Anwar’s jail term finally gives Malaysia some closure

Anwar Ibrahim

Sholto Byrnes says the opposition must now prove it can move on

Sholto Byrnes, South China Morning Post

So, it is finally over. The 33-year political career of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s long-time opposition leader and former deputy prime minister in the governing alliance, ended on Tuesday as he was led away to a jail cell. His ultimate appeal against a sodomy conviction was rejected, and his five-year prison sentence upheld. Anwar forfeits his parliamentary seat and, given that he is 67, any prospect of grasping the prize that has come so tantalisingly close in the past – the country’s leadership.

On a personal level, there can be few who would take pleasure in Anwar’s return to incarceration (he was jailed in 1999 for corruption and in 2000 for sodomy, though the latter was overturned). Tuesday’s sentencing was marked by outrage, but much of it is misplaced.

Those close to Prime Minister Najib Razak rejected suggestions that the prosecution was politically motivated. They point to the overwhelmingly negative international coverage that they knew a guilty verdict would produce, and say the opposition is almost certain to enjoy a surge in support as the lacklustre alliance finds unity and energy in condemning the verdict. Moreover, cases can and do go against the government. Its senior members – such as a former chief minister of the state of Selangor – have not been exempt from being charged, convicted and sentenced, just as Anwar has.

Regardless of whether one thinks homosexual acts should be illegal, the fact is that they are in Malaysia, and not one politician has called for them to be legalised. Certainly not Anwar, whose sexuality has long been the subject of rumour. In fact, the first person to bring up the issue in parliament was the late opposition politician Karpal Singh, a fiercely independent MP of unimpeachable integrity, as far back as 1997.

But it may be asked: aren’t sodomy prosecutions almost unheard of in Malaysia? Hasn’t this been a rerun of 1998, when that charge was laid at Anwar’s door after his failed attempt to topple the then prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad? However, this case was not the same as the first sodomy charge. This time, a young male aide said he was coerced into non-consensual sex by his older employer, a powerful and charismatic politician of whom he was in awe. The real scandal would have been if the police had not investigated.

The chief justice said on Tuesday there was “overwhelming evidence” that the crime had taken place, based on, among other things, closed-circuit TV footage that led to Anwar abandoning his initial alibi and matching DNA that had been kept in an unbroken chain of custody.

More broadly, Anwar is not to be compared to Nelson Mandela, no matter how often he likes to mention South Africa’s late president in the same breath as himself.

There was little reason to believe that, if Anwar had not fallen out with Mahathir, he would have been the great reformer he later claimed he was. While in government, he was up to his ears in money politics, as recounted by the former New York Times correspondent Ian Stewart, who wrote that in 1993 Anwar used “large cash payments to win enough support to secure the position of [United Malays National Organisation] deputy president and replace veteran leader Ghafar Baba as deputy prime minister”.

Longer term, the fractious opposition now needs to show that it’s about more than Anwar; that it has a positive agenda (rather than attempting to undermine programmes such as Najib’s 1Malaysia initiative, which is just the kind of inclusive policy they claim to believe in); and that it can overcome the internal dissension that has left the three-party grouping on the verge of collapse.

This verdict may have brought Anwar’s career to an ignominious end and left his friends and family in great distress. But it has vindicated his victim, and finally closes an unnecessarily turbulent chapter in Malaysia’s history, a third of which – far too long – has been spent against the backdrop of Anwar’s trials and theatrics.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia