Home 2008: 5 Conquering and vulnerable: Anwar’s predicament and ours

Conquering and vulnerable: Anwar’s predicament and ours

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Khoo Book Teik looks at how Anwar has come to personify many dissident, even conflicting tendencies. His two different images – that of a conquering political leader and frequently disabled politician – capture society’s current predicament. We have moved towards more open dissent; and yet we are unsure if we can really achieve a more open political system.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad once called Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim a ‘troublemaker’.

As name-calling goes, that was terse and mild. It was, arguably, not inappropriate.

Anwar had organised student demonstrations against Tunku Abdul Rahman, and was one of the leading figures of the Baling protests of Tun Abdul Razak’s time. He had mobilised opposition to the amendments of the Societies Act that the Tun Hussein Onn government wanted to pass.

Most of all, Anwar was the enduring icon of the Reformasi movement that first rose against Mahathir in September 1998 and morphed into the tsunami of 8 March 2008.


A thorn by any other name

It was as if Anwar was up to some mischief every decade. Call a thorn a thorn: he managed to be one, though not always the only or most significant one, in the side of every administration.

A politician with that record gains more than his share of labels and sobriquets. Some of Anwar’s flattered him; at least as many disparaged his character.

He’s been admired as a charismatic ‘man of the people’, even feared as a masterful strategist. He has been commonly cast as a political chameleon and castigated for being a chauvinist, an opportunist, and an extremist.

At one extreme, lest we forget, he was made out to be a wanton womaniser and a secret sodomite.

A person like Anwar invites puzzlement and yet suspicion, too. Hence, the numerous questions that have been raised at each of the turning points of his political career: Will the real Anwar stand up? Shouldn’t he apologise for his time in Umno? Shouldn’t he atone for his mistakes in government?

Put simply: Can he be trusted? Do we believe him? What had he learnt from six years’ imprisonment? Does he have the party-hopping numbers to form the next government? Will he really reduce the price of petrol?

In a sense, such questions presuppose an Anwar who mastered every bad situation he’d had to face. Who but DSAI could have turned the tables on his tormentors, conjured his deliverance from irrelevance, and reinvented himself to greater advantage following each setback?

Yet, it would be a one-sided perception that sees only an all-conquering Anwar.

The trouble with enemies

The simple truth is, no one makes trouble without making enemies. And Anwar, troublemaker, has had many enemies.

In the corporate world that straddled public and private sectors, many vested interests were worried in 1998 that he’d replace Mahathir and deny them the bailouts they needed to survive. Today, Anwar’s return and Pakatan Rakyat’s rise threaten the system of politicised business by which they derived their power, wealth and status.

Within Umno lurk many foes, ancient ones who were overwhelmed by Anwar before, and young, ambitious ones intimidated by him. Since Anwar’s release in 2004, they’ve wished him politically dead. But he’s resurgent on an oppositionist wave that has turned many of them into political flotsam and jetsam in five states.

READ MORE:  Reformasi, 25 years on

In the state law-and-order institutions are senior officers he’s accused of framing him in 1998–99 or subverting justice beyond what he was convicted of in 1999. Lingam-gate would have convinced them that it’s not bluff on Anwar’s part when he says he’ll clear his name by bringing them to justice.

One can expect, therefore, that hidden hands have formed stealthy groups of Anwar’s masked enemies in business, politics and government. In 1997–98, enemies of those sorts, with Mahathir’s late but unstoppable intervention, had brought down the ‘anointed successor’. Similar foes must now be plotting to prevent Anwar from becoming the first PR prime minister.

Knowing what took place in the past and sensing what’s happening at present, should one persist in seeing only an Anwar who overcomes all obstacles?

Wouldn’t it be just as compelling and sobering to see a vulnerable Anwar who has been more frequently exposed and disabled than any other prominent politician we’ve known?

Hadn’t he spent two years in Kamunting under the Internal Security Act? Was his black eye in 1998 self-inflicted? Were his arsenic-poisoning symptoms in 1999 contrived? Where did he read the classics for six years if not in Sungai Buloh?

And now, what was he doing in the Embassy of Turkey?

Whose predicament?

These two contrasting images of Anwar – now conquering, now vulnerable – blur the boundaries between his latest predicament and our social impasse.

Anwar’s conquering aspect may be seen in PR’s euphoric recourse to Makkal Sakhti (People Power), promises to undo corruption, and Anwar’s call to Barisan Nasional politicians to desert their coalition.

To be perfectly realistic, there’s nothing truly radical about any of those things, nothing revolutionary about the post-8 March situation as a whole.

As the print and online media’s special report after special report on their ‘100 days’ show, the four new PR state governments (Kelantan is old hat) don’t intend to uproot the foundations of society, economy or polity.

Without uniformity in policy and administration, they’ve introduced a few welfarist measures, instituted mild governance reforms, and protested the hostility of the Federal government.

Even when he insists that PR will form a new Federal government by September, Anwar’s trying to co-opt disgruntled BN parliamentarians, not planning to overthrow the system.

To that degree only, Malaysian society has advanced a decade after Reformasi began, four months since the general election.


Already, Anwar’s ‘New Dawn’, with its ketuanan rakyat and Malaysian Economic Agenda, has run up against an existing system of power and politicised business.

