Malaysian Seeks End to Decades of Firm Rule--would end policy that favors majority Malays over other ethnic groups
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Sun Sep 14 17:53:04 UTC 2008
September 14, 2008
Malaysian Seeks End to Decades of Firm Rule
By THOMAS FULLER
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — By the most obvious yardstick, this country
of 25 million people is a democracy: Malaysia has held regular
elections since independence from Britain five decades ago. Yet during
that time power has remained in the hands of one coalition, the media
has remained slavishly pro-government, the courts have often hewed
closely to the government line and critics of the country's leadership
have been detained without trial in periodic crackdowns. Now Malaysia
may be on the brink of a liberal, more democratic era.
The governing coalition is facing the very real possibility of losing
its grip on power to the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who says he
has enough votes to bring down the government and might do so as early
as this week. Mr. Anwar promises that if he become prime minister, he
would not only scrap laws that muzzle criticism, but also upend the
father-knows-best style of government and end a longstanding policy
that favored the country's majority Malays over other ethnic groups.
"I think we're on an irreversible trend of democratization because
it's coming from the bottom up," said Sivarasa Rasiah, a human rights
lawyer and one of many opposition members elected to Parliament in
March. If Mr. Anwar succeeds in taking over the government, his
actions could have implications far beyond Malaysia. A onetime
Islamist student radical, Mr. Anwar has emerged over the past decade
as one of the leading proponents of the idea that Islam and liberal
democracy are complementary. He has cultivated friendships with
leaders who share his views in Turkey and Indonesia, and he has built
bridges to the West.
He once served as a catalyst for the increasing religiosity among
Malaysia's Muslims. Today he walks the fine line between the
secularism of the country's Constitution and the demands by some
Islamic forces, including those in his own coalition, for socially
conservative policies. Mr. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who
once mingled with the very establishment he is now challenging, was
re-elected to Parliament in August.
As he and his allies in the opposition gained increased political
backing over the past several months, the government under Prime
Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has begun to strike back. In July, Mr.
Anwar was charged with sodomy for the second time in his career in a
case that a large majority of Malaysians surveyed in opinion polls say
reeks of politics. And several newspapers have been warned about
stepping out of line.
On Friday, a member of Parliament for the opposition, a newspaper
reporter and a prominent antigovernment blogger were detained under
the internal security act, which allows for indefinite detention
without trial. Syed Hamid Albar, the home minister, told reporters on
Saturday that the blogger and Parliament member had been detained for
inciting ethnic tensions but that the reporter, who was released
Saturday after 16 hours, was only questioned about her reporting on a
recent controversy involving a member of the governing party.
The governing party has leveled accusations of corruption in the
opposition's campaign to win over defectors: Khairy Jamaluddin, one of
the party's most articulate members, has denounced what he calls
"underhanded tactics," saying members of Parliament have reported
being offered money and positions of power in a future government, a
charge the opposition denies.
Last week, the battle between the government and opposition flirted
with absurdity. First, the governing party dispatched about 50
government lawmakers to Taiwan for what it called an agricultural
"study trip," which appeared to be an attempt to stop them from
crossing over to Mr. Anwar's side.
On Friday, opposition lawmakers followed them to Taiwan, checking into
the same hotel in the hopes of convincing would-be defectors to take
Mr. Anwar initially vowed to bring down the government by Tuesday,
saying he had written commitments from enough lawmakers to force the
government's collapse. But he now concedes that the governing
coalition's move to send lawmakers to Taiwan could succeed in drawing
off some support, forcing him to delay his bid for power.
The changes that Mr. Anwar has proposed could change Malaysia
substantially and fast.
"All the draconian, oppressive laws must go," Mr. Anwar said in a
He promises to repeal Malaysia's toughest laws that give the
government the power to detain opponents without trial, ban
unauthorized protests, bar students from participating in politics and
keep the news media in line by requiring newspapers and magazines to
apply for annual publishing permits.
