Anwar Ibrahim is an unusual man in two respects. One is that the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia is probably the only senior politician in the world to have been charged with sodomy (which is a crime in Malaysia). Not only that: he was charged with sodomy twice, in trials 10 years apart — and the charges were dismissed both times. The last time was January 9.
The other unusual thing about Anwar is that he has managed to build a real opposition alliance in Malaysia, which may well end the ruling party’s half-century grip on power in the forthcoming elections. As you might expect, these two facts are not entirely unrelated.
The reason that the National Front coalition has ruled Malaysia ever since independence in 1957, even though Malaysia is a democracy where you would expect an occasional change of government, is fear. Many Malaysians of all ethnic groups fear that the National Front is the only thing that keeps the lid on the bubbling pot of ethnic resentments.
For many centuries the dominant ethnic group in the country was the Malays, but under British rule a huge wave of immigration from China and the Indian subcontinent reduced the Malays to only 60 per cent of the population. Almost all of the Malays were Muslim; few of the others were. But the bigger problem was that the Malays ended up much poorer than the newcomers.
In 1969, there were bloody riots in Kuala Lumpur that killed at least hundreds of people, and perhaps as many as 2,000.
The country was already growing fast economically (it has averaged 6.5 per cent annually for the past 50 years), and all the ethnic elites were terrified that more violence would kill the goose that was laying the golden eggs. So they made new rules that would placate the angry Malay majority by giving them priority in employment, education, business and access to cheap housing and assisted savings.
Those rules are still in effect, and the National Front, Malay-dominated but embodying leading members of all communities, won eight successive elections because its “New Economic Policy” (which was really about race) was seen as the only formula for domestic peace. However, time passes and circumstances change.
Anwar began as a student leader demanding an even more privileged place for Malays and Muslims in Malaysia, but he has travelled a long way since then. Mahathir Mohamad, the autocratic prime minister who ruled from 1981 to 2003, picked him as a potential successor and rapidly promoted him to deputy prime minister, but then in the late 1990s they fell out.
Their quarrels were over issues like Mahathir’s toleration of corruption, but the basic problem was that Mahathir did not tolerate dissent. Anwar was dismissed as deputy prime minister in 1998, and immediately afterwards he was charged with corruption and sodomy. The aim was not only to jail him but to discredit him in the eyes of pious voters.
Anwar was jailed in 1999, but his sodomy conviction (based on highly implausible evidence) was overturned by Malaysia’s Federal Court in 2004. Having served five years on the corruption charge, he returned to politics, but now as the leader of the People’s Alliance, an improbable coalition of Islamic, Malay nationalist and ethnic Chinese parties. And in the 2008 election, the People’s Alliance won one-third of the seats in parliament.
So Anwar was immediately charged with sodomy again. Even fewer people believed it this time, and a week ago, quite contrary to expectations, a court threw the charges out. “To be honest I was a little surprised,” Anwar said afterwards. And now that he has emerged from that shadow, he stands a good chance of winning the election that must be held this year or next.
Thirty per cent of the voters are undecided, and at least half the seats in the country are up for grabs. If the People’s Alliance wins, it will be because Malaysians of all ethnic groups believe that the “New Economic Policy” (which could be called the “New Ethnic Policy”) is an outdated relic that facilitates corruption, and prefer a government that treats all Malaysians the same regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
Then Anwar and everybody else will find out whether the country has really outgrown its ethnic obsessions.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.