Malaysia’s sex trial of Anwar raises political stakes

Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s opposition leader, is on trial for sodomy for a second time. The BBC’s Vaudine England investigates the political ramifications.

A sodomy trial cuts through Mr Anwar’s image as a good Muslim, say government critics

Two years ago, few Malaysians would have predicted the current state of their country’s politics.

In the March 2008 elections, the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim demolished the ruling coalition’s two-thirds majority.

The coalition still won, but it emerged bruised by its worst election result in 50 years.

“It’s the first time in Malaysian history that a possibility of change is something that is reachable, not an impossible dream,” said Lim Kit Siang, head of the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

The result only exacerbated the hatred that was already felt by the Malay political establishment towards Anwar Ibrahim – a man who was once one of its leading figures.

Divisive move

Mr Anwar is now the head of the increasingly powerful opposition, and many analysts say that his current trial for sodomy – the second time he has been accused of this offence – may have more to do with his politics than his personal life.

The ruling coalition – the Barisan Nasional (National Front) – comprises the dominant United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

Lim Kit Siang, DAP leader (file image)
There is no doubt about Anwar’s unique contribution in bringing the three parties together
Lim Kit Siang, DAP leader

The opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition comprises Mr Anwar’s Parti Keadilan or Justice Party, the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), the largely Chinese DAP and others.

In December 2009, Pakatan Rakyat held a national conference which laid out the beginnings of a serious challenge to the establishment – to rule Malaysia from the basis of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith platform.

The calculations of electoral politics are invoked by many for the recent rash of attacks on houses of worship in a row over the use of the word Allah.

Some have blamed the government for the provocations, in a plot to draw PAS out of opposition into a pro-Muslim alliance against Mr Anwar.

Others have pointed the finger of blame squarely at Mr Anwar.

“I see this is the effort by certain quarters of the society associated to a political party… to test the rigidity or the flexibility of our tolerance that has been in our system since the first day of our independence or even before that,” said Umno Supreme Council member Idris Haron.

“What do I mean? Anwar Ibrahim,” he added.

He then recounted an incident from decades ago in which Mr Anwar had “put him down in public”, displaying a level of lasting vitriol against the opposition leader which is shared by many in Umno.

‘Too rotten’

Government critics believe it is no accident that the charge against Mr Anwar is sodomy – this is not white collar crime, a funding scandal or a conflict of interest, it is something which cuts to the quick of this Malay politician’s identity as a good Muslim.

Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Several Umno leaders have labelled Mr Anwar a “traitor” to the Malay race, claiming his advocacy of equal rights to all endangers the Malays.

“He has deviated from the struggle for the Malays. We speak the truth and are ready to face any legal action from him,” a former Umno minister Shahrir Samad said.

Among the opposition, the trial posses an immediate practical problem – how do you take over government if your leader is in jail?

“There is no doubt about Anwar’s unique contribution in bringing the three parties together,” says Mr Lim, of the opposition alliance.

“But I think should anything untoward happen – which we hope would not take place, although we have to be realistic about it – I believe the Pakatan Rakyat will have become more mature and able to undergo such a test,” he says.

Within Umno, some members suggest that restoring their party’s electoral might requires more than simply locking up Mr Anwar.

These voices see the old Umno as out of tune with a younger, more globalised and questioning constituency, and as too willing to pander to a more extremist religious right wing within the party.

Umno is too rotten to be saved, according to Zaid Ibrahim, a former law minister for Umno and now an opposition strategist.

“Umno’s preoccupation (in the 1960s) was to try to uplift the spirit of the Malay,” he says.


“But along the way it has become an almost fascist type of machinery, spreading lies about the country that Malays are going to be overwhelmed.

“It’s very fascist. And I think after 20-30 years, they begin to believe it themselves, they can’t control it.”

Most analysts credit Prime Minister Najib Razak as being a well-meaning promoter of centrist government – “as liberal as any other wealthy Malay”, as Zaid Ibrahim puts it.

Mr Najib has already watered down the country’s contentious pro-Malay affirmative action policies, and embarked on a new target-setting approach for his cumbersome bureaucracy, perhaps in the hope that economic success will quell political distress.

Another former Umno luminary who has also split from the party, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, described the 2008 election as a national watershed which marked the end of Umno’s invincibility.

“The people want more than ethno-religious politics,” but Umno seems to be digging a hole for itself, he said in a recent speech.

Umno is becoming “more extreme and out of touch with ordinary voters of every race and religion, whose major concerns are not racial or religious identity, but matters such as corruption, security, the economy and education,” he believes.