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Power, Remorse & Redemption Act III: Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s Own Fifty Shades

Najib Razak became Prime Minister six years after Mahathir retired. You may have heard of Najib: he’s being investigated in at least ten countries in the scandal known as 1MDB. With his rise and recent fall, Malaysian history turned a full circle. Najib’s father was none other than Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister on May 13 1969.

Najib’s father had a reputation for caring deeply about Malaysia, but this sense of duty seems to have eluded the son. After being thrown out of office on May 9, Malaysian police found 72 suitcases stashed with over £21 million in cash in Najib’s residences. It’s a staggering amount, but a drop in the ocean compared to the £200 million loot that was subsequently discovered and the total sum he is alleged to have siphoned off.

Admittedly, we don’t yet know the whole truth. But from information already in the public domain, there are obvious irregularities. Najib wakes up with several hundred million dollars in his personal bank account. He claims that the money is a donation from a Saudi national. The head of Malaysia’s anticorruption commission who investigates has his life threatened. This official is forced into early retirement; members of his staff are arrested; the head of the police force is hastily replaced. (Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Hollywood, the Wolf of Wall Street and Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, he’s caught in the net too.)

With all this happening in real life, who needs drama? You can understand why I spent a lot of time this past May glued to Malaysian news channels. The actions above, if proven, amount to official tampering in an investigation. The precedents, of course, were set before Najib ascended the throne. Official interference did not start with him. Najib merely took Mahathir’s playbook and enhanced it.

The Case of Anwar Ibrahim: Fifty Shades of Grey

Recall, from Act II, Mahathir’s allergic reactions to criticism. We saw what he did to protesting judges, so it’s no surprise that when a potential political rival emerged, such a man would be given short shrift. The 1997 Asian financial crisis provided the backdrop for their showdown.

Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister at the time was Anwar Ibrahim, an Islamic scholar who had been courted and brought into UMNO by Mahathir. You’re likely to have heard of Anwar: he’s the guy who has been jailed for sodomy. Here’s the story as I see it, and you can judge for yourself.

By the time the Asian crisis struck, Mahathir was already unhappy with Anwar’s reformist credentials. As Malaysian companies collapsed, the two men disagreed on policy. Anwar favoured a free-market approach, mixing austerity with trade and investment. Mahathir, on the other hand, was loath to cancel his pet megaprojects. Instead of doing the soul-searching work of asking where Malaysia had gone wrong, he preferred blaming currency traders like George Soros, who’s Jewish, and for Mahathir’s views on Jews, read on.

Reformist zeal aside, Mahathir could not have taken kindly to Anwar’s outspoken comments about nepotism and cronyism within UMNO. Anwar made no secret of his ambitions to reform Malaysia. His standing in Western political and financial circles soared.

When it emerged that Newsweek magazine was set to name Anwar Ibrahim its ‘Asian of the Year’, rumours began to circulate. In Malaysia – as in 36 other Commonwealth countries – homosexuality between consenting males remains illegal. A ‘book’ quickly appeared stating 50 reasons why Anwar was unfit to be Prime Minister – Malaysia’s own Fifty Shades. Among them were claims of sodomy, sedition and the obstruction of justice. The relationship between Anwar and Mahathir became untenable. Anwar was summarily sacked and ousted from UMNO. Three weeks later he was arrested and charged with corruption and sodomy.

None of the above dimmed Anwar’s reformist ambitions. While awaiting trial he initiated the movement for democratic reform in Malaysia. From this Reformasi movement a new multi-racial political party sprang up which would become the People’s Justice Party. Anwar Ibrahim is its de facto head, the first Malay to lead a multi-racial political party in Malaysia.

This is an important point. Anwar Ibrahim was born a bumiputera, a person with special rights in Malaysia. He did not need to form an inclusive, multi-racial political party: he chose to do so. Fundamental reform in Malaysia will require the buy-in of all its races.

To stop Anwar’s political ambitions and silence his calls for reform, he was convicted of sodomy and jailed, not once but twice – in 1999 and then again in 2015, the second time under Najib’s watch. Having already been detained during his student years, Anwar is rather familiar with Malaysia’s prisons. Throughout, he has not wavered in his hopes of securing lasting democratic reform in Malaysia. In early May, he replied to one of my tweets of support with the single word, ‘Reformasi’. The man has grit.

