Malaysia’s Bridge is Falling Down

By Thor Halvorssen and Alex Gladstein | The Huffington Post

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia–The farcical trial of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim resumes this week in Kuala Lumpur. This is the second time that the country’s ruling establishment has tried to destroy Anwar’s career with trumped-up allegations of sodomy. It succeeded 12 years ago, when he was imprisoned for six years on similar charges. Now Anwar faces up to 20 years in jail and whipping if convicted.

Controlled by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) since independence and now led by the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Najib Razak, the Malaysian government knows Anwar is the only viable threat to its half-century of rule. Anwar became a risk to the government as deputy prime minister in 1998 when he began attacking corruption and calling for reform. Ultimately he became leader of the opposition.

Najib’s UMNO is trying to jail Anwar again in hopes of crushing his People’s Justice Party (PKR). A secular Muslim party, PKR leads a diverse political coalition with ethnic Chinese and Islamist partners. If Anwar is neutralized, this opposition movement would be paralyzed.

Anwar’s accuser – a former intern- admits to meeting with Najib just days before the alleged sexual act occurred and he has since changed his story several times. The charges against Anwar are transparently political. But the obvious intent of the trial matters little in Malaysia, where the government exercises a disabling grip on the justice system and the media.

Yet as one visits Kuala Lumpur today, these autocratic tendencies are not immediately visible. The modern splendor of this city and the surrounding wealthy state of Selangor help disguise one of the world’s most insidious authoritarian governments.

Najib’s most powerful tool is the Internal Security Act – a remnant from the days of British colonialism that gives the Interior Minister power to indefinitely and arbitrarily imprison any Malaysian without trial or even evidence. Through the ISA the government creates a climate of fear by arresting dozens of politicians, journalists, and student leaders.

Opposition voices like Anwar who are politically attacked through the courts are hardly better off than victims of the ISA. Virtually all positions in the justice system beyond the local level are held by government cronies.

Most problematic is that the local media cannot report on the ISA and the puppet justice system. The Printing Presses and Publications Act gives Najib near-absolute control over the news as media organizations need the government’s permission to operate.

Almost all major national newspapers, magazines, television channels, and radio stations here are tied to the ruling UMNO party. And Najib continues to tighten his grip in the face of Anwar’s trial. Suara Keadilan, the publication of Anwar’s PKR party, and the two other visible opposition outlets had their permits revoked on July 1.

The only way to get unfiltered news in Malaysia is online. Here, the media is protected by the “Bill of Guarantee of No Internet Censorship” – a law passed in the 1990s, at the strong suggestion of Bill Gates, to woo IT development to Malaysia.

Unfortunately, internet penetration is extremely limited outside of Malaysian urban centers. In some provinces, less than 10% of the population has online access, and most are stuck with the broadsheets. These read as if from a 1984 dystopia – there is no bad news, and other than culture and sports, there is cant-laden drivel about the government’s righteous quest to “serve the people”.

On a visit to the offices of a small opposition monthly, the editors despaired at the suffocating Malaysian media culture. Not just because it means Malaysians can’t easily find truth, but also because the next generation has grown uninterested: real journalism can no longer be practiced.

Through the silencing of opposition voices, vote-shopping, and gerrymandering, the UMNO-led government is able to continue its autocratic rule while calling Malaysia a democracy. And Najib seeks to perpetuate this charade by clamping down on Malaysian youth. Through the University and University College Act, students are forbidden from having any involvement in politics.

Despite their systemic nature, Malaysia’s human rights violations are largely unknown to the outside world. Many academics and journalists group the country with Indonesia and Turkey as a promising moderate Muslim democracy. And Wikipedia’s entries on Malaysia and on Najib avoid any mention of human rights, the Internal Security Act, censorship, or the crumbling rule of law. Such whitewashing is not surprising given that Najib hired Washington-based APCO Worldwide to burnish his image and besmirch Anwar’s.

Anwar, who has been profiled in TIME, the New Yorker, and Newsweek, and is frequently lionized as a promising Muslim leader, has recently been APCO’s target. In Malaysia, Anwar has often been mocked for having “Jewish friends.” Najib’s mentor and predecessor, Mahathir, even went so far as to say Anwar “would make a good prime minister for Israel.” In return, Anwar seized Najib’s hiring of APCO as a chance to issue inflammatory remarks on the firm’s supposed ties to Israel. This backfired when APCO distributed Anwar’s comments internationally along with a series of unattributed anti-Semitic statements posted on his website. The result is that on the eve of his trial many of his Western allies have questioned Anwar’s integrity.

The truth is that Anwar has been critical of some policies of the current Israeli government. And in the last few months he has even become more vocal as he wrestles with Najib’s media apparatus to avoid being pinned as blindly pro-Israel. But Anwar is hardly an anti-Semite. Contrast this with UMNO–which has led entire rallies inveighing against “the Jew.” Anwar’s critics should be careful not to carry water for Najib’s party, which proudly sports venomous anti-Semitic rhetoric and conspiracy.

Over dinner in Kuala Lumpur, Anwar told us that unless international actors address issues like censorship and imprisonment without trial, Malaysia will not become the oft-discussed bridge between East and West. Only if his trial is exposed as a sham and he avoids prison might Malaysia have a real democratic contest with elections in 2012 or 2013.

Sadly, this country’s appalling human rights record remains buried under a sea of APCO press releases.

Thor Halvorssen is the president of the Human Rights Foundation and the founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Alex Gladstein is its Chief Operating Officer.