That system has little in common with the New Economic Policy’s original, defensible, objective of restructuring. Indeed, as the composition of Lingam-gate’s dramatis personae tells us, a multiethnic oligarchy, that couldn’t care less about any social contract, derives enormous gain and largesse from that system.

READ MORE:  Reformasi, 25 years on

More than any other factor, the oligarchy’s manipulations of that system caused the institutional wreckage now discredited as part of ‘Mahathir’s legacy’.

Obviously, the oligarchy battles to preserve their source of power, wealth and status.

Politically, they rely on Umno’s highly developed political machine. Ideologically, Umno frames all issues in terms of bangsa dan agama (race and religion). Institutionally, the Umno-dominated Federal government starves the PR state governments of finance.

We haven’t yet seen one other form of response, namely, harsh repression.

That’s partly because the regime is beset by disorder. Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s leadership is besieged by his Umno critics, his unhappy Sabah allies, Anwar’s enticement of BN MPs, and the deteriorating economic conditions.

Crucially, it’s also because PR’s solidarity and public support are intact, despite BN’s hopes and many rumours to the contrary.

New phase of battle

Against this chaotic background, it was widely believed that vicious attacks on Anwar’s reputation would mark a new phase in BN’s battle against PR.

In fact, BN had tried to discredit Anwar just days before the general election. But that effort, laced with transparently biased input from intellectual hired guns, was panicky and counterproductive.

But, suddenly, on 28 June, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, a 23-year old ‘aide’ to Anwar, lodged a police report that Anwar had sodomised him.

In response, both sides of the political divide issued accusations and counter-accusations. For now, the public has plenty of conspiracy theories but no sure knowledge of this bizarre development.

Deja vu

Anwar may be vulnerable but not that vulnerable.

Well might the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and other ministers urge that we should ‘leave it to the police’ to investigate Saiful’s accusations.

That’s chatter, necessary but futile.

Public confidence in police professionalism is low, among others, because of disappointment over failed high-profile murder cases, resentment against police attacks on peaceful protesters, and a general belief that crime rates have risen.

Confidence in the judicial system is not ‘fully restored’. The government has compensated the dismissed or suspended former Lord President and other Supreme Court judges for their sufferings in 1988, in effect blaming Mahathir for that tawdry affair. But Lingam-gate is unfinished, a reminder that judicial reform has a long way to go.

How, then, can a prosecution of Anwar on new sodomy charges bring anything save domestic and international ridicule?

How will Saiful’s allegations find currency among dissident voters who have psyched themselves to resist a campaign of anti-PR psychological warfare?

Won’t charging Anwar with sodomy again revive on a larger scale the collective Malay disgust with his aib (shame) in 1998–99?

Déjà vu
, this sodomy cock won’t fight – not a second time, not when Anwar and Sukma Darmawan’s linked convictions on charges of sodomy were quashed on appeal, not against mass cynicism towards any trial that has a whiff of political victimisation.



The websites and blogs that luridly speculated over the ‘who’s, how’s and why’s’ behind Saiful’s allegations had soon to confront something more drastic.

Citing threats of his physical elimination, and not just character assassination, Parti Keadilan Rakyat secretly moved Anwar to the Embassy of Turkey. There he took a day’s refuge, emerging only when he’d received the government’s public guarantee of his safety.

READ MORE:  Reformasi, 25 years on

The public is bewildered by this turn but again can’t evaluate the seriousness of the threats Anwar’s received without detailed knowledge and evidence.

But if Datin Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and Syed Husin Ali, no strangers to politically inflicted suffering, take every threat to Anwar’s person with all seriousness, I, for one, would give them the benefit of the doubt.

One doesn’t have to be an unthinking Anwarista to share in the demand that someone of his stature, representing the hopes of one half of the electorate, but perceived as a threat to many powerful quarters, has every right to safety and security.

Civilisation and savagery

At this juncture, Anwar’s predicament is not his alone.

Malaysian society and politics have been moving in contradictory directions.

On the one hand, society has surely moved, albeit unsteadily, towards more open political dissent. Demands for greater political space and freedom have mounted, backed by mass readiness to mobilise, protest and demonstrate with lesser fear of repression.

This dissent has been half-tolerated, half-repressed, evidence of a stand-off between the regime and the opposition, between state and civil society.

On the other hand, politics has become more sordid. Unlike in other countries, the murder of politicians is not common: since the 1980s, one politically motivated murder and a couple of unsolved murders of politicians. But the system is flush with money, soiled by character assassination, and riddled with conspiracies.

In the existing political arena, the stakes of office have been raised, the rules of competition bent, and the conduct of politicians often unchecked by institutionalised controls.

One might say that society has moved ahead of politics and a large proportion of the people have advanced beyond the control of the political class. We’ve arrived at a critical moment, unsure if we can make our political system more open and civilised, or find it descend into something more closed and savage.

In other words, we’re ‘not there’ yet.

Neither is Anwar. Over many years, Anwar, activist and politician, has come to personify many dissident, even conflicting, social tendencies. Precisely now, his two different images capture the predicament of our changing society: like him, we can be both conquering and vulnerable.

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Dr Khoo Boo Teik, an Aliran member, is emeritus professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo, and visiting senior fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. He is the author of Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad and Beyond Mahathir: Malaysian Politics and its Discontents
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