Last edited: September 06, 2004

Malaysians Look Ahead

The Straits Times, September 4, 2004

WHEN, on Thursday, Malaysia’s highest court decided to free former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, convicted in August 2000 for sodomy, it drew the curtains on a six-year political saga that has done the country little good. That point was made by the Kuala Lumpur stock market, which moved up nearly 2 per cent to a six-week high, and by bond prices, which rose as well. According to investors, the verdict was seen as lowering Malaysia’s political risk. It is not difficult to see why. Mr Anwar’s sacking from his post in 1998 after a fallout with then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, and his expulsion from Umno, led to the country’s worst political crisis. Instead of accepting his fate, Mr Anwar rallied tens of thousands of supporters behind his call for reformasi—reform and an end to corruption. In scenes that would have been considered inconceivable in Malaysia before the Anwar affair broke loose, protesters converged on the premier’s residence, the police fired tear gas and water cannon, and Mr Anwar was arrested at home. When he arrived in court with a black eye, saying that the police had beaten him unconscious after his arrest, he became an icon for the opposition, which took reformasi from the highways to the by-ways of Malaysian politics. Voters punished Umno and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in the 1999 general election. It was not till Malaysia went to the polls under a new premier that the Anwar factor receded.

The question is whether it has returned with his release. He is barred from taking an active role in politics until April 2008, but his legal team wants to have his remaining criminal conviction, for corruption, overturned. Success there would pave the way for an immediate return to politics, his family lawyer says. In the meanwhile, he has decided to remain in the opposition and has accused the ruling party of a lack of clarity in embracing reform, but he has added that he can work with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. This nuanced appraisal of his options is to be expected given his need to temper his anger over his incarceration with gratitude to the new government for not coming in the way of his release. However, his release does take some wind out of the sails of the reformasi movement since, obviously, he himself was the movement’s banner. More important, Malaysians appear to desire a closure to a divisive and disruptive era which ended, where Umno was concerned, with Datuk Seri Abdullah’s accession to power. Mr Anwar now has an excellent opportunity to help Malaysia move beyond the saga centring on him. The needs of stability, on which prosperity rests, are supreme.

Developments in Malaysia are of a piece with trends in the wider region. The Asian economic crisis of 1997 played havoc with politics as well. Differences between Mr Anwar and Tun Dr Mahathir over handling the crisis worsened bad relations between the two, and led to the heir-designate’s downfall. In Indonesia, President Suharto’s grip on power unravelled because his iron hand could no longer offer the iron bowl of growth and progress. Today, the region shows economic and political stability going hand in hand once again. Political transitions have occurred in several countries, economies are looking up, and Asean has recovered much of the confidence which the crisis battered. Singaporeans, like Malaysia’s other well-wishers, would hope that the country progresses under the talented and forward-looking leadership of Datuk Seri Abdullah. It is the future that matters.

[Home] [World] [Malaysia]