Almost a decade after his dismissal, arrest and torture in police custody, followed by conviction and imprisonment, Anwar Ibrahim is dominating Malaysia’s headlines once again. Since leading the opposition to rare gains in the March elections, the “Anwar factor”, as it has come to be known, has sprung back like a rubber ball.
Four years ago Anwar was almost a spent force in Malaysian politics. When he was released after a court’s acquittal in September 2004, amid the jubilation that he would provide the leadership needed for an opposition in disarray, there was still no guarantee that another attack against him would not resurface, despite the failed campaign of prime minister Mahathir Mohamad to taint his character. The judgment which led to his acquittal was labelled “poisonous”, as commented in Crescent (October 2004), where it was pointed out that the judges’ opinion that a homosexual act had taken place was intended to “leave an indelible taint of doubt and suspicion to curb any repetition of his previous rise to power.”
The script behind the latest allegation of sodomy is familiar for those who followed events in the late nineteen-nineties, when Mahathir orchestrated a dirty campaign to halt his deputy’s political rise. This time, with some loosening of the government’s grip on the mainstream media as well as the evolution of the internet into a mainstream media in its own right, there may be a limit to misinformation and abuse of the country’s institutions. When Anwar’s car was ambushed on July 16 by scores of balaclava-clad policemen, the treatment meted out on him was nowhere near as bad as in September 1998, when he disappeared for few days before reappearing sporting a black eye.
Anwar has now gone on the offensive, setting off a series of revelations, the most shocking of which is his questions about the involvement of the deputy prime minister Najib Razak in a high-profile murder case of a Mongolian woman involved in a multi-billion dollar defence contract. International support for Anwar to ensure that there is no repetition of another Mahathir-type persecution has also put the government on its toes. But while many Muslim figures have come to Anwar’s defence, not all the support for Anwar necessarily works in Anwar’s favour either, such as the statement of concern from Washington, as well as from some of his old friends in western governments and other institutions.
The credibility of the recent new allegation of sodomy against Anwar is non-existent, but it is interesting to note its timing: Anwar has been repeatedly threatening to engineer a mass defection of government MPs by September. More importantly, it follows a revelation that secret meetings have been held between a number of leaders of the Islamic Party (PAS) and UMNO to undermine the opposition coalition by offering important posts to PAS.
The series of secret meetings has been confirmed by prime minister Abdullah Badawi himself. Even earlier, a softening of stance vis-a-vis PAS was shown by UMNO leaders in order to extract it from the opposition, and urging it to engage in muzakarah (“dialogue”), ostensibly for the good of Malays and Islam. This is based on the thinking that the Malays have lost their political power to non-Malays, largely due to UMNO as a Malays-only entity succumbing to the opposition coalition of PAS, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the multiracial People’s Justice Party (PKR), led by Anwar’s wife, in the March elections. While the claim that Malays have lost power is not entirely correct because there are more Malay opposition MPs now than before, the secret meetings were close to reaching a deal to deny power to the Anwar-led “People’s Coalition” in Selangor, the country’s most important and developed state, as well as other states. It would not have been the first time that PAS and UMNO got together, but it could have been the first time PAS is given important positions of power at state and federal levels, a feat which the party may not be able to achieve even at the peak of UMNO’s crisis, such as was shown in 1999, when the country went to the polls during a period of intense political crisis.
The secret meetings have upset Ustaz Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, PAS’s highest leader or murshidul-am, who has indirectly criticised the deputy president, Nasharuddin Isa, and a number of other PAS leaders for being duped into UMNO’s political trap. Instead, Nik Aziz posed a rhetorical challenge: that UMNO dissolve itself, PAS follow suit, and both unite as a new party based on Islam to lead people from all religions and races in the country. UMNO, after all, has strongly opposed PAS’s Islamic ideology for decades in the name of multi-racialism. Why only now it is extending an olive branch to PAS is a question which Nik Aziz says PAS must ask. When UMNO depended almost entirely on non-Malay votes to come to power, there was then no attempt at any muzakarah with PAS in order to strengthen Malay-Muslim support for the government.
It is probable that the latest allegation against Anwar is also part of a plan to woo the anti-Anwar bloc within PAS. Such moral vilification has been a favourite game to cast doubts on anyone with some Islamic background or credibility. UMNO politicians have even challenged Anwar to swear on the Qur’an, a move which several foreign and local Islamic scholars have advised against, considering that the accuser has furnished neither proofs nor evidences to back the allegation. Anwar has promised to fight the allegation with solid proofs, but resisted attempts to obtain samples of his DNA. The last time it was given, his DNA was splashed on a mattress as court evidence of illicit sex; that ‘evidence’ was later expunged from court testimonies after a forensic expert was forced to admit in court that he had been coached by the police. Even with all these blunders, it is unfortunate that doubts have been created in the minds of some PAS leaders about the truth (or rather the lack of it) of the sodomy allegation, allowing themselves to be used as pawns by UMNO.
The secret negotiations, if successful, could have resulted in a dangerous racial dichotomy: a government made up entirely of Malay Muslims (UMNO and PAS), and an opposition dominated by non-Muslims: a potential racial time-bomb which could further destabilise the country’s already volatile racial political scene. This should never be a means of any organisation wanting to project Islam’s image in a multiracial society, especially when some mode of power-sharing has been touted since independence as Malaysia’s recipe for racial harmony.
One thing which has skipped many observers is that the incident has dismantled some stereotypical myths about the traditional PAS ulama, especially Nik Aziz, who represents the party’s “conservative” leadership and is often attacked as ‘backward’ by politicians of both sides. Now it seems the turbaned leader of PAS is more committed to multiracial governance, not to instant political power, which could spell disaster in the long run, than the so-called new “professional” breed of non-ulama in suits who shot into PAS leadership in 2005, wanting to ‘rebrand’ PAS’s image of Islam in the electoral market.
Having said that, the secret negotiation episode serves as a warning, particularly to a small group of opposition politicians who have an aversion of anything ‘Muslim’, from shari‘ah to Arabic roadsigns for tourists. For this alone PAS should not be blamed for keeping its contact with UMNO open. Democratic politics is after all notorious for its non-permanent enemies and temporary friends.
On the other hand, it has also posed the question of whether PAS’s ultimate goal for a greater role for Islam can be achieved by aligning with another political party that has no shortage of secular baggage. In other words, should it survive by moving from one strange bedfellow to another? Or should it look into its current methodology and ask itself why it has failed to empower Islamic ideals even from a position of power? If its experience in the last few months of sharing power with its opposition allies has not jolted it into finding other ways than democratic elections to function more effectively, PAS is on its way to repeating yet again the usual mistakes of Islamic movements around the world.
For Anwar, the episode is a mild reminder that defections can be a double-edged weapon. His plans may have been delayed somewhat, because the allegation has succeeded in keeping him busy fighting to clear his name. The 62-year-old may now not have the great stamina he had in 1998. But public contempt of such dirty politics remains, and this is not only attributed to a tainted judiciary working hand in hand with the police. For now, fighting it out outside of prison may prove to be easier, especially when this time around there is more unfinished business than a decade ago, in case he is to be locked away again.