What Anwar’s trial means for Malaysia

A guilty verdict would be a serious step backwards for this aspiring Muslim democracy

When I visited Malaysia last month, it was clear that not just Anwar but also most observers expect a guilty verdict in August. At that point, the question is whether he remains free on bail during his appeal or is jailed immediately. 

By John R. Malott, Wall Street Journal

The trial of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s opposition leader and his nation’s best-known and most respected international figure, is scheduled to resume this week in Kuala Lumpur.

The Malaysian press dubs the affair “Sodomy II,” for it appears to be a repeat of the Muslim democrat’s 1998-99 trials, when he was convicted on corruption and sexual charges. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Anwar’s conviction later was overturned, and he was released after six years in solitary confinement.

As the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia when Mr. Anwar first was arrested and put on trial, everything I knew then and know now leads me to conclude that this trial also is an attempt to sideline him politically.

Already convicted by the government-controlled media, Anwar and his defense team have been denied access to the evidence that the government possesses, including police and medical reports, surveillance tapes, and even the witness list. Malaysia does not have a jury system. The verdict will be rendered by one judge, appointed by the same government that wants to remove Anwar from the political scene.

While a handful of human rights groups and some Australian parliamentarians have condemned the trial, there has been little interest at the broader international level. The Obama administration has been silent.

When I visited Malaysia last month, it was clear that not just Anwar but also most observers expect a guilty verdict in August. At that point, the question is whether he remains free on bail during his appeal or is jailed immediately.

A charismatic campaigner, Anwar led his coalition to near victory in Malaysia’s last parliamentary elections in 2008, when the opposition took 47% of the popular vote and gained 62 seats. The government’s new political game plan seems to be to put Anwar in jail and the opposition in disarray, call snap elections, and ride to victory.

Today Malaysia gets little attention in the world press. The lingering image is of an Asian economic success story, a moderate Islamic country and aspiring democracy, and a multiracial society where harmony prevails. Unfortunately, that is not the case today. Malaysia is a nation adrift. 

Once one of the world’s dynamos, Malaysia’s economy has underperformed over the past decade, with an average annual growth rate of 4.5%. Much of that growth was the result of government spending, which has pushed Malaysia’s debt level to 54% of GDP. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has remained relatively flat over the past 15 years, while flows into Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam have soared. To make matters worse, Malaysia experienced a net outflow of $6 billion in FDI capital in 2008.

Malaysia desperately needs to upgrade its skills base and innovation capabilities, but almost 500,000 Malaysians—nearly 2% of the entire population—left their country for good between 2007 and 2009. Malaysian experts believe most of these émigrés were skilled ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians, concerned by economic decline and growing racial and religious tensions.

Worried about losing political support, the ruling party has responded by appealing to the more base instincts of the country’s Malay Muslim majority. For example, it told Malaysia’s Christians that they may no longer use the word “Allah” for God, even though the word existed in Arabic long before Islam arose. A new militant group called Perkasa, which claims that Malay rights are under threat from the Chinese and Indian minorities, has won backing from former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and other members of the ruling party.

For Malaysia and the world, there is more at stake in Anwar’s trial than whether one person is convicted. Malaysia is at a crossroads in its history. The road that it chooses matters not only for some 30 million Malaysians, but for the entire world. The country could be a model for the 600 million people of Southeast Asia and for the entire Muslim world, if it returns to the promising course it was on 15 years ago. But a guilty verdict for Anwar means that the corruption and cronyism that now pervades Malaysia, its lack of political freedom and its economic decline, will continue. The country’s non-Malay citizens will continue to seek a better haven overseas.

In 1998, Anwar said, “If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.” That is no less true today. If Anwar is denied his freedom, then Malaysia will continue to be denied her freedom and her promise.

Mr. Malott was the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia from 1995 to 1998.