KL should get over the ‘S’ word

Sending Mr Anwar to jail on a stale sodomy charge would certainly have caused damage to the BN. But what of the opposition? Would it survive another period of incarceration of its leader? To put it in another way: How important is Mr Anwar to Malaysia’s opposition today?

Carolyn Hong, The Straits Times 

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s acquittal from sodomy last week closed an ugly chapter that had marred Malaysian politics for over a decade.

Many Malaysians, whether they were his supporters or fence-sitters, were relieved to see an end to this sordid episode. Mr Tay Tian Yan, a Sin Chew Daily columnist, spoke for many when he wrote: “Enough! Everything should come to a close with the High Court verdict. The government should stop making appeals on the verdict.”

The Attorney-General’s Chambers has yet to appeal against the verdict, although lead prosecutor Mohd Yusof Zainal Abiden has indicated he will recommend an appeal. But many Malaysians, including the Bar Council, have urged the government not to do so. They want the chapter to come to a close, as they are exhausted by the long-drawn saga centred on the fate of the fiery political leader.

Datuk Seri Anwar shot to prominence as a charismatic student leader in the 1970s. He joined Umno in 1982, where he soon swept aside party veterans to become the anointed successor to then premier Mahathir Mohamad.

But in 1998, he was dramatically sacked from office and charged with corruption and sodomy. What followed was a political roller-coaster ride for Mr Anwar – and the country. He was jailed from 1998 to 2004 before being freed, and stormed back to centre-stage to forge the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance, which went on to break the ruling Barisan Nasional’s (BN) iron grip on power in 2008.

Another jolting turn came that same year when Mr Anwar was once again accused of sodomy, and Malaysians went through another episode of learning in their morning papers what the act entailed, often in clinically explicit details. As before, Mr Anwar denounced the charge – brought this time by a former aide – as a conspiracy to remove him from the scene and undermine the opposition.

To the surprise of many, the court acquitted him last Monday, on the grounds that the evidence was compromised.

The prosecution has two weeks to file an appeal. As it ponders the legal merits of the move, many political analysts have offered reasons why Mr Anwar’s acquittal is really the best possible outcome for the ruling BN coalition.

For one thing, despite the howls of dismay from some BN supporters, the acquittal serves to reinforce the reformist credentials of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

What’s more, a conviction would have set off another wave of sympathy for Mr Anwar and anger against the government, tipping even more fence-sitters into the opposition camp. It would have done the BN no good to battle a general election – which must be held by next year – with a nation riven as it was during the 1999 polls, that was called soon after Mr Anwar was hit with his first sodomy charge. In that election, the BN lost Terengganu and Kelantan, and the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) made large inroads into Umno’s Malay strongholds.

Without a wave of outrage to ride on this time, the opposition will be forced to focus on substantive issues of policies, a much tougher rallying point.

Sending Mr Anwar to jail on a stale sodomy charge would certainly have caused damage to the BN. But what of the opposition? Would it survive another period of incarceration of its leader? To put it in another way: How important is Mr Anwar to Malaysia’s opposition today?

The circumstances now are far different from that of 1998 or even 2008. In some ways, Mr Anwar is no longer as crucial to the opposition.

No doubt he remains a powerful symbol of unity for a political alliance with factious, fissiparous tendencies. In matters such as presenting the PR’s manifesto and alternative budget, Mr Anwar remains its only credible spokesman who is able to convince people that these policies go beyond narrow interests.

This is not a role that either of his allies, PAS or the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), is able to play despite their efforts to become more centrist in their outlook.

Similarly, it is hard to find anyone in opposition who can readily replace Mr Anwar as its standard bearer in the coming election and as its candidate for prime minister.

But beyond this unifying role, many in the opposition say Mr Anwar does not play a major part in managing the coalition or the states that it runs. The other leaders operate independently. PAS and DAP have learnt to work together during the last general election in 2008 and the 14 by-elections held after that, despite the occasional hiccups brought on by different world views. This is testament to the political adjustments that the two parties have made to overcome their differences and stay as partners.

Mr Anwar played a crucial role in bringing them together, and he remains important as an arbiter. But the coalition will not easily fall apart without him, especially when faced with the mission of fighting a common foe in an election.

Looking ahead, his acquittal is not likely to give the PR a huge boost, particularly as the verdict did not seem to exonerate him fully. Many pro-Umno bloggers were swift to point out that the judge acquitted him after finding that the DNA evidence may not be entirely reliable. They say this shows that the judge did not reject the possibility of sodomy. This message can be expected to be continually pushed in the rural Malay heartland, where conservative voters still see sodomy as a grave sin.

But in the meantime, the verdict has averted another political upheaval. Many observers believe that the government should ride on the resulting wave of goodwill, rather than undo it by filing an appeal. What’s more, as iconic a figure as Mr Anwar is, political discourse on Malaysia’s future – and there are many fraught issues that need addressing – has to go beyond one man’s court battles.

As Mr Tay, the Sin Chew columnist, wrote: “Malaysia is not a sodomy state. All that we want is a normal country. Let’s put behind all the nonsense and get back on our feet again!”