It was during his most recent prison stint that the mother of all scandals broke. This time the figures were too large to be covered up, even by a government adept at malfeasance. Around US$700 million had been found in Najib Razak’s personal bank account. Najib denied wrongdoing, but with allegations swirling the US Department of Justice ordered its largest ever seizure of assets. Switzerland, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates joined the global investigation. Malaysia was in the news again.

In this simmering stew, UMNO members overwhelmingly chose silence. To his credit Mahathir quit in disgust, forming a new political party (though bumiputera-only).

Change was coming. A few months later Mahathir reached out to Anwar, the man he had once jailed, and they met for the first time in 18 years. Their rapprochement was not something Malaysians would ever have imagined. Nor was it easy for Anwar Ibrahim and his family to put the past behind: they’ve spoken publicly about how hard it was for them to forgive Mahathir. I like to think that Mahathir, too, as he watched from the sidelines, felt some remorse at the harm his own actions had caused. Malaysia could not go on as it had. All of us knew this. Our country’s soul was at stake.

History was about to be made. Since its founding, Anwar’s Justice Party had often contested elections in alliance with the DAP; after his rapprochement with Mahathir, it made sense for all three parties to team up. With Anwar still in jail, Mahathir was chosen to lead the new opposition coalition. (NB to Malaysians: Though there are other parties in the coalition, they’re not relevant for this narrative.)

I was initially among the sceptics. I could not imagine voting for a man who had once declared Malaysia a fundamentalist ‘Islamic state’ – news to many of us. He had also, in The Malay Dilemma, written: ‘…the Jews for example are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively’.

Hmm. How much change could we expect from such a man?

In the run-up to May 9, when I watched Mahathir on youtube telling Malay voters not to fear the DAP, I was stunned. Here was the politician who had once branded the DAP chauvinistic – a point he mentioned – and while some of his remarks show how far Malaysia is from being a meritocracy, their context is still a leap forward. In return, DAP stalwarts took to the airwaves to exhort Malaysians to support Mahathir. I knew then that I had to fly home. A new Malaysia was taking shape.

Like many Malaysians, I stayed up all night on May 9. Our phones pinged every few minutes. If you haven’t visited Malaysia, you might be surprised by how modern it is, and efficient when it wants to be. Malaysia issued biometric passports years before the UK. Our verification system employs both facial recognition and digitised thumb prints. We had been expecting election results shortly after midnight; when, by 5 a.m., opposition wins remained stuck at just below the required threshold, wild rumours began circulating. The entire sleep-deprived country speculated on what UMNO was up to. On What’sApp, friends shared images of tanks in Malaysia’s administrative capital. I was exhausted, yet absolutely ready for battle.

In the end UMNO capitulated. Sort of. If you need proof of how utterly shameless Najib Razak is, all you need do is listen to his so-called ‘concession speech’ in Malay. In my view Najib did not concede; not even once did he use the word ‘defeat’. Instead, he tried to worm his way out and then proceeded to justify his own dubious track record. True statesmen are gracious when they’ve lost; on this front, as on many others, he failed miserably.

The important point, though, was that the people had spoken. If we were denied our result, there would have been blood on the streets. Truly.

We now know that this was not needed.

At last, we Malaysians had done it. We did it by uniting, and it was Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad who’d led the way – they set the nation an example. If Mahathir could reach out to his old nemesis and if Anwar could reconcile with the man who had first jailed him, then the rest of us could come together too.

I had to stifle a tear as I watched Mahathir being sworn in as Prime Minister. A day later he named a woman as his Deputy – the first woman to hold this office. She is Dr. Wan Azizah, Anwar’s wife, who held the political mantle during his years in jail. Mahathir named a Chinese man, Lim Guan Eng, as his new Finance Minister, the first time in 44 years that a non-Malay was named to this post. It was something I never imagined seeing again. The fact that the appointment was made by Mahathir, a man who had once called us names and who had put Lim in jail, made the moment especially poignant.

The challenges facing Malaysia are immense, not least in the repairs that must be made to our institutions. It’s up to Malaysians to hold this new government to account, ensure that requisite checks and balances are put in place. This must be done quickly, for the powers of state are tempting.

