As the trial of Anwar Ibrahim progresses under the scrutiny of the Malaysian public and the watchful eyes of the international community, we are once again faced with a disturbingly familiar repeat of the infamous events that transpired eleven years ago.
The dubious way in which the previous Anwar trials were conducted left the public seething at the crude parody of justice. It generated a political aftershock for BN and left a black mark in the nation’s history.
Many Malaysians believe the present charge against Anwar are politically motivated and the conduct of the prosecution has reinforced their doubts. Few believe that Anwar will get a fair trial.
Will Anwar’s jailing help BN retain power or will it do the opposite and boost the opposition’s chances? If the prosecution can prove an ironclad case the political fallout will be limited but if Anwar’s conviction is seen as a travesty of justice BN will pay a heavy political price.
To gauge the political effect of jailing Anwar it is instructive to recount the impact of the previous conviction and compare the different socio-political environment in the intervening twelve years.
Back to 1998
In 1998 when Anwar was charged for sodomy and abuse of power, Mahathir was the Prime Minister and he ruled over a Barisan National political machine which faced no creditable challenge by the then fragmented opposition. The premier’s authoritarian style earned him the label of ‘dictator’ and his liberal use of the ISA to quell dissent invoked a climate of fear.
Although Mahathir achieved his aim of jailing Anwar, the effect of Anwar’s downfall a decade ago could not have been what he had foreseen or desired. Despite the most heavy-handed and crude methods, he also failed to destroy Anwar politically or personally.
The twists and turns of the trial, the controversial rulings and the wholly disproportionate sentence convinced nobody. Anwar’s unfortunate beating in prison and his appearance with a black eye caused a public outcry. Despite the valiant attempts of the supine mass media to demonize Anwar, the majority of Malaysians believed that Anwar was a victim of political conspiracy after a fallout with Mahathir.
It created a political and social crisis which reverberates to this day. The U.S. State Department called the sodomy trial an abuse of human rights which was only one of a multitude of condemnations which poured in from overseas. The judiciary became the laughing stock of the international community.
Domestically, Mahathir’s reputation suffered serious harm with calls for him to resign. Demonstrations which were previously unknown in Malaysia broke out with cries of ‘Reformasi!’ and “Mahathir Resign!” They were forcibly suppressed but the anger in the hearts of the people and the disquiet created in civil society lingered to this day.
The social forces unleashed led to the birth of the National Justice Party which was later to become Parti Keadilan Rakyat. The party’s symbol is an eye against a light blue background to denote Anwar’s famous black eye.
The General Election of 1999
The injustice meted out to Anwar caused the three main opposition parties – DAP, PAS and Keadilan – to come together into an electoral coalition called Barisan Alternatif to harness the wave of the public anger. However, this failed to unseat BN or deny BN two-thirds majority in the general election of 1999.
There were many reasons for this, chiefly being the non-Malays’ fear of PAS as Islamic extremists which PAS did nothing to assuage and in fact foolishly exacerbated with calls for an Islamic State. Mahathir also courted the Chinese, aware that his relationship with the Malays was severely strained. About 650,000 newly registered young voters were prevented from voting on the specious excuse that there was not enough time to register them. Hundreds of pages of pro-BN advertisements were published in the one-sided mass media and the playing up of inter-ethnic fear ensured that there was no fair election.
In the end, it was the non-Malays who saved Mahathir from a humiliating loss of BN’s two-thirds majority, which would have forced his immediate exit. There was a significant Malay swing against BN and for the first time, Umno’s share of the Malay vote dropped below 50%.
PAS turned out to be the chief beneficiary, increasing its parliamentary seats from 7 to 27 and capturing Terengganu as it rode on the groundswell of Malay anger over the Anwar injustice. After the election, a joke circulating around at that time was that the difference between a Malay and a Chinese was that the Chinese supported Umno!
Mahathir announced his resignation as Umno President and Prime Minister in 2002, acutely aware that his relationship with the Malays was broken. The baton was handed over to Abdullah Badawi in 2003 and the following general election in 2004 saw BN winning its best performance ever with 90% of parliamentary seats, not because of Badawi’s popularity but because Mahathir was gone.
But the reverberations from the 1999 sodomy case did not end there. After Anwar was released from prison, he forged an electoral pact between PKR, PAS and DAP which resulted in the loss of BN’s two-thirds majority in Parliament and 5 states in the 2008 general election. From this stunning opposition gains, Pakatan Rakyat was born.
Although all this is history, they are worth recounting because one can learn from the past in order not to repeat the same mistakes.
In 1998 the mass media was under much tighter control and the online world was at its infancy. The words ‘blog’, ‘facebook’ or ‘twitter’ had not been invented and Internet penetration was low at less than 15%. It has now exceeded 70%.
