The Slow Death of ‘Asian Values’

Why the latest news from Malaysia helps to undermine authoritarianism throughout the region. 


Something remarkable is happening in Malaysia, and the rest of the world should take note.

Malaysia, you ask? Really? It’s only 28 million people, and it’s just one part of Southeast Asia, a region fragmented into a variety of cultures and systems — and largely off the radar  of people in the West, except when it comes to planning honeymoons on the beach. So why should non-Malaysians care?

Last week, a Malaysian court acquitted Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the country’s main opposition movement, of sodomy charges. (Sodomy is a crime in Malaysia.) Anwar’s supporters have long maintained that the case against him was actually political, cooked up by the government to prevent him from mounting a credible challenge to the system that has ruled the country for decades. Anwar was arrested on similar charges back in 1998 and spent six years in jail before a court finally overturned his conviction. Many understandably expected the same thing to happen again this time around.

But it didn’t. To general astonishment, the court dismissed the accusations, saying that the DNA evidence cited by prosecutors didn’t hold up to scrutiny. The judges, it seemed, had actually assessed the case on its own value. And with that ruling, Anwar can now continue his campaign against the government, one that is likely to culminate in a general election within the next year or so.

So why should we regard this story as worth our attention? Well, it’s certainly true that the verdict could help Anwar lead the opposition to victory, thus overturning decades of control by the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO). But this is by no means a given. Just because Anwar has been pronounced innocent doesn’t mean that he’ll win. Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, notes that the opposition movement headed by Anwar is a fairly volatile coalition of different groups pulled apart by sometimes competing interests: “Anwar has a real challenge ahead,” Bower noted in a recent email to me. “As he and his supporters anticipated a guilty verdict, they had planned to rally around political martyrdom. Now they need to go back to basics and compete in an election based on an economic and policy platform and ensure their very diverse coalition gets unified around those ideas.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been pledging to clean up corruption and reform the system from within, can now argue that efforts are bearing fruit. The verdict works in his favor as well.