The argumentative Malaysian

The argumentative Malaysian
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First Published: Thu, Jul 24 2008. 12 26 AM IST
Updated: Thu, Jul 24 2008. 12 26 AM IST
So, they have gone after Anwar Ibrahim again in Malaysia. The former deputy prime minister was arrested and humiliated last week over allegations that he had sexually assaulted a male aide.
The charges emerged just as Anwar, now leading the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, had said he would run for a by-election, and claimed that MPs from the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front), or BN, would defect, possibly bringing the opposition to power for the first time in the nation’s 50-year history. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has ruled Malaysia through the BN coalition since independence; in the last elections, the opposition alliance came within 30 seats of coming to power. The opposition controls five of Malaysia’s 13 states.
Such a coalition would, of course, be shaky. Ruling parties that claim to personify the freedom struggle often end up in power too long; corruption sets in, institutions wither, systems atrophy. You learn how durable the democracy is when that party is about to lose power. There, the record is hardly inspiring: Long-staying incumbents find it nearly impossible to relinquish power — think of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe, it is the use of brute force and terror against his rivals; in Malaysia, it is outwardly gentler, but no less sinister: politics by smear.
Contrast that with India, where despite the utterly unjust emergency in 1975, when the Congress lost elections in 1977, Indira Gandhi left quietly, returning to power using legitimate democratic means, exploiting the foolish arrogance and hunger for power in the Janata Party.
Anwar had first made his call for reformasi (reforms) in 1997, when he was finance minister and Mahathir Mohammed’s heir apparent. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and stock markets loved his talk of transparency, liberalization, and assertion that he would not bail out any falling business, even if connected to UMNO.
By mid-1998, the Thai baht, the Korean won, and the Indonesian rupiah had fallen significantly, sending those countries to the sick bay of IMF, and the Malaysian ringgit was unable to withstand the sustained assault of currency speculators. Maybe Malaysia did not deserve a speculative attack because its high debt was domestic: Its external short-term exposure was relatively limited. But its internal balance sheet was a different matter. And each time the ringgit lurched, it left some Malaysian businesses more exposed. Some businesses close to the Mahathir faction of UMNO were over-leveraged.
Mahathir had agreed that Anwar would succeed him, but he had seen off other rivals earlier. Anwar may have been anxious. This is not to suggest Anwar was insincere. Politicians are driven by self-interest; it is a profession for the vain. But to know how different Anwar is, read his book, The Asian Renaissance, where he revealed his thoughtfulness and commitment to pluralism, as a gentle counterpoint to Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew’s long-held views about the unsuitability of aspects of Western-style democracy in an Asian context.
In his youth, Anwar was part of what is described in Malaysia as a radical Islamic group — Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia — and he had been detained. But he was not a religious hothead; he spoke out against hunger and poverty, articulating a different kind of politics. The conceit of the East Asian model is the illusion that challenging the system is not necessary, because the rice bowl will always be full. Anwar questioned that.
And when Anwar said he would not bail out those close to Mahathir in 1998, Mahathir turned on him, with shocking and distasteful venom. Rather than take on Anwar’s arguments — the role of faith in the state; the continuation of preferential policies which discriminate against non-Malays; should the ringgit remain free — Anwar was beaten up in custody, and jailed for six years on charges of sodomy. Later, those charges were dropped and Anwar was released. Now that he is on the brink of power, UMNO has returned to the only kind of politics it knows: smear and intimidation, and not argument.
Amartya Sen made that aspect — civil discourse — the central tenet of his book, The Argumentative Indian. India often falls short, but it often succeeds. Anwar appreciates that aspect of discourse, and sees it as part of his ethos. That’s his Asian renaissance.
Malaysia often denies its Indian heritage. Objecting to India’s entry into the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Malaysia said India wasn’t “Pacific” enough. But Malaysia is not entirely “Pacific” either; Indian culture flows through its veins.
Anwar would note the irony that while in Hikayat Seri Rama (the Malay version of Ramayana) Rama is weak and abuses Sita after her return from Lanka, in the Valmiki version in India, Sita redeems her reputation in the trial by fire. Anwar is no Sita, but he has faced abuse. This is his trial by fire. May he win, heralding an East Asian renaissance.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at
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First Published: Thu, Jul 24 2008. 12 26 AM IST