Najib risks Malaysia’s reputation in his treatment of Anwar Ibrahim

By Simon Tisdall | 13 December 2011
The Guardian

The portents do not look good for Malaysia’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, whose trial on highly dubious sodomy charges draws to a close this week. If Anwar is found guilty – and the trial judge seems to have made up his mind already – he will not be the only or even the most important victim of an egregious, politically suspect injustice. Malaysia’s democratic reputation will have been critically wounded, and for that outrage, Malaysians will have their prime minister, Najib Razak, to thank.

The plodding Najib’s overriding objective is winning the general election expected next year, possibly within a few months. The son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, the nephew of its third, president of the dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno), and a former defence minister, Najib was born to power and is accustomed to wielding it. As the charismatic leader of the opposition coalition, Anwar represents the biggest challenge to his continuing ascendancy.

It hardly seems coincidental that the sodomy charges were levelled at Anwar shortly after the opposition inflicted unprecedented defeats on Umno and its allies in the 2008 elections. Anwar’s main campaign plank – combating the official, institutionalised discrimination that favours ethnic Malays over the country’s large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities – threatened the post-colonial order that has kept Umno and its National Front coalition on top since 1957.

In a court appearance earlier this year, Anwar, 64, a married father of six, denied accusations he had had sexual relations with a former male aide. Homosexuality is punishable by law in Malaysia by caning and up to 20 years in jail. The allegations were “a vile and desperate attempt at character assassination” and a “blatant and vicious lie” spread by his political enemies, he said. “This entire process is nothing but a conspiracy by Najib Razak to send me into political oblivion by attempting once again to put me behind bars.”

Najib flatly rejects the idea of a political vendetta. But the recycling of sodomy accusations – Anwar was jailed on a similar charge in 1998 and detained until the conviction was quashed in 2004 – suggests a lack of originality characteristic of the prime minister. The case turns on the testimony of the alleged victim and DNA evidence produced by the prosecution. Defence lawyers suggested this week that Anwar’s accuser was a “compulsive and consummate liar” who may have been put up to it. Yet the trial judge has already declared the prosecution’s evidence “reliable” and credible”, leading Anwar to claim he is being denied a fair trial.

Najib gives every appearance of preparing for snap polls on the assumption that Anwar will be out of the way and the opposition decapitated. He told Umno’s annual congress to prepare for battle because “the time is near” and urged delegates to work harder, for example by using social media, to attract a “new generation of Malaysians who are more critical and have rising expectations of the government”. The party must adapt or face “tragedy”, he warned.

To Najib’s evident alarm, that tragedy almost occurred in July when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The highly unusual public display of discontent was spurred by a range of factors: spending cuts, official corruption and cronyism, a defective electoral system, curbs on public assembly and debate, and state-imposed censorship considered draconian even by regional standards. The example of recent political upheavals in neighbouring Thailand and Singapore also played a part. In response, thousands were beaten and detained by police.

Now Najib is taking no chances as his lieutenants warn that Anwar is fomenting an Arab spring-style uprising – a so-called “hibiscus revolution”. Having more or less reneged on shaky, post-July promises of civil rights reform, Najib is now pushing through remodelled restrictions in the form of the Peaceful Assembly act.

The act effectively makes peaceful assembly impossible by restricting it to undefined “designated places”. No gatherings are permitted within 50 meters of prohibited places including hospitals, schools or places of worship. The police can dictate the date, time and place. Najib’s idea of engaging the “new generation” of young Malaysians is to ban anyone under the age of 21 from organising a protest.

Opposition parties, lawyers and activist groups have condemned the new law, as has Amnesty International. But Najib Khairy Jamaluddin, Umno’s youth-wing leader, articulated Najib’s paranoia last month when he accused Anwar’s coalition of “trying hard to manufacture panic and disorder” by promoting street rallies instead of elections. “The opposition often quotes social movements in the Middle East to instigate people to take part in street revolutions and in the process manufacture a Malaysian version of the Arab spring,” Khairy said.

Najib’s authoritarian tendencies, blatant political scaremongering, and the judicial travesty that is Anwar’s trial all suggest Malaysia’s western allies, including Britain and the US, should take a closer look at their friend. Malaysia is valued as a trading partner, counterproliferation collaborator, and noncombatant member of the Afghanistan coalition. But the government’s human rights record and democratic practices merit closer scrutiny.

In a visit last year, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton extracted a promise that Anwar would receive a fair trial. “The US believes it is important for all aspects of the case to be conducted fairly and transparently and in a way that increases confidence in the rule of law in Malaysia,” she said. In a recent speech, Clinton urged all states to end discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

As Anwar’s ordeal approaches an ugly climax, it seems increasingly unlikely that these benchmarks will be met. The next question is: what will Malaysians and their friends do about it?

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Wednesday, 14 December 2011 - 2:49 pm

    Risk? I don’t know anyone foreign that trust our judicial system. Even as a Malaysian, I am try to move all my contracts overseas secured by overseas legal system.

    But its not the worst thing. What is really bad is our reputation for being pathetic because what is being done to Anwar actually achieves little – UMNO/BN add their criminality with by cheating massively in the next GE in order to win. The amount of lattitude of abuse given to UMNO/BNputras is just INSANITY.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Wednesday, 14 December 2011 - 2:52 pm

    //what will Malaysians and their friends do about it?//

    After filming “The Lady” in Myanmar, Michele Yeoh is going to take on the role of the malaysian opposition leader, Anwar in her new movie “The Gentleman”. She is going to grow a moustache in order to portray Anwar. Hilary Clinton has agreed to take on the role of Kak Wan by wearing a tudung.

  3. #3 by Thinking Two on Wednesday, 14 December 2011 - 3:40 pm

    Of cause lah. There is no u-turn or whatsoever from day 1.

    If not, saifu will be in deep najis.

  4. #4 by waterfrontcoolie on Wednesday, 14 December 2011 - 10:58 pm

    Well, BN especially UMNO is caught between the rock and the deep ocean! To upt DSAI in would create more sympathetic votes; to leave him alone would allow him to ceramah nation-wide! Najib, you call now!

  5. #5 by yhsiew on Thursday, 15 December 2011 - 1:39 am

    Frankly, not many politicians would bother with Malaysia’s reputation if they could maintain grip on federal power.

  6. #6 by k1980 on Thursday, 15 December 2011 - 8:31 am


    No lah, we are a country of cows, led through the nose by umno and its RM250 million cowherd, Shahreezot

  7. #7 by dagen on Thursday, 15 December 2011 - 8:57 am

    Nothing to lose, really. Malaysia’s reputation is already in the gutter since dr mamak became pm. The issue now and the only concern at the moment for umno is GE13. But merely winning in GE13 is not even an option. A mere victory in GE13 is not enough. Umno must not only win but win with 2/3 majority and must also regain by hook or by crook penang selangor and kedah and must also see the return of voters to mca, gerakan, mic and all the other similar fringe parties (that is how umno looks at them). Anything less would be counted as an undesirable win and therefore a terrible defeat for umno would then implode. In comparison pakatan really has a lot more room to maneuver and to position themselves.

    Finally about what the author wrote on jibby the jib. Remember this always: “W”. Yeah, that’s jib’s famous forked tongue. Never ever trust jib. Don’t even bother to listen to jib.

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