People are now far more connected than a decade ago with the proliferation of the online world with its news, blogs, discussion groups, social networking sites, e-mail, mobile phones and SMS. The trial proceedings will be reported in detail, analyzed and dissected. Nothing can be hidden, distorted or obfuscated.
No amount of spinning in the mainstream media will convince a public otherwise if injustice has been committed. It did not work in 1998 and it will not work now especially when the online world has reached mainstream status and there is a freer flow of information.
With the rise of Pakatan Rakyat, people’s expectations are higher and they are now more demanding of good and accountable government based on social justice and the rule of law. It is cavalier to think that Malaysians do not care about injustice and human right abuses as long as the economy performs well.
If Anwar can be convicted in a fair trial with his guilt proven beyond reasonable doubt, little political price need to be paid by the ruling regime but the existence of two medical reports that the accuser had not been sodomized has already tainted the prosecution’s case.
The believability of DNA evidence involves a strong element of trust in the efficiency, professionalism and impartiality of the law enforcement bodies. In a politically charged trial where a person is seen as the victim of the entire state apparatus the use of DNA evidence is less than convincing especially when an attempt was made to fix Anwar using planted DNA evidence in 1998.
We must also remember that the heady economic growth of the 1990’s engendered more tolerance for Mahathir’s autocracy while Najib has his hands full trying to keep the economy growing on the back of the world economic crisis.
We can hence expect deeper political and social consequences compared to 1998.
The political ramifications this time around will be huge. Unlike 1999, the opposition parties have coalesced into a workable coalition and are ready to challenge BN for the seat of power, a far cry from just trying to grab as many seats as possible. A one party system has morphed into a two party system although BN is still in denial.
Non-Malays have also lost their fear of PAS and interethnic tensions have dissipated meaning that two powerful weapons that used to work with devastating efficiency to garner votes from the non-Malays have been lost.
With the non-Malays now overwhelmingly pro- Pakatan Rakyat, BN’s fortunes now depend on the Malays who are the very group likely to be incensed with any cruel and unjust treatment of Anwar.
It is worth noting that PAS’ gains in 1999 were in the rural Malay seats where it fishes in the same pond as Umno. With Umno now heavily dependent on the rural Malays to maintain its power, it seems reckless to put this voter base at risk with another clumsy and incredulous sodomy conviction.
A perception that Anwar had been unjustly jailed may create an anti-BN wave which the opposition can ride to victory and the non-Malays will not be saving BN this time around.
Aside from the political consequences, a more insidious effect will be a crisis of public confidence in the law enforcement bodies which is already low. As these bodies need the cooperation and respect of the public to function effectively, this means their efficiency in tackling crime and corruption will be hobbled.
For example, the MACC has been seriously hobbled with the dive in public confidence following its one-sided investigations and Teoh Beng Hock’s death and will continue to be so until major revamps are made to instill back public confidence.
Society is traumatized by crude and offensive displays of injustice. The negative sentiment will affect private domestic investment which is already in decline and foreign investors will discouraged from investing in a country with a broken judiciary.
Unlike 1998 Anwar is now opposition leader. To jail him on a specious charge with a dubious trial will project the perception that an opposition leader has been jailed on sham charges to remove him from the political scene.
This will invite condemnations from the international community and put the country in the company of banana republics such as Myanmar and Zimbabwe. The negative image projected by the country will drive away tourists and discourage others from holding functions in Malaysia.
As for Najib, his hold on Umno will weaken with the decline in public support which may impair his ability to push through further reforms. Public support has a direct effect on his ability to control his party warlords whose personal interests do not always coincide with public interests.
What Now, Najib?
There is something called the law of unintended consequences. Instead of weakening the opposition by removing Anwar, the opposition may be rejuvenated instead and the public may rally around him as a martyr of injustice and a victim of abuse of power.
Mahathir harboured a deep personal animosity towards Anwar. He was willing to take any political risks to humiliate and destroy Anwar, even though general election was around the corner. The resulting social and political turmoil was acceptable collateral damage.
Without the cloud of personal animosity, Najib should act in a rational manner and weigh the political risks and social consequences against the uncertain gain.
A conviction which is widely perceived as unfair and a political conspiracy will fall squarely on Najib’s shoulders. Rightly or wrongly, he will be blamed so it is not just Anwar who is on trial but also Najib’s credibility and the Malaysian justice system.
It is to Najib’s interest that Anwar be given a fair trial and acquitted if there is no case. To push through a conviction on the basis of political expediency will unleash social forces which may sweep BN from power. – harakahdaily