He would also free all "political prisoners."
Perhaps most explosive, he said he would end many special privileges
for his own ethnic group, the Malays, who are given a variety of
advantages, including discounts on houses, exclusive rights to
government contracts and a reserved quota of stock-market shares. The
privileges have angered the country's two other main ethnic groups:
Malaysian citizens of Chinese and Indian descent.
It was that anger, directed at the ethnically mixed governing
coalition, that helped the opposition win just under half the popular
vote, by far the best showing for the opposition since independence.
Mr. Anwar contends, and many experts agree, that most of the special
privileges are enjoyed by a minority of Malays connected to the
governing party. Still, it remains to be seen whether Malays will
accept Mr. Anwar's proposal of policies based on need, not ethnicity.
Ethnic tensions have flared in the past, notably in 1969 when at least
200 people were killed in race-related violence.
Mr. Khairy of the governing party argues that Mr. Anwar is moving too
fast by proposing to scrap the country's harshest laws: Malaysia needs
them to guard against ethnic strife, he said in an interview.
"We are a maturing democracy," Mr. Khairy said. "These issues, to me,
still need a lot of debate. We need to continue the way the Abdullah
administration has done it, which is to reform gradually."
At least as challenging as balancing the rights of ethnic groups would
be managing the struggle between those who prefer a secular government
and those who want a wider application of Islamic laws for Muslims,
who make up 60 percent of the population.
In a recent interview in his sparsely furnished office, Mr. Anwar
apologized to a visitor for the heat and stuffiness; he keeps the
air-conditioning off during Ramadan because fasting from sunrise to
sunset gives him chills.
But he criticized the decision of the Prime Minister Abdullah to
suspend Parliament during Ramadan. "He thinks he's representing
himself as a good Muslim," Mr. Anwar said. "I think it's reactionary."
"If you want to fast, go ahead," he said. "But go on with your life.
If you fast and it causes productivity to drop there's something wrong
Some Muslim groups have called for greater punishments for apostates,
those who leave the religion, and stronger enforcement of social laws
like keeping unmarried couples chaste.
While Mr. Anwar clearly has a strong following, many Malaysians,
especially those in the elite who have much to lose if the opposition
takes power, question his sincerity and wonder whether a leader who
has gone through so many permutations in his career can be trusted.
Mr. Anwar rose to prominence as an Islamic student radical before
joining the governing party and eventually becoming deputy prime
minister. But he is perhaps best known for his sudden downfall in 1998
shortly after challenging the prime minister at the time, Mahathir
Mohamad, for power.
Mr. Anwar was detained under the internal security act, beaten, given
a black eye by the chief of police (who lost his job over the episode)
and sentenced to 15 years for sodomy and abuse of power in trying to
cover up the sodomy allegations. In 2004, the country's highest court
struck down the sodomy verdict and released him, citing faulty
procedures by the prosecution, but the judge, in a highly unusual
statement, said he believed that the sodomy allegations were true
Like the charges in the first trial, the latest charges of sodomy,
which were lodged by a 23-year-old campaign aide, are considered
highly politicized. The deputy prime minister, Najib Razak, a chief
rival of Mr. Anwar's, initially denied that he had anything to do with
the case but then admitted that he had met with Mr. Anwar's accuser
before the allegations were made public.
Salehuddin Hashim, a high school friend of Mr. Anwar's who is now the
secretary general of his party, admits to doubts about Mr. Anwar's
past, especially his years in the governing party. Even the party's
leaders admit that money politics and corruption are rampant within
the party's ranks.
"Anwar wasn't a paragon of justice or virtue," Mr. Salehuddin said.
"He was part of the racket."
But he said that six years in prison changed Mr. Anwar and made him
more sensitive to injustices in Malaysia, a relatively prosperous
country with one of the highest levels of income inequality in Asia.
"It's a credit to Anwar that he managed to galvanize people into
focusing what they are unhappy about," Mr. Salehuddin said. "He
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