Malaysia’s dark side


The jailing of Anwar Ibrahim is a setback for the whole country, not just the opposition

The Economist

AFTER taking an inexplicable four months to make up its mind, Malaysia’s highest court on February 10th came up with the verdict its critics said had been scripted for it all along. It rejected an appeal by Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, against his conviction on a charge of sodomy—of having sex in 2008 with a young man who had worked for him. It upheld the five-year jail sentence imposed last March. Since a prison term also entails a five-year ban after release from running for political office, this would rule Mr Anwar out of the next two general elections. And since he is 67, it might mark the end of his political career.

The three-party coalition he heads, Pakatan Rakyat, poses the most serious threat the United Malays National Organisation, UMNO, has faced in its nearly six decades of continuous rule. But the opposition depends heavily on Mr Anwar’s leadership, so his sentence sounds like good news for the prime minister, Najib Razak. Celebration, however, would be short-sighted.

Having Mr Anwar out of the way certainly offers political benefits to the government. In the general election in 2013, when he led the Pakatan campaign, it won more of the popular vote than the UMNO-dominated coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), though, thanks to gerrymandered constituencies, it won only 40% of parliamentary seats. Yet Pakatan is an unlikely and fractious coalition. One of its members is a conservative Islamist party, appealing to the ethnic-Malay, Muslim majority; another represents mainly the ethnic-Chinese minority; Mr Anwar himself heads a multiracial, secular party. An important factor in keeping these elements together has been Mr Anwar himself.

A former deputy prime minister, he fell out with his mentor, Mahathir Mohamad, during the Asian financial crisis in 1998, and emerged as the leading advocate of reformasi—fundamental reform of an ossified, corrupt political system. He is by far the opposition’s best-known and most charismatic figure, despite—indeed, in part because of—his six years in jail for alleged corruption and on an earlier charge of sodomy (later overturned).

His latest conviction, however, is a mixed blessing for the government. It insists the judiciary is independent, and points out that, in this case, the charges were brought by the alleged sexual partner. But conspiracy theorists—a category including virtually every observer of Malaysian politics—will interpret Mr Anwar’s legal travails as politically motivated. After the verdict, he spoke to the judges: “In bowing to the dictates of your political masters, you have become partners in the murder of the judiciary…You chose to remain on the dark side.” They walked out, but Mr Anwar’s supporters at home will think he did no more than state the obvious. Even abroad, where Malaysia is often praised as a model of Muslim-majority democratic moderation, many will be suspicious. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a monitoring group, called the verdict a “travesty of justice”.

Critics point to many curious aspects of the case. According to research cited by HRW, the law under which Mr Anwar has been convicted has been invoked only seven times since 1938. Mr Anwar was acquitted of this charge in 2012 because DNA evidence had been mishandled, only for the government’s prosecutor to appeal against the decision. So, unfairly or not, the case has harmed the image of Malaysia’s judiciary, and, to the extent that he is seen as implicated in its decisions, of Mr Najib himself.

Already his reputation as a liberal and moderate has been dented by his government’s use of another archaic and draconian law, on sedition, to hound its critics. They include a political cartoonist known as Zunar who was arrested this week, apparently for a tweet critical of the verdict on Mr Anwar. Having promised to repeal the sedition law, Mr Najib in November said it would actually be strengthened. That was seen as a concession to conservatives within UMNO. They present a far greater immediate threat to Mr Najib than does the opposition, especially since they have the support of Dr Mahathir. He vacated the prime minister’s office in 2003 and is now 89, but remains a powerful political force. He has turned against Mr Najib, as he did against his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi—and indeed Mr Anwar before that.

With Mr Anwar behind bars, UMNO hardliners will have less reason to worry about the opposition, and can concentrate their fire on Mr Najib’s leadership. They have been handed a weapon in the troubles surrounding 1MDB, a sovereign-wealth fund, whose board of advisers Mr Najib chairs. It is behind on debt repayments and accused of a woeful lack of transparency. This week a group of Malaysian banks was reported to have threatened it with being called into default if payment is not made this month. Politicians from both the opposition and UMNO have called for investigations into 1MBD. Its troubles might even have an impact on Malaysia’s standing as a sovereign borrower. Last month Fitch, a ratings agency, called it a “source of uncertainty”.

Chameleon karma

Under attack from his own right flank, Mr Najib has little room to make good his promises of political liberalisation. Even economic reforms—where he has a respectable record of, for example, widening the tax base and cutting fuel subsidies—may stall. The most difficult ones require the ending of Malaysia’s rules mandating commercial discrimination in favour of the Malay majority, a system to which many in UMNO are wedded.

So the BN, whose ethnic-Chinese and ethnic-Indian components fared disastrously in 2013, risks becoming a mere shell for an UMNO ever more beholden to Malay-nationalist forces, thus further sharpening a dangerous racial polarisation in Malaysian politics. Mr Anwar, a political chameleon whose real beliefs are sometimes hard to pin down, has many critics, but he could at least credibly lead a coalition that bridges Malaysia’s ethnic divides. That is why his incarceration is a dark day not just for Malaysia’s opposition, but for Mr Najib and the country itself.