Malaysia: Anwar's Trial Ending, Umno's Just Beginning


Clive S. Kessler

Even before it began, it was clear that the trial of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim could have only one of two outcomes. For him to be found guilty would be enormously divisive, and would alienate many of the new generation causes and social forces with which he had become identified. But the consequences of his acquittal would clearly be explosive for Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the dominant UMNO party and the entire Malaysian elite.

As the trial, or possibly the first of Anwar's trials, approaches its conclusion, the consensus of Anwar supporters and foes alike is that he will be found guilty and receive a sentence of some four to six years. Depending upon how Malaysian politics evolve, he may not eventually serve his entire sentence, but it is long enough to put him out of play while new political scenarios are set in train and new political careers and alliances shaped.

It has certainly been of no help to Anwar that the original charges against him were amended, making them easier to prove and harder to rebut. Nor has it been helpful that the presiding judge's rulings have prevented his lawyers from offering their client's preferred defence. Now that the amended charge is simply that he had the police intimidate those who were making sexual allegations against him, it seems strange that his defence lawyers have not sharply posed the question whether responsibility for the police fell within the former Deputy Prime Minister's cabinet portfolio, rather than that of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir as Home Minister and Dato' Megat Junid, then Deputy Home Minister.

Legally, Anwar's defence does not seem to have been particularly effective. It seems to have been designed for its political effect: not to offer a clear political analysis or alternative but to imply that murky political stratagems lie behind the visible play of controversial events, undermining public credence in official accounts of them and of national life generally.

In this, through the scripting of his exemplary martyrdom, Anwar seems to have largely succeeded, but, at the same time, the country has been polarized. Those who remain loyal to their leader are incensed at the damage done to the nation and its future. Among many of those who have not been closely tied into Dr. Mahathir's national development strategies, the trial has served to catalyse and focus deep-seated doubts, discontents and resentments. This group includes many from a younger generation of "thirty-somethings", often impatient with the obligatory deference and prudent silence that characterize the old UMNO way of doing politics, who respond not so much to Anwar as to the various concerns and the more open social approach, encapsulated in the notion of 'civil society', with which Anwar notably identified himself.

For Malaysia's newly emerging opposition, the key question remains how to reconcile these new forces with what still remains the organizational and communications mainstay of the reform movement: the old Parti Islam or PAS. Now seeking to modify and soften its stern image (especially following its insistent support throughout the 1990s for the strict implementation of the shari'a law punishments of amputation of thieves, stoning of adulterers and death for apostates), PAS has few obvious affinities with the values of "civil society" or the aspirations of the old social democrats and "thirty-something yuppies" now politically energized by Anwar's political demise and unconvincing trial. The rise of the Adil movement led by Anwar's wife Dr. Wan Azizah seems an attempt to create some alternative or supplementary political vehicle for the still heavily PAS-dependent opposition.

Despite these opposition difficulties, to a large degree Dr. Mahathir's survival and the newly designated line of succession to Dato' Abdullah Badawi arelinked to an economic recovery whose prospects remain heavily dependent upon wary international investor sentiment. More difficult, they will also require UMNO somehow to "reinvent" itself in order not just to contain but actually to embrace some of the new political forces released into play by the remarkable events of the last year. Whether UMNO can summon the will and imagination to address this challenge is unclear.

WATCHPOINT: Can UMNO meet this challenge?


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