There will be Malaysians reading the paragraphs above who will say, ‘But Dr. Wan Azizah, she…’ – for there’s already plenty of criticism of the new government, much of it justified. There’s little doubt that political development will take time: there’s so much to be done. But there’s also no question of the change that has taken place. It’s a change both of government and in mindset, crucial if we are to move forward as a nation. For the first time in years I felt welcome in my own country. I was perceived as Malaysian, not a Chinese interloper or ‘newcomer’. This gives me hope, something I did not have before.

On this Merdeka (Independence) Day, we Malaysians should hold our heads high. Let’s reach out to one another and remember that nothing is impossible. We can and will build the country we want.

Anwar Ibrahim is now a free man, and it was Mahathir who secured him a royal pardon. But it was we, the people, who put them both where they are today. In acknowledging his debt to the millions of Malaysians who voted for the opposition, Anwar gave voice to the thoughts and feelings of an entire nation.

I will never forget until the end of my days.

 

 

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I Have a Dream

Martin Luther King once began: ‘I have a dream…’

I, too, have a dream. In my dream racial discrimination in Malaysia is a thing of the past. In this dream my homeland, Malaysia, has transformed into a country known for good governance. In my dream Malaysia is a beacon: a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural country in which I, though largely of Chinese descent, am treated as an equal citizen.

With each passing day this dream recedes further into the abyss. Racial discrimination in Malaysia is now entrenched. The country’s governance gets from bad to worse. And its list of scandals grows longer.

When it comes to corruption, Malaysia competes well with the likes of China and Mexico – a staggering feat for a country of only 30 million. According to Global Financial Integrity, the developing countries with the largest illicit outflows between 2001 and 2010 were China, Mexico and Malaysia. No surprise, then, that US$1.2 billion found their way into the Prime Minister’s personal bank account in the scandal known as 1MDB. How such an astounding amount arrived there is something which Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, has still not explained properly, yet the man remains Prime Minister and looks unlikely to be deposed!

Hand-in-hand with corruption have come increasing Muslim fundamentalism and concomitant attacks on religious freedom, the latter always carried out under the guise of ‘protecting Muslims’. Several years ago the word ‘Allah’ was proscribed for use by non-Muslims when referring to God. Emboldened by this poisonous atmosphere, extremists have attacked churches, cast aspersions on the adherents of other religions, and routinely made racist comments that would not be tolerated in a civilised country. These disturbing trends date back years. The culprits behave with impunity and with the connivance of the ruling political party – the United Malays National Organisation – or UMNO. This party, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, uses Islam as an electoral tool with which to acquire the Muslim vote.

A new low was reached recently. Now activists have begun to disappear. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) finally took note and placed Malaysia on its Tier 2 list, alongside such luminaries of religious freedom as Afghanistan, Cuba and Turkey.

How did Malaysia, a once tolerant and moderate country, get to this point?

First, if we strip everything away, I believe the crux of Malaysia’s problems lies in something we are not supposed to discuss: its racist policies. The country’s descent has been gradual. But the slide actually began a long time ago – with the principle that not all Malaysians are created equal.

The idea that some Malaysians, namely, those of us who are ethnically Chinese or Indian, are somehow ‘squatting’ on land that rightfully belongs to Malays is pernicious but long-standing. I first heard the idea expressed in Mahathir Mohamad’s infamous book ‘The Malay Dilemma’. In the blog-post Where is Home? I describe how being called a squatter made me feel. By 1973 when I learnt about Mahathir’s book, the concept had already been codified into so-called affirmative action policies with no time limitation. The beneficiaries are a special breed of Malaysian, one who deserves extra rights, not through merit or because of need, but because the ancestors of this type of Malaysian arrived in the country earlier. The logic is so spurious that a special term had to be invented: bumiputera, or the prince/princes of the earth. (See The Malaysia We’ve Lost.)

Imagine the first pilgrims to the United States calling themselves the ‘princes of the earth’ and giving themselves and their descendants ‘special rights’, over and above those enjoyed by all the other waves of immigrants who helped build America. Bumiputera ‘rights’ in Malaysia are eye-watering; they include: entitlement to a disproportionate share of university places, discounted property, quotas in government departments, 30% equity stakes in companies and government scholarships. At one point, there were even universities reserved for bumiputera! This has been the situation in Malaysia since the 1970s, when the concept of the bumiputera was written into government policy.

