AUGUST 8 will prove to be a turning point in Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's life. Anwar, 64, former Malaysian deputy prime minister before he was fired and found guilty of graft and sodomy, will learn this week whether or not the Malaysian High Court will grant his request to interview 15 witnesses, including Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, for his sodomy trial. Anwar believed that taking the legal path was a primary way of upholding one's democratic rights.
With the ‘Arab Spring’ wave sweeping the Middle East these past few months, Anwar said Malaysia was also calling for more political freedom, guarantees for democratic rights and for a more serious crackdown on corruption.
In a recent visit to the Tempo office in Jakarta, Anwar said that the arrogant use of power must be stopped. "Nobody should have absolute powers. Nobody is beyond investigation. And no one, should ever be accused without evidence. That is my principle."
On July 9, tens of thousands of Malaysians thronged the streets of Kuala Lumpur in a mass demonstration organized by the Bersih 2.0 coalition of civil society organizations. They called for electoral reforms to make way for free and fair elections in Malaysia, such as ensuring transparent voter registration procedures. Anwar believes change can come to Malaysia through a deeper understanding of Islamic values, and their links to justice and good governance. Excerpts of the discussion:
Have the Arab uprisings influenced the struggle for democratic changes in Malaysia?
The initial euphoria experienced in Tunisia and in Egypt has not yet produced a positive outcome (in Malaysia) as it did in Indonesia. Malaysians have yet to be convinced that such a change solidifies commitment, that such reforms are irreversible and they would strengthen democratic institutions. That has not taken root yet.
Which examples of democracy in Indonesia would you like to see adopted in Malaysia?
Indonesia's commitment to media freedom, the release of all political prisoners, and the issuance of new regulations geared towards democratic values, like the establishment of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). The establishment of such an institution is convincing proof that Indonesia is committed towards reform values, and an election that is considered free. It is not perfect but it is a far cry from what we have witnessed in the Arab nations. This does not yet exist in Tunisia and in Egypt because the military influence there is very strong.
You have been following Indonesian politics for a long time. What are the lessons learnt for Malaysia?
Indonesia's strength lies in the people's resilience. Even under Suharto, there were figures you could associate with democracy, freedom and human rights. They are people like Rendra, Taufik Ismail and Goenawan Mohamad. You produce great leaders, even among Muslim leaders. They had the appeal and the draw, even then. Democracy is characterized by the emergence of people organizations and mediators. But Indonesia also has its weaknesses. In the midst of the Arab Spring, Indonesia should shine as the spectacular example of democracy. Instead, it is bogged down by issues like corruption, like the case of (graft fugitive Muhammad) Nazaruddin. Also, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen.
How can a deeper understanding of Islamic values bring about good governance, justice and democratization in Malaysia?
Qaradawi (Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, prominent Egyptian Islamic cleric—Ed.), said that if you had to choose between caring for the poor, or going for the Haj pilgrimage each year, the priority should be caring for the poor. One can go for Umroh (minor pilgrimage) every year, but this means nothing if you condone corruption. Discourse on Islam is a reality and it’s best that we discuss it openly. If we don’t dare to talk about this, there’s always the danger that these talks will be hijacked. We do not want extreme groups, or anti-Islamic groups who preach ideas breeding Islamophobia to dictate the discourse on Islam.
Is that a possibility?
Yes. It all depends on our understanding of Islam. This is a big problem. I am involved in the International Institute of Islamic Thought and I believe discourse on Islam is critical. When it comes to Islam as an ideology, one must go in-depth. Without explaining the high objectives of the sharia, there would be many misunderstandings. Matters like justice, security, tolerance, governance, planning, all these matters [as defined by sharia] need to be properly understood.
What needs to be changed about implementing Islam in Malaysia?
Everything is organized by the government, including Friday prayer sermons. The weakness in Islam is that too many things are formalized or fiqih. During a recent Friday prayer I attended in Kuala Lumpur recently, the sermon inferred that anyone opposing the government and forms an association, would be beheaded and this would be halal (allowed) because it would be seen as treason. This is quite dangerous. To be fair, there are ulema and others who are fighting to change this.
In your opinion, how did you fare in the 2008 elections, and what needs to be changed about elections in Malaysia?
For us in 2008, the popular vote in Semenanjung in Tanah Melayu, mainland, was 50:50. We failed miserably in Sabah and Sarawak—in the hinterlands. We had no access there because we did not have a helicopter. We lost because of this. When we asked the General Elections Commission, what about us? They told us, you do the same. But how could we do that when 10 out of 40 voting centers, can only be reached by helicopter?