  1. #1 by monsterball on Wednesday, 21 July 2010 - 7:17 am

    Now that so many foreigners can understand Anwar’s case….let there be light for UMNO B ordinary members to vote with conscience and dignity and not blindly as racists.
    For is a foregone conclusion by Malaysians…..he will go to jail…and that will not stop PR to win control of government and set him free to be our PM.
    Najib can apply all his stunts…and what a low class stunt it duplicate his godfather’s idea.
    As much as all Malaysians know…Najib and the rest of his gang of robbers and thieves know next to nothing about managing a country…their art to twist and turn and apply double standards are much to be admired with disgust by all Malaysians.
    We usually call all of them hypocrites…but it is much much more than that.
    They are low down sons of the guns that hurt Malaysians purposely.
    These are not politicians per se.
    These are crooks and robbers exposed…to try and buy up the country.
    The issue is…can majority Malaysians be bought to make Malaysia…a devil’s paradise.
    Najib knows his days are numbered….and so Anwar in jail will be his last best hope to keep fooling Malaysians.
    With Anwar a devoted Muslim.. in prison..unable to speak truths….and reveal the evils of UMNO B ministers to fellow Muslims…makes Najib feel he is more secured.. to spread his half truths and continue the sickening low class politics…to divide and rule…to make Muslims racists and not Malaysians.
    No race and religion dirty politics….and corruptions…UMNO B cannot survive.

  2. #2 by Peace88 on Wednesday, 21 July 2010 - 9:32 am

    Shouldnt the whole of UMNO/BN be tried for Sodomy…they ahve been doing it to the people for decades!

  3. #3 by Winston on Wednesday, 21 July 2010 - 10:36 am

    The Filipinos have given former President Arroyo the mother of all tsunamis, so much so, that despite all her machinations, she was still swarmed!
    Now, they have a no nonsense government, who went straight to the root of corruption by giving orders to prosecute the ex President immediately.
    Even more encouraging is the fact that Aquino is not shy about screwing up anyone who is incompetent, by publicly rebuking the top official in charge of meteorology, because he did not warn the people of an impending storm.
    We, in Malaysia, will give the UMNO/BN government an equally gigantic tsunami, if not worse, in the next GE, so that it will never, ever, surface again!

  4. #4 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 21 July 2010 - 12:00 pm

    I still don’t get it how BN is going to avoid a mass protest if Anwar is sent to jail? There is no way PR component parties is not going to organise one . It will make Hindraf and Bersih look like family gathering if they insist on pushing it through.

    This whole idea of prosecuting Anwar is so stupid now. That is the problem with BN, they don’t know how to give up on stupid ideas – that is half the reason why they keep wasting money and messing things up..

  5. #5 by boh-liao on Wednesday, 21 July 2010 - 12:52 pm

    D authors forgot to mention d most ridiculous way d trial is being conducted against AI
    Nothing is available 2 d defence team even though d team sought fr 1 court to another 2 get hold of materials n documents 4 them 2 study n build their defence
    Where is d principle of “d prosecution bears the burden of proof” or “beyond a reasonable doubt” dat d defendant is guilty?
    Goal posts keep shifting n d rakyat know dat d final decision will b there is no shadow of a doubt dat AI is guilty of sodomy 2
    C d $$$$ smile on ful of sai’s face

  6. #6 by artemisios on Wednesday, 21 July 2010 - 5:29 pm

    not many comments here.

    Seems that M’sians already know the outcome of this Sodomy 2.

    The govt is going to bulldoze anwar into jail.

    To the rest of the world, this is shocking, an ENTIRE govt being afraid of ONE MAN. Even went as far as amending & making new laws JUST to throw ONE MAN into jail.

  7. #7 by k1980 on Wednesday, 21 July 2010 - 5:38 pm

    Was the “Saiful-dna-inside-rectum-Incident” Apco’s brainchild?

  8. #8 by tak tahan on Wednesday, 21 July 2010 - 11:50 pm

    Like i told my dad,unless international power is not involved or new gov not formed,malaysia is gone case.I’m not knowledgeable in politic.The former is not understood by my dad except the latter.Can some clarify?

  9. #9 by yhsiew on Thursday, 22 July 2010 - 7:48 am

    If Anwar is jailed, the country will be turned topsy-turvy. Malaysians who look to Anwar as their political and economic “savior” will take to the street. Foreign investors will flee and the ringgit will plunge.

    I do not think BN has much to gain by sending Anwar to jail – the situation now is unlike that of 1998 where Anwar’s supporters were mostly Malays. Today, Anwar, who is respected as the Opposition leader, has gained much popularity and support from both Malays and non-Malays and also from high-profile figures in Western countries.

    Western countries may impose economic sanctions on Malaysia if they liken the jailing of Opposition leader Anwar to that of Aung Sun Suu Kyi of Myanmar.

  10. #10 by lopez on Thursday, 22 July 2010 - 9:21 pm

    And the CS is making this happen to make it difficult for Ah wah kor, in hope for promotion or at mercy of their own pensions.

    which incidentally can be easily more than 7 zer0000000. and the perks like directionship , etc.

    CS speciality is make people lives difficult so then they can have their quality of life on pretext of serving the nation…my foot..

    try go to gomen department…the CS even draw up their own dress code and etiquette for the public or else they won’t serve you at all
    if you are lucky they scold you and serve you or talk insult you or pretend not to understand you .
    So the workshop man or manual labr have to take a day off …with no day wages and face these cs clown for several months until they get their papers in order….otherwise either their children cant get to school or he get in trouble with the police, or the custom or the JPJ or the municipal offical and all those other cs clowns on the pretext of serving the people and nation.
    btw pls dont show too much flesh in your dressing ah…

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