Malaysia’s prime minister loses most from Anwar trial

— by Barry Wain
The Malaysian Insider
Feb 10, 2012

FEB 10 — Malaysians expressed a collective sigh of relief when Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted of sodomy charges in early January.

Their groan of dismay over the prosecution’s subsequent decision to appeal was equally palpable.

For most Malaysians, despite being divided in their opinions of Anwar, the acquittal marked a chance to move away from the sleazy politics that has long dominated daily life. Now, they expect more of the same. Aware of public exasperation, Prime Minister Najib Razak was quick to seize on the not guilty verdict as proof of his ‘reformist’ agenda and Malaysia’s supposedly independent judiciary. But the appeal leaves him stranded, inclined to delay calling a general election, and acutely aware that he is under threat as much from within his own ranks as from the opposition. It seems likely that Najib will win the next election, but unless he scores big — which seems unlikely — his leadership could be at risk.

The old guard in Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the core of the Barisan Nasional coalition government, has been trying to have Anwar convicted of sexual misconduct for more than 13 years. His first sodomy trial in the late 1990s was regarded as a miscarriage of justice, and the recently completed second trial was just as dubious, according to international legal and human rights organisations. Kuala Lumpur has a thriving gay club scene and nightlife, and the police — to their credit — do not hound homosexuals. But Anwar was hauled into court twice on a charge of ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment.

The government’s deliberate targeting of Anwar is obvious. His arrest in 2008 came soon after he led a revitalised opposition to unprecedented gains in a general election, depriving the Umno-led Barisan Nasional of its usual two-thirds majority in parliament. Subsequently, Anwar has spent much of the past three years caught up defending himself in the sodomy trial, when he might have otherwise engaged in consolidating the opposition coalition.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these efforts, the trial has become a liability for Najib. The value in distracting Anwar and trying to knock him out politically has been offset by the damage to Najib’s reputation as a putative reformer. Conscious that the long-term electoral trend is running against the ruling coalition, which has held power since independence in 1957, Najib has positioned himself as an agent of change, who is in touch with Malaysia’s younger generation. He has attempted to roll back unpopular elements of an affirmative action program designed to benefit the country’s majority ethnic Malay community, liberalise press restrictions and replace controversial security laws, including detention without trial. Still, Najib is yet to convert the rhetoric of reform into reality, which he must do to win back the alienated centre of Malaysian politics, where cynicism and anger run deep.

Najib is encountering entrenched opposition within Umno, particularly from conservatives who favour continued Malay privileges and the flow of patronage to the party faithful. These older Umno Malays and their supporters in the business world and bureaucracy — especially the police and prosecutors — strongly objected to Anwar being freed and lobbied hard and successfully for the appeal. In the end, Najib will lose the most. It seems he failed to stand up to these factions — again — and lost the public relations gains from Anwar’s acquittal.

The loss of the momentum that Anwar’s freedom initially gave Najib may persuade him to wait until later this year to call an election, which must be held by March 2013. Najib must gamble that the electoral climate will improve by this time. But the economy could slow and more political scandals could emerge — rampant corruption involving Umno politicians has already hurt his government.

Free to campaign, Anwar will lift the spirits of the three-party opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. But he is looking and sounding tired, and his own People’s Justice Party is rife with factionalism and squabbling. Although Anwar said recently: ‘My gut tells me we will win [the election]’, most analysts believe he will fall short, even if not by much.

While the opposition will surely live to fight another day, Najib may not have it so easy, even if he wins. Only the recovery of a two-thirds parliamentary majority will ensure his continued leadership of UMNO and Malaysia. Failing this, Najib could face pressure to step aside if he loses more seats, a fate that befell Abdullah Badawi, his predecessor. — East Asia Forum

* Barry Wain is Writer-in-Residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 8:26 am

    ///Malaysia’s prime minister loses most from Anwar trial///

    Agreed. The whole world has been watching the Prime Minister and the action he will take in regard to Sodomy II.

  2. #2 by mickeytiger2006 on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 9:09 am

    Najib has nothing to lose except the mongolian girl as his skin is make of elephant skin!

  3. #3 by monsterball on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 9:30 am

    Barry Wain have written a book accusing Mahathir stole RM100 billion from Malaysians in his 22 years as PM.
    Nice to note he cares so much of our country and people.

  4. #4 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 12:23 pm

    Barry Wain is writer who wrote that the country lost not less than RM100 billion under the Malaysian Maverick’s watch, isn’t he? In many ways we are fortunate country and other ways most unfortunate. Just to comment on the less savory/unfortunate part: Whilst corruption is world wide phenomenon – in different forms scale and dimensions depending on countries- and anywhere where there are opportunities to be corrupt due to combination of money and government, here – and this is where we’re unique- the bad things of corruption,.patronage and clientelism are inextricably linked to ideology and preservation of racial/religious rights etc. In other Countries they could pause, review the national moral compass, and more readily summon political will to effect change of incompetent & corrupt regime, and counter in that process, less resistance from vested interests defending corruption,.patronage and clientelism because the equation in these other places is not complicated (unlike here) by vested interests in position to exploit race and religious issues, tugging at primordial sentiments of the heart strings than appeal to logic of the mind! It is not Najib that loses when his reforms falter, it is the country!

  5. #5 by boh-liao on Saturday, 11 February 2012 - 4:42 pm

    UmnoB/BN certainly enjoy governing 1M’sia inhabited by DOCILE n easily manipulated rakyat n voters – BILLIONS of $$$, which rightfully belong 2 rakyat n should benefit rakyat, were SAPU/WASTED by UmnoB/BN, YET voters continue 2 support UmnoB/BN

    Really SYIOK 1 4 Ah CHEAT Kor, MMK, UmnoB/BN kakis

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