What about changes in voter registration?
Indelible ink is just one issue. Voter registration is a totally different thing. Today, we don’t know who is registering the voters. In my area of Permatang Pauh, where I am actually strong, I learnt that a total of 88 registered voters originated from one small house! So I went to that house and I met with the owner. Who are these 88 people I asked? He told me there were only four people in the house. In another case, there were 63 people (attributed to one home). And if we wanted to officially lodge a protest on the 88 bogus people in one house, that meant we would have to pay money for every protest we filed.
Is there anything that surprises you about Malaysian politics?
I never clashed with Mahathir (Mohamad) on matters of the economy or progressive ideas. I was so good to him, yet he allowed people to beat me up badly. I never thought this could happen. And then I was jailed. I thought maybe for one or two years, but it turned out to be six years. I have concluded that anything is possible with them. It never occurred to me that after accusing me of one sodomy case, another one would follow.
What does that tell you about the legal system in Malaysia?
The entire police investigation and trial, particularly the part on how long a sperm can last, was farcical. It shows how wayward our legal system is. A normal sperm for instance will last 50 hours, if un-refrigerated. From someone young and strong, it can last up to a maximum of 72 hours. This is superman status. In my case, in court they said it was 96 hours! And the judge agreed. It was stupid and cruel. The investigating police officer admitted the sperm was stored in his air-conditioned office but without refrigeration. So, I can tell you nothing surprises me anymore. This is an old order, a corrupt, obsolete system.
What are your chances in the next elections?
If the elections are clean and fair, I can win. I have a dream for a democratic, liberal and a tolerant society. I keep on visiting people at the grassroots and meet with the youths, even though the incessant propaganda campaign against me is very sophisticated. Nobody can underestimate the leadership of UMNO. They use a world-renowned public consultancy firm, spending millions of dollars to portray Najib and the Malaysian government as one that is democratic, liberal and moderate Islam. I have a big problem with the words, moderate Islam. Some Westerners think Mubarak stands for moderate Islam. As long as you attack Al Qaeda, you are pro-American and a friend of Israel, you are moderate Islam. How can you call yourself a moderate Islam, if you are corrupt and unjust?
Najib's family is involved in politics, like yours and Mahathir’s. Where do political dynasties fit in a democracy and where are the political rights of the ordinary Malaysian who has no political connection?
I admit this is a weakness in the system. But I would strongly protest if someone were to compare Nurul Izzah (Anwar's daughter and member of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat) with Mukhriz (Mahathir Mohamad's third son, currently deputy minister of international trade). However, if Nurul Izzah wants to continue as a potential candidate, then intellectually, credibility-wise, she must have a strong track record. Even among all the children of power-holders, Nurul Izzah must prove herself. The difference is that she comes from a tough background. She lost her teenage years to hard work. At the age of 17 and 18, she had to debate with the likes of Estrada and Habibie. Compare her with other candidates in parliament.
Is UMNO weakening?
UMNO (United Malay National Organization) is suffering from internal problems, and the political attacks continue. Recently, we—someone from the opposition—was accused of attacking Najib's wife, which we did not. Rumors flew around that she had received a US$24 million ring from the US and had brought it in through customs without paying duties. She explained she brought it back for an exhibition. Then there are other cases, like the suspicious death of Altantuy and the submarine business. All these irritate Najib and he wants anyone raising these issues to be arrested. (Altantuya Shaariibuu was a Mongolian translator who was found mutilated and murdered in 2006. She was reportedly a translator working on a doubtful Malaysian deal to buy submarines from France—Ed.)
If you win, what will you do about corruption?
Public education is very important. What is the point of talking about the supremacy of the Melayu (Malay people) if the values of justice are not upheld? What is so extraordinary about Islam? Because it can convince people that Islam is fair and just.
You earlier said that corruption is haram (a sin).
Corruption is indeed haram. In jail, I used to read every page of Tempo. I remember reading an interview of Inul (Daratista, dangdut singer from East Java). She was interviewed about her ngebor (gyrating) moves which earned her the wrath of the MUI (Indonesian Council of Ulema) who banned her concerts. In an interview, she was reported to have said: “They don't see the corruption. They are more concerned with my gyrating moves."
By Gita Lal
Tempo English Edition
No. 50/XI/10-16 August 2011