Eddie Barnes: Tough challenge to heal the divides in Malaysia

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is confident of victory
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is confident of victory
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Anwar Ibrahim aims to upset the political status quo in multicultural Malaysia, writes Eddie Barnes.

ANWAR Ibrahim is an un-noticed, softly-spoken presence in the smart London hotel where he staying. But, in a year which has seen plenty of unexpected political revolutions across the world, here is the man who may lead the next one.

Dr Ibrahim is preparing to return to Malaysia where the coalition he leads is preparing to try and usurp the ruling Barisan Nasional alliance which has run the wealthy south-east Asian country for the last fifty years. The BN is faltering, failing to meet the expectations of an increasinly sophisticated urban class and beset by allegations of vote-fixing, corruption and cronyism. Change is in the air. But, in a country which is divided by religion and between its dominant Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups, the challenge is both to demonstrate and alternative and to put it into practice.

Dr Ibrahim, who is in town with Azeem Ibrahim (no relation), the Scottish businessman who acts as one of his international aides, has one of the great political back stories. “It is crazy, crazy,” he declares. The foremost Muslim activist of his day, he was groomed in the 80s and 90s by Malaysia’s authoritarian ex-Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad to be his successor as leader of the main Malay party UMNO, which dominates the BN alliance. But, as the pair moved apart, Mahatir brutally cast him aside and, within weeks, Ibrahim facing trumped up sodomy and corruption charges. He was sentenced in 1999 to six years in jail, getting out in 2004. Now, at the age of 65, and suffering from a chronically bad back, he has now turned his fire back on his old party colleagues, forming a cross-racial alliance of his own, called Pakatan, which makes the Conservative-LibDem team look like childhoold sweethearts. In the middle, Anwar’s new PKR party represents mainstream Malays who want an alternative to the status quo. On his right is the Islamist group PAS, whose members would like to introduce Hudud laws to the country. To his left he has the Chinese-Indian DAP, which wants to guarantee a secular future of the nation, and better rights for the country’s non-Malay

He laughs at the idea he should maybe offer Cameron and Clegg some advice on how to keep the show on the road. But it already looks tough for him - only last week, people in the DAP were complaining about plans by PAS to introduce Hudud. He acknowledges the problems. “When I was Deputy Prime Minister, it was easy. They (his staff) would just say ‘yes sir, yes sir’. But now now.” He is walking a tightrope. Each party, he says, will “have a right to articulate your views. I am a Democrat. You can argue your point out. But you can’t dictate”. Having run five states for the last four years, he believes the alliance has proven “it is not a marriage of convenience” that can put aside its differences and focus on what it can do. In Malaysia, a huge pro-democracy rally earlier this year called “Bersih” (or “Clean”) demonstrated the enormous desire for fair elections. Anwar’s coalition stands on that ticket of a more open country with a free press. He notes: “You cannot suggest that society is not prepared to experience a more mature democracy. For ten years you can blame the British for the poor education and people not familiar with the system. But not after fifty years.”

A modern traditionalist, who backed a man on Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”, but adores his other novels, he avoids easy categorization as a Muslim leader, and is easy to mis-represent. This is a man who shared Muslim anger at Abu Ghraib, but has also suffered unjust imprisoned in his own country. He says he is not a liberal and remains rooted in the Islamic movement. But he says he believes in taking a “hard line” on harsh views on both sides of the debate. On the violent reaction to the blasphemous video insulting Islam, he agrees there is a “problem with the Muslim psyche....people are easly enraged and emotional.” As to the outrage displayed by Malaysia’s governing class, he declares: “The hypocrisy of these fellows talkng about defending Islam when they are so blatantly corrupt and unjust. That is the ruling clique all over.” But he also accuses the West of bias against against Islam. “If you attack the Jews in Paris, there is a very serious penalty.” He has a deep love of Amerca and its founding values, but adds: “Even the so-called more sophisticated Americans are so filled with Islamophobia. I have a better understanding of Christianity than they do of Islam.” What he wants is an intelligent response. He scorns the “crazy” move by Malaysia’s Ministry of Education last week to publish a much-mocked guide on how to spot if someone is a homosexual (which remains illegal in conservative Malaysia). He also wants to end Malaysia’s discredited discrimination in favour of its Malay Muslim majority, over the Indians and Chinese. “The reason being, so called Malay based polices do not actually benefit the majority of Malays, it’s for the benefit of the cronies.” He reflects now that Mahatar’s brutal treatment of him has led him to a better place. “It’s not that his decision was right. But now I have a clean slate. Not when I talk about reform I really mean it.”

So can he win? He doesn’t think the election will be clean, accusing UMNO of bringing in “phantom voters” from the neighbouring Phillipines and Indonesia to bump up their support. “There are very high expectations,” he concedes. He says he needs to convince Malay voters that, in a racially divided society, he is going to keep their interests at heart. “They don’t worry too much about the ethnic Indians, but they do about the Chinese. But I think we will make it this time. I am really confident.” And the smear campaigns won’t work. He jokes: “They (his opponents) have been doing this for the last 14 years. If I were to rob somebody now, people will say I don’t think he did that, because so many other things have been claimed.” The election has to take place within the next eight months. If he wins, the unassuming Dr Ibrahim will not go un-noticed in London the next time he returns.