As the trial of Anwar Ibrahim progresses under the scrutiny of the Malaysian public
and the watchful eyes of the international community, we are once again faced with
a disturbingly familiar repeat of the infamous events that transpired eleven years
The dubious way in which the previous Anwar trials were conducted left the public
seething at the crude parody of justice. It generated a political aftershock for
BN and left a black mark in the nation’s history.
Many Malaysians believe the present charge against Anwar are politically motivated
and the conduct of the prosecution has reinforced their doubts. Few believe that
Anwar will get a fair trial.
Will Anwar’s jailing help BN retain power or will it do the opposite and boost the
opposition’s chances? If the prosecution can prove an ironclad case the political
fallout will be limited but if Anwar’s conviction is seen as a travesty of justice
BN will pay a heavy political price.
To gauge the political effect of jailing Anwar it is instructive to recount the impact
of the previous conviction and compare the different socio-political environment
in the intervening twelve years.
Back to 1998
In 1998 when Anwar was charged for sodomy and abuse of power, Mahathir was the Prime
Minister and he ruled over a Barisan National political machine which faced no creditable
challenge by the then fragmented opposition. The premier’s authoritarian style earned
him the label of ‘dictator’ and his liberal use of the ISA to quell dissent invoked
a climate of fear.
Although Mahathir achieved his aim of jailing Anwar, the effect of Anwar’s downfall
a decade ago could not have been what he had foreseen or desired. Despite the most
heavy-handed and crude methods, he also failed to destroy Anwar politically or personally.
The twists and turns of the trial, the controversial rulings and the wholly disproportionate
sentence convinced nobody. Anwar’s unfortunate beating in prison and his appearance
with a black eye caused a public outcry. Despite the valiant attempts of the supine
mass media to demonize Anwar, the majority of Malaysians believed that Anwar was
a victim of political conspiracy after a fallout with Mahathir.
It created a political and social crisis which reverberates to this day. The U.S.
State Department called the sodomy trial an abuse of human rights which was only
one of a multitude of condemnations which poured in from overseas. The judiciary
became the laughing stock of the international community.
Domestically, Mahathir’s reputation suffered serious harm with calls for him to resign.
Demonstrations which were previously unknown in Malaysia broke out with cries of
‘Reformasi!’ and “Mahathir Resign!” They were forcibly suppressed but the anger in
the hearts of the people and the disquiet created in civil society lingered to this
The social forces unleashed led to the birth of the National Justice Party which
was later to become Parti Keadilan Rakyat. The party’s symbol is an eye against a
light blue background to denote Anwar’s famous black eye.
The General Election of 1999
The injustice meted out to Anwar caused the three main opposition parties – DAP,
PAS and Keadilan – to come together into an electoral coalition called Barisan Alternatif
to harness the wave of the public anger. However, this failed to unseat BN or deny
BN two-thirds majority in the general election of 1999.
There were many reasons for this, chiefly being the non-Malays’ fear of PAS as Islamic
extremists which PAS did nothing to assuage and in fact foolishly exacerbated with
calls for an Islamic State. Mahathir also courted the Chinese, aware that his relationship
with the Malays was severely strained. About 650,000 newly registered young voters
were prevented from voting on the specious excuse that there was not enough time
to register them. Hundreds of pages of pro-BN advertisements were published in the
one-sided mass media and the playing up of inter-ethnic fear ensured that there was
no fair election.
In the end, it was the non-Malays who saved Mahathir from a humiliating loss of BN’s
two-thirds majority, which would have forced his immediate exit. There was a significant
Malay swing against BN and for the first time, Umno’s share of the Malay vote dropped
PAS turned out to be the chief beneficiary, increasing its parliamentary seats from
7 to 27 and capturing Terengganu as it rode on the groundswell of Malay anger over
the Anwar injustice. After the election, a joke circulating around at that time was
that the difference between a Malay and a Chinese was that the Chinese supported
Mahathir announced his resignation as Umno President and Prime Minister in 2002,
acutely aware that his relationship with the Malays was broken. The baton was handed
over to Abdullah Badawi in 2003 and the following general election in 2004 saw BN
winning its best performance ever with 90% of parliamentary seats, not because of
Badawi’s popularity but because Mahathir was gone.
But the reverberations from the 1999 sodomy case did not end there. After Anwar was
released from prison, he forged an electoral pact between PKR, PAS and DAP which
resulted in the loss of BN’s two-thirds majority in Parliament and 5 states in the
2008 general election. From this stunning opposition gains, Pakatan Rakyat was born.
Although all this is history, they are worth recounting because one can learn from
the past in order not to repeat the same mistakes.
