, particularly because over the recent past ethnic Malay xenophobia has been on the rise. With Anwar arguing for a departure from race-based politics, his task seems impossible.
But there are new factors that could upset the equation, particularly allegations of corruption at the top of UMNO. Najib Tun Razak, the deputy prime minister and son of onetime Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, faces increasingly serious charges of corruption that could wreak havoc on UMNO.
Najib has previously been impervious to corruption charges, particularly over a huge commission paid to his family for the purchase of submarines for the Malaysian navy, but he has come under additional scrutiny over questions about his role, if any, in murder charges against a prominent Malaysian political analyst with close ties to some of the country’s top political figures.
Abdul Razak Baginda, 46, and two members of a special police unit under Najib that normally exists to protect diplomats, face charges in the murder of a young Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu, whose body was found in a patch of jungle near the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam in November. She had reportedly been shot twice and torn apart with hand grenades available only to Malaysia’s security forces after trying to get Abdul Razak to acknowledge fathering her baby.
Perceiving weakness, Anwar has launched a ferocious assault on Najib and UMNO over arms purchases carried out by the Defense Ministry while also demanding that police investigate Najib’s ties, if any, to the indicted figures and Altantuya.
But if he pursues his course on the race issue, Anwar could risk new trouble. Prime Minister Abdullah has made it very clear that race relations and Islam are off limits in order to maintain national harmony. Public debates regarding the two issues could be deemed a threat to national security, warranting summary detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
UMNO leaders have been only too happy to echo Abdullah’s call. Late last year, the premier’s son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin told the media that the Chinese community in Malaysia will take advantage of the Malays if UMNO is weak. This not only prompted an outburst from parties within the ruling coalition front but also from senior UMNO members. Abdullah defended Khairy by saying the press had misquoted him; he refused to apologize and agreed his comments are important to defend Malay rights and Islam.
Reinforcing the off-limits policy, the leadership silenced debate on the burial of national hero M.Moorthy last year, whose Muslim identity was in question. An Islamic shariah court declared that Moorthy, the first Malaysian to climb Mount Everest, had converted to Islam before his death. The Islamic tribunal did not give a chance for his wife to give evidence as she is not a Muslim.
Surprisingly the nation’s High Court ruled that it had no jurisdiction in religious matters and could not override the shariah court in such matters. Moorthy was finally buried a Muslim, whether he actually was or not.
Abdullah’s administration quelled public debate on the matter. Anwar, on the other hand, has vehemently condemned the way the case was dealt with. “While speaking in a Muslim rural heartland in Kedah (northern state), I told the people it was wrong for the High Court to deny Moorthy’s wife, who is clearly a non-Muslim, the right to be heard in a civil court.”
Comments like these have earned Anwar the wrath of the government. A recent public speech was refused a police permit. But whether this signals a renewed desire to curb Anwar’s rising popularity remains to be seen. While there is little doubt that Anwar can pull in crowds, Parti Keadilan Rakyat has little mass support. Political observers say Wan Azizah lacks the charm of a leader, and Anwar simply went missing from the local political scene after his acquittal.
“I know I was away for 18 months, lecturing in the US. But I needed the money to support my family. Primarily I needed the international recognition to help me garner support in Malaysia,” he says.
Whatever the reasons, PKR has gained little traction. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) enjoys the support of the opposition Chinese. The Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) is popular among rural Malays in the northeastern state of Kelantan and Terengganu. PKR, a marginal multi-racial party, remains in limbo.
Anwar is confident that PKR can pull up its socks before the polls, which analysts say will be called by the end of 2007. “We are committed to a reform plan; Reform of the judiciary, administration and the working system of the government. UMNO is, on the other hand, corrupt to the core. I am sure the people will support us.”