Malaysia: Next Moves?


Clive S Kessler

The release from jail of Anwar Ibrahim confirmed two points long made by close observers of the Malaysian situation: that the key to opening his cell lay first in politics, not with the judiciary; and that, because others had taken so heavily to him, Anwar would be essential to the UMNO's task of putting the 'Anwar episode' behind it, and moving on to its next phase and challenges.

Now that Anwar has been released, albeit still with restrictions, and allowed to seek medical treatment overseas, he may enjoy a period of recovery and reflection. But not for long. He will have to make choices. What choices he makes will depend upon what he discovers now to be not only his inclinations but also his capacities.

A period in jail may strengthen the soul, sharpen the mind, focus an intelligent politician's analytical attention. But for a politician who has thrived by mobilizing popular support not simply with his ideas but by the oratorical force of his expression of them, physical illness can be not simply debilitating but cruelly terminal. If the neck and back lack the strength to sustain him upright, the lungs - the physical source of the orator's power - cannot launch into public space the ideas that fascinate and embrace the citizenry; without that oratorical force, the politician is denied the means of recreating and enlarging himself as a public personality. Not just Anwar, but Malaysians generally, must await clarification of his politically salient physical capacities.

Whatever his situation, Anwar will have to decide whether his future life and public role are still in politics or else beyond it, say, as some sort of Distinguished National Scholar at one of Malaysia's universities. If his way is still to be in politics, then he must decide where: once more in the UMNO, with the opposition, or in some new kind of 'citizenship politics' - possibly employing some new political form and vehicle - beyond what has hitherto been the conventional 'political game' in Malaysia. Sooner or later, Anwar will have to choose.

But the challenge of choice does not face Anwar alone. Since the early 1990s the various Malaysian opposition parties have sought, unsuccessfully, to find some enduring formula and basis for cooperation, in a united front, against UMNO-led Barisan Nasional dominance. This has never been easy. The Barisan both exemplifies and manages communalism; it politically upholds both Islamic primacy and a modest religious pluralism and residual secularism. Contesting it, the opposition is forever polarized, and fighting to overcome polarization, on communal and religious lines.

The only time when it came close to succeeding was in 1999 when, in a time of wider political and economic crisis, the bruised features of the jailed Anwar and the unifying call for his release made an Alternative Front almost credible. That was before Dr Mahathir could recover politically, before PAS raised the stakes in its game of political bluff over instituting an Islamic State in Malaysia, and before the worldwide political trauma of September 2001. Even so, little more than Anwar and the call for justice for him could be devised to unify the opposition parties at the 2004 elections.

Anwar's release now poses crucial choices, not simply tactical or strategic but historical and existential, to all of Malaysia's opposition parties. It raises fundamental questions about how they, separately and perhaps together, now see Malaysian society, what plausible future they might together imagine for it, and about the nature and role of political opposition itself in Malaysia. For them all, a time of choice has arrived.

The same challenge - the need to choose intelligently not for short-term tactical advantage but on the basis of long-term political interest and judgment - applies to the UMNO itself. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi certainly strengthened his own party position with the winning of his enormous popular mandate at the 2004 national elections. But the UMNO still needs to 'move beyond' the Anwar imbroglio, and the Prime Minister has to decide how he wants to do so, and what role, within the party or beyond, he will seek to have Anwar play in that process.

A gesture of generosity and compassion, if not yet of personal and political forgiveness, might be appropriate, in the form of a government role in launching Anwar into a new post-political career as Malaysian Scholar and Oracle At Large. On the other hand, a suitably managed and controlled readmission of Anwar into UMNO might be just what the Prime Minister may need in order to consolidate his own position (and his own preferred succession to it, whatever that might be) against intra-party rivalry, contention, and acrimonious destabilization. He may find, even reluctantly, that he may need to call upon a part of UMNO's old order to redress an emerging imbalance in the new. Whatever he decides, and whatever options others (including, but not only, Anwar) may allow him in this choice of direction, the challenge of choice now faces the UMNO just as it does the opposition and Anwar personally.

Not only Anwar, the opposition and UMNO but the entire framework of Malaysian politics now faces a turning point. Different futures beckon at this present crossroad, from contrasting directions. For many in Malaysian politics, a rare moment of choice has arrived. Yet the great genius of Malaysian politics, one must recall, has always been its ability to ensure that all sorts of rival scenarios and alternative futures, from time to time in the offing, do not in fact eventuate. Inertia and the insistent pull of powerful entrenched interests may well hold developments to a course closely resembling that followed now for almost a half-century of UMNO-managed independence. But the likelihood of well-rehearsed continuity should not blind anyone to the fact that the possibility of a turning point has been reached.

WATCHPOINT: What will be Anwar's next move and how will others, in both Opposition and Government, respond to it?


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