In 1998 the mass media was under much tighter control and the online world was at
its infancy. The words ‘blog’, ‘facebook’ or ‘twitter’ had not been invented and
Internet penetration was low at less than 15%. It has now exceeded 70%.
People are now far more connected than a decade ago with the proliferation of the
online world with its news, blogs, discussion groups, social networking sites, e-mail,
mobile phones and SMS. The trial proceedings will be reported in detail, analyzed
and dissected. Nothing can be hidden, distorted or obfuscated.
No amount of spinning in the mainstream media will convince a public otherwise if
injustice has been committed. It did not work in 1998 and it will not work now especially
when the online world has reached mainstream status and there is a freer flow of
With the rise of Pakatan Rakyat, people’s expectations are higher and they are now
more demanding of good and accountable government based on social justice and the
rule of law. It is cavalier to think that Malaysians do not care about injustice
and human right abuses as long as the economy performs well.
If Anwar can be convicted in a fair trial with his guilt proven beyond reasonable
doubt, little political price need to be paid by the ruling regime but the existence
of two medical reports that the accuser had not been sodomized has already tainted
the prosecution’s case.
The believability of DNA evidence involves a strong element of trust in the efficiency,
professionalism and impartiality of the law enforcement bodies. In a politically
charged trial where a person is seen as the victim of the entire state apparatus
the use of DNA evidence is less than convincing especially when an attempt was made
to fix Anwar using planted DNA evidence in 1998.
We must also remember that the heady economic growth of the 1990’s engendered more
tolerance for Mahathir’s autocracy while Najib has his hands full trying to keep
the economy growing on the back of the world economic crisis.
We can hence expect deeper political and social consequences compared to 1998.
The political ramifications this time around will be huge. Unlike 1999, the opposition
parties have coalesced into a workable coalition and are ready to challenge BN for
the seat of power, a far cry from just trying to grab as many seats as possible.
A one party system has morphed into a two party system although BN is still in denial.
Non-Malays have also lost their fear of PAS and interethnic tensions have dissipated
meaning that two powerful weapons that used to work with devastating efficiency to
garner votes from the non-Malays have been lost.
With the non-Malays now overwhelmingly pro- Pakatan Rakyat, BN’s fortunes now depend
on the Malays who are the very group likely to be incensed with any cruel and unjust
treatment of Anwar.
It is worth noting that PAS’ gains in 1999 were in the rural Malay seats where it
fishes in the same pond as Umno. With Umno now heavily dependent on the rural Malays
to maintain its power, it seems reckless to put this voter base at risk with another
clumsy and incredulous sodomy conviction.
A perception that Anwar had been unjustly jailed may create an anti-BN wave which
the opposition can ride to victory and the non-Malays will not be saving BN this
Aside from the political consequences, a more insidious effect will be a crisis of
public confidence in the law enforcement bodies which is already low. As these bodies
need the cooperation and respect of the public to function effectively, this means
their efficiency in tackling crime and corruption will be hobbled.
For example, the MACC has been seriously hobbled with the dive in public confidence
following its one-sided investigations and Teoh Beng Hock’s death and will continue
to be so until major revamps are made to instill back public confidence.
Society is traumatized by crude and offensive displays of injustice. The negative
sentiment will affect private domestic investment which is already in decline and
foreign investors will discouraged from investing in a country with a broken judiciary.
Unlike 1998 Anwar is now opposition leader. To jail him on a specious charge with
a dubious trial will project the perception that an opposition leader has been jailed
on sham charges to remove him from the political scene.
This will invite condemnations from the international community and put the country
in the company of banana republics such as Myanmar and Zimbabwe. The negative image
projected by the country will drive away tourists and discourage others from holding
functions in Malaysia.
As for Najib, his hold on Umno will weaken with the decline in public support which
may impair his ability to push through further reforms. Public support has a direct
effect on his ability to control his party warlords whose personal interests do not
always coincide with public interests.
What Now, Najib?
There is something called the law of unintended consequences. Instead of weakening
the opposition by removing Anwar, the opposition may be rejuvenated instead and the
public may rally around him as a martyr of injustice and a victim of abuse of power.
Mahathir harboured a deep personal animosity towards Anwar. He was willing to take
any political risks to humiliate and destroy Anwar, even though general election
was around the corner. The resulting social and political turmoil was acceptable
Without the cloud of personal animosity, Najib should act in a rational manner and
weigh the political risks and social consequences against the uncertain gain.
A conviction which is widely perceived as unfair and a political conspiracy will
fall squarely on Najib’s shoulders. Rightly or wrongly, he will be blamed so it is
not just Anwar who is on trial but also Najib’s credibility and the Malaysian justice
It is to Najib’s interest that Anwar be given a fair trial and acquitted if there
is no case. To push through a conviction on the basis of political expediency will
unleash social forces which may sweep BN from power.