Who benefits from Anwar’s acquittal?

Chan Weng Hong

In the spotlight: Malaysia Opposition Chief Anwar Ibrahim

In the spotlight: Malaysia Opposition Chief Anwar Ibrahim

Malaysian politics in many ways resembled Taiwanese Hokkien dramas – both have convoluted (yet surprisingly simple) plots, a draggy pace, flamboyant characters, and a tendency to not end soon enough. Sure enough, the year 2012 started off with a bang – the de facto Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was acquitted of charges of sodomy.

Both sides of the political divide claim a victory of sorts. The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition (lead by the dominant UMNO party) asserted that Anwar’s acquittal demonstrates the independence of the country’s judiciary, while the Pakatan Rakyat (a coalition of opposition parties PKR, PAS, and DAP) declared a triumph for justice, while maintaining that the trial should not occur in the first place.

A 2-pronged attack

In the months leading up to the verdict, the ruling coalition embarked on two parallel courses. Firstly, the pressure on the opposition coalition was never let up. Every piece of controversy (be it the factional fighting within PKR, the Islamic state proposals by PAS, and alleged mistreatment of Malays by the DAP-led Penang state government) was blown to maximum proportion by the state media apparatus. Needless to say, Anwar Ibrahim himself was kept busy enough through court proceedings to prevent him from leading the fracturing opposition coalition.

The second parallel course of action was apparent shift towards a reformist direction after years of largely empty promises. It begun with the repeal of the notorious Internal Security Act, followed by relaxation of laws concerning tertiary students’ participation in politics. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission had also successfully investigated several major cases, such as that of former Selangor Chief Minister Khir Toyo (notwithstanding allegations that he was merely a fall guy for UMNO).

While the first course of action consists of the usual bag of tricks employed by the ruling coalition against its opponents, the second course seems to hold some promise for the future of Malaysia. If Malaysia is indeed heading towards a reformist era, this might entail a more civil and transparent political environment as well as scraping of some highly corrupt and market distorting economic policies so that the Malaysia economy will realise its full potential. This begs that question whether the acquittal of Anwar Ibrahim is a reflection of Malaysia’s journey towards a genuine reformist path?

Anwar’s legal battles

For unfamiliar readers, the sordid high drama that is Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy trial began four years ago, around June 2008. It happened in the midst of Anwar’s claim to be able to form a new government within 100 days after the general elections, in which the opposition denied the ruling coalition a two-third parliamentary majority. Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a former aide to Anwar, accused his former employer for sodomising him. Police reports were filed, and the case was soon brought to the attention of the high courts.

This was Anwar’s second sodomy trial. The first occurred in 1998, in the aftermath of Anwar’s political fallout with the then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. Like the first, the second trial quickly became politicised, with accusations and counter-accusations being hurled by both the ruling coalition and the opposition. Both trials featured colourful courtroom drama and over-the-top presentations of ‘evidence’ such as a semen-stained mattresses. The trials were a source of gaffe for domestic and foreign observers.

More importantly, these trials focused attention on two pressing issues in Malaysia – (1) the lack of judicial independence; and (2) the existence of a political culture that tolerates and encourages politicians to employ unscrupulous methods against their opponents. As such, the issue of whether Anwar actually committed sodomy somewhat receded to the background for many Malaysians.

Reformasi is coming to town

Perhaps, the Malaysia government has come to realise that it can no longer use the executive sledgehammer to bludgeon the judiciary to submission, unlike the days of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. The public today is more educated. There is intense scrutiny from foreign media. Investors are also concerned with the rule of law in Malaysia. All these factors add up to the pressure on the ruling coalition to gradually phase out strong-arm tactics against the judiciary.

Furthermore, unlike the first sodomy trial, some members of the normally politically subservient police force maintained their scepticism of Anwar’s physical ability of Anwar to engage in anal intercourse with Saiful during the second sodomy trial. After all, Anwar is not only in his sixties, but also he has back injuries while Saiful is a healthy young man in his twenties. In hindsight, a non-guilty verdict for Anwar is almost a no-brainer. But that may not be the end of the story.

The second allegation of Anwar committing sodomy came three months after the opposition coalition won its greatest victory to date, and months before Najib Razak’s appointment as the sixth prime minister. It does appear that the whole issue is indeed a set-up and it may have been done under the auspices of the then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi who was perceived to be increasingly lame-duck and desperate to derail the Opposition’s growing momentum.

Such a set-up might be seen as outright despicable to the non-Malays and foreign observers, but it did have an impact among the Malay electorate (particularly among the highly conservative rural population). Many of the Malays who voted against the ruling coalition during March 2008 did so more as a protest against the corruption and hypocrisy of UMNO leaders, rather than actually believing in the goals and ideals of the opposition. By tarring Anwar with a sex crime, UMNO hoped to draw back some of the Malay votes they had lost.

However, this strategy could also be overplayed. While some of the Malay votes could be wooed back through the character assassination of Anwar, it might also harden antipathy against the ruling coalition by die-hard opposition supporters. If Anwar were to be found guilty, he would barred from contesting the upcoming General Elections. The ruling coalition also risks recreating the widespread popular anger that was instrumental for the opposition’s stellar performance in the 2008 General Elections if they make Anwar a martyr for the opposition. In another words, the sodomy trial has outlived its usefulness.

Last but not least, moving away from Anwar’s trial towards a reformist direction could win Barisan Nasional genuine affection. Bread and butter issues often speak the loudest in developing countries, and Malaysia is no exception. Concerns about high rime rates, rising prices, maintaining a healthy and robust macroeconomic outlook for the country, rising income inequality and equal opportunity are unavoidable issues. A reformist direction addressing these issues could be a real vote winner.

The ruling coalition has also witnessed how effectively the opposition could rally strong support from any notion of perceived injustice from the government. This could be seen in the Bersih 2.0 (which called for electoral reforms) protests in July last year, where tens of thousands (no doubt egged on by key opposition figures) turned up to rally in Kuala Lumpur, despite a government ban on the rally.

The Malaysia government’s decision to repeal the ISA and gradually phase out racially-based affirmative action policies was greeted with general agreement from most quarters. The ruling coalition may have figured out that freeing Anwar would deprive the opposition of a key talking point, while sparring themselves (and especially Najib himself) the embarrassment of answering further inquiries from domestic and foreign commentators.


Summing up, the acquittal of Anwar is nothing more than an end to a dramatic fiasco that should have never taken place to begin with. The sodomy trials have expended an inordinate amount of political energy and attention which could be better used for more pressing issues the country faces. These include rising income inequality, a deteriorating education system, growing fissures among the different races, and massive wastage in public funds through outright corruption, misdirected investment (such as the recent ‘condos for cows’ scandal involving Women’s Affairs Minister Sharizat Jalil) and white elephant projects.

It is the earnest wish of the author that with the end of this sodomy trial, Malaysia politics would move from being personality-based to issue-based. However, despite all that is said about Malaysian politics having an ‘awakening’ after the previous general elections, it is still sadly based along the fault lines of race, religion, personalities and money politics.

Thus, at the conclusion of Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy trial, the questions relevant to the next general elections that ought to be pondered are as follows. Can UMNO moved beyond racial fearmongering and actually go all the way in its attempts to reform Malaysia? Can the opposition (and its supporters) ceased its obsession with Anwar himself and actually come up with a coherent strategy to govern Malaysia? This is the debate that the Malaysian rakyat ought to be having in the coming general elections.

Photo courtesy of Anwar Ibrahim