by Kuala Lumpur Correspondent (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 5, Muharram, 1420)
Although Anwar Ibrahim’s ‘conviction’ on corruption charges was a foregone conclusion, the April 14 verdict still sent shock waves through Malaysia. The sentence - six years in jail - was even heavier than expected, and Judge Augustine Paul’s decision to have the prison term begin from the day of the conviction, not the day of Anwar’s arrest in September, was seen as being petty and vicious.
That Paul failed to deliver justice was not a surprise. Plucked from obscurity by prime minister Mahathir Mohamed to preside over the case, he acted not as a man of law, but as his master’s voice. Mahathir had not gone through such elaborate procedures only to have the case thrown out. That would have been more politically suicidal. But his popularity has plummeted. This was reflected in the rumours that swept the country when he entered hospital following his return from Hajj on March 31. The 73-year-old premier was suffering from a respiratory ailment - a common enough affliction among hujjaj - but word quickly spread that he was on the verge of death. Reaction was decidedly mixed, with at least some people appearing jubilant rather than sympathetic.
The verdict against Anwar was greeted by spontaneous demonstrations. According to eyewitnesses, at least 50,000 people converged at the Gombak headquarters of the Parti Islam Semalaysia (PAS) in Kuala Lumpur for a “Day of Unity for Malaysian People” the same day. (An Agence France Presse report claimed a figure of only 5,000.)
The assembled masses, which spread into streets surrounding the PAS offices, were addressed by PAS president Ustadz Fadzil Noor, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife and head of the newly-formed National Justice Party, Syed Husin Ali of the Malaysian People’s Party, and Tan Sang Giaw, deputy president of the Democratic Action Party. Ustadz Fadzil also heads the Malaysian People’s Justice Movement (Gerak), set up by three opposition parties and 14 other mainly Muslim groups shortly after Anwar was arrested last September. A huge banner reading ‘Together We Oppose Cruelty’ reflected their common purpose.
Syed Husin Ali urged the rally to unite to bring down the Mahathir regime in the elections due some time over the next year. “We can’t just change the government with slogans. We need hard work,” he said. “Those in power have the money, the machinery and the media. Political parties and other groups must unite. If not, we will be defeated”.
Tan Sang Giaw, deputy president of the Democratic Action Party, meanwhile, appealed for racial harmony among Malaysia’s diverse populations of Malays, Chinese and Indians. “We have to narrow the differences and end the cruelty,” Tan said, calling for ‘transparent’ government.
Attempts by Mahathir and his supporters to divide people along racial and religious lines have been successfully thwarted by PAS and other opposition parties. In one of the most remarkable developments, PAS rallies are attracting Chinese and Indians (all non-Malay) as well. This has led to fears that elections may be cancelled under some pretext, as the ruling regime faces defeat.
Protest rallies have continued in Kuala Lumpur despite the police using water cannons, clubs and tear gas to disperse crowds. Many of the protesters are students, who are ignoring threats by the education minister, Najib Tan Abdur Razak, that students participating in such protests may be expelled from university.
“We the students of Malaysia are fed up and sick of Mahathir,” a student leader said at one such rally on April 17. “We want to show the world that Malaysians are able to bring about changes toward a more democratic country, not a country ruled by a handful of Mahathir cronies,” he added.
Mahathir, meanwhile called for unity among Malaysians in a special New Hijra Year (1420) message on April 17. “The country will collapse if the people are disunited and concerned only with self-interest,” he was quoted as saying by Bernama.
Most observers saw this as a cynical ploy to deflect attention from his own heavyhandedness. The case against Anwar was based on false charges and pursued in order to protect Mahathir and his cronies from accountability. It is Mahathir’s self-interest that has led to the current crisis dividing the country as never before. In fact, he is using the threat of disunity to stifle criticism of his oppressive tactics.
However, even if there is an election, rigging is a common practice by Mahathir and his supporters. A wounded animal is at its most dangerous. Already some have complained of their election registrations names being transferred to other districts. Anwar’s wife, Azizah, is set to contest Mahathir’s own seat in in Kubang Pasu, Kedah state.
Anwar, however, need not worry about his name being transferred to some other district for the foreseeable future. If he serves his full sentence, he will not, under Malaysian law, be permitted to re-enter politics before 2015, and therefore will pose no personal challenge to Mahathir. Mahathir’s court may have delivered the judgement that he wanted; history is sure to pass a very different verdict.
Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1999