Thursday, January 19, 2012

MALAYSIA: Anwar in the Mix

For the past 13 years Malaysian politics has been on a loop the political equivalent of “Groundhog Day” as events (most notably opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s two sodomy trials) are repeated ad nauseam

Last week, thankfully, the cycle was smashed. The acquittal of the former deputy prime minister has given the country an opportunity to move forward — all the more so since national polls must be held before mid-2013.

Why is this so? Well, as mentioned at the start, the seemingly endless cycle of political missteps in Malaysia over the past decade has had an enervating effect on its people. Faith in national institutions has been eroded. The judiciary and the police have become increasingly distrusted.

The many instances of corruption, abuse of power and perceived selective persecution have whittled away at Malaysians’ faith in their country and one another. The attendant suspicion has made moving the nation forward, whether socially or economically, very difficult.

The Anwar decision provides a glimmer of hope because it shows there have been some people working toward a regeneration of the country’s damaged institutions. This has engendered a slow revival of Malaysia’s public institutions and a realization that some form of political liberalization is unavoidable.

The most notable figure has been Malaysia’s fearless auditor general, whose regular reports have continued to highlight government mismanagement and negligence. There are also the reforms of Prime Minister Najib Razak which, while tentative and timid, have shown that the government does recognize that the civil liberties agenda is unavoidable even if the net result has been half-baked and ill-conceived such as the controversial Peaceful Assembly Bill and election reform.

Indeed, it would seem that the people staffing these institutions have come to realize they have a larger duty to the people and that this surpasses any political pressure that may be brought upon them. Such sentiments are crucial if the country is to progress.

There will always be questions over Anwar’s character and judgment. Nevertheless, we cannot dismiss the psychological impact of the trial. It is proof that Malaysia’s judiciary is more independent than commonly thought and that all Malaysians can seek justice.

As I said, it’s a start — but only that. The real question is, where do we go from here?

For the ruling Barisan Nasional and its Malay-majority UMNO lynchpin, the challenge is whether it will continue be able to promote a more positive, less-racially divisive national agenda. Will Najib’s party rise to the policy challenges presented by the opposition? Can the UMNO learn to engage Anwar and the Pakatan Rakyat opposition on a level playing field, which includes equal access to the tightly-controlled media?

Najib has the talent and willingness to do so, but his efforts at reform have been stymied by members of his own party.

Whatever UMNO chooses, Anwar and Pakatan are now a fact of life that the BN will have to deal with.

Anwar has made his political career operating outside the establishment. The various personal attacks on him, as well as UMNO’s use of sectarian rhetoric, have only made the opposition stronger as public disdain for “dirty tricks” grows.

For the opposition, Anwar’s acquittal is a sign that it’s time to get down to business. Pakatan has been distracted by its leader’s personal dramas for far too long at the price of being able to articulate coherent policy positions. There should be no distractions now.

Now, Anwar’s acquittal spices Malaysian politics up considerably. The next general elections, which are expected to happen later this year, will be more closely-fought with two brilliant but cagey protagonists — Najib and Anwar — at their respective helms.

Indeed, it’s very difficult to say who will come out on top. There are so many “wild cards,” not least how Sabah and Sarawak will vote. It could very well be that we could be looking at status quo: namely a BN re-election, but without regaining what it lost in 2008.

This may disappoint eager supporters on both sides, but it also means that the gains Malaysians have made in terms of reform will not be swept away, or become an uncontrollable flood.

Malaysians will have to learn — like Indonesians have — that democracy is a slow, tedious process but one that’s ultimately necessary if a country is to progress. The country itself will be the ultimate winner.

By Karim Raslan columnist who divides his time between Malaysia and Indonesia.

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