The question of who is a bumiputera is a minefield, because there are people who are truly indigenous to Malaysia. Even in the Malay language they are called Orang Asli, or the original people. Naturally Orang Asli have bumiputera status, though this is more lip service. The crucial point is that Malaysians of Malay ethnicity, who are believed to have come to Malaysia from Yunnan in southern China and more recently from India and Indonesia, are all deemed to be bumiputera.

Why is this important? To start with, there is the issue of moral dubiety. In Malaysia it’s well-known that part of Mahathir Mohamad’s own family came from India. Ergo, the man who calls me a squatter in The Malay Dilemma is himself squatting on land which belongs to Malaysia’s original people, the Orang Asli. Then, there is the groundswell of resentment which the creation of the bumiputera has caused. How can you have a unified nation with such blatantly racist policies? The answer is that you can’t. A million Malaysians have left. I am part of that exodus. I left with a heavy heart – and anyone who has read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds will know that my love for Malaysia remains strong.

What do you think happens when a government tells one section of its populace – the bumiputera – that its members have rights over and above others? It’s almost inevitable that those who are mollycoddled become spoilt. They start to feel as if they’re above the law and can do whatever they want.

Worse than that, dishing out special rights anaesthesises those who are privileged – in this case, the bumiputera population, the Malay recipients who form the country’s majority. UMNO, the ruling party, has been purchasing their acquiescence for decades and in so doing, has fundamentally distorted the democratic process. For as long as a majority in the electorate is numbed by handouts, UMNO can do whatever it wants.

Except… it’s now harder, even for UMNO. After nearly sixty years in power there is discontent, especially among urban Malays. UMNO’s excesses have become so electrifying, they’ve hit world attention. Part of its electorate is restless. Some bumiputeras recognise the harm which Malaysia’s racist policies have done. A columnist, Wan Saiful Wan Jan (a bumiputera), with two friends (also bumiputera), began the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) several years ago. In a recent article, Wan Saiful pointed out the immorality of Malaysia’s bumiputera policy. ‘Why not then steal from the rich and give to the poor?’ he wrote rhetorically.

Wan Saiful should be applauded. No one else has had the guts to be as blunt. He and groups like IDEAS and Bersih (the group that is fighting for clean, fair elections) – and all the people campaigning for an open, progressive Malaysia – must be supported.

And here’s the second part of my answer: Malaysia did not arrive at this point by accident. We Malaysians have allowed it to happen. We have allowed it through our collusion and our silence, and by our refusal to venture outside of our comfort zone. When I was growing up, how many times did I hear a fellow Malaysian-Chinese say, ‘Ai-yahh, why bother with politics? Let’s just make money-lah…’

Fast forward to 2017, when we can see where such attitudes have led us. Malaysia is poised at a crossroads, and what I hear now is a lot of grumbling. Mutterings too, along the lines of, ‘What’s the point? I can’t do anything. I’m not bumiputera.’

In this way, all blame is passed on to the bumiputera, as if we do not bear collective responsibility for the state of our country. As if our national obsession with food, gossip and shopping, to the exclusion of much else, is not a contributory factor. I know I’m guilty, too. I took the easy option and left, instead of staying on to fight. I now do what I can, by supporting Bersih and IDEAS and all the people who are willing to stand up for a better Malaysia. I also write. Both in this blog and in the novels forming The Malayan Series, which will carry on after the second book, When the Future Comes Too Soon, is published this summer. Fiction is a powerful tool, one which I intend to use. (Foreign readers don’t need to know anything about Malaysia. The Malayan Series is first and foremost an epic family saga, a story about people. What happens will be experienced through the characters themselves.)

There are plenty of Malaysians who tell me, ‘Malaysia is still a good place to live.’ And then they ask what I can find elsewhere that I can’t have in Malaysia.

Here are a few of the things I enjoy in the West. Equality in the law. The chance to compete on merit. A vote which counts. And when things aren’t right, I have the ability to protest, to get things changed. Anyone who has read The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds will understand that I have not been brainwashed by the West. No human system is perfect; both Britain and America have flaws.

Within the cracks of their flaws, however, lies a gem: the cliché known as freedom. In the West, I have the freedom to be whoever I want and to live my life exactly as I choose. This is so precious and priceless that once experienced, is almost impossible to give up.

To those who say that Malaysia is still a great place to live in, I have the following questions.

  • Do you think this is the country our predecessors fought for in 1957?
  • Is today’s Malaysia really the country you want to see?
  • Does this Malaysia make you proud?
  • And what are you going to do about it?

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