Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s landslide victory in the Permatang Pauh by-election on August 26 strongly suggests that Malaysians remain in a mood for change five months after a political tsunami swept the country. The writer examines five key questions that may determine the country’s future.
Is Anwar Ibrahim unstoppable?*
With the big margin he attained in the by-election, it does look as if Barisan Nasional (BN) will have a hard time stopping him. But then, as Anwar himself said, a week is a long time in politics, meaning that nothing is definite.
He is stoppable as a person, but I think what has happened to him is that he has become the focus of a lot of hope for Malaysians disillusioned with the BN system. Because he is a wily politician — or a chameleon, as critics like to say — he has been able to remake himself in the image of the reform movement that his arrest 10 years ago inspired and that developed more intensely than he could have expected. That movement has aligned itself with other oppositional forces and that new combined force now places him as its front man. In turn, he has become indispensable to that force.
Understood that way, Anwar does look unstoppable. The long-term way BN and the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) can take the wind out of his sail is to reform themselves radically, and in the process, change Malaysian politics to the extent that the polarised situation that makes someone such as Anwar so iconic disappear, or weaken. As long as BN refuses to change, the situation that created the strong opposition that adopts Anwar as its front man will continue.
His court case relating to a sodomy charge, starting on September 10, is a big worry for the opposition. A lot of resources will be focused on defending Anwar, and on weakening the prosecution’s case, including proving that the charge against him is politically motivated.
What is Mr Abdullah’s future?
History will perceive Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as the accidental politician and will forgive him for many of his failures because of that. But for the moment, many Malaysians on both sides are simply exasperated by his weak leadership and his inability to adapt to changes. No one mistakes his reticence for astuteness any longer.
His time is up. He has to realise how critical reforms actually are to the future of the country.
If Anwar’s attempt at toppling the government does not materialise, then the attention will turn to Umno’s general assembly in December. Many Umno leaders are not willing to allow Abdullah to bide his time while they run the risk of being sidelined forever. One goes into politics to gain power, and if the power pyramid that one is part of is sinking, then at some point, one decides that it is every man for himself.
What about Umno’s future?
One day quite soon, Malaysians will learn to see political coalitions as temporary solutions to imbalances in power, and not as monolithic and eternal beings that become a goal in themselves. There are no permanent allies and no permanent enemies.
It will be nearly impossible for Umno to regain its former glory. That glory depended on the BN model. Today, it is like the Kuomintang of Taiwan in the ’80s. It must go through a radical change, and to do that, it may have to leave the seat of power for a while. Its members have to realise that Malaysia’s wellbeing is not necessarily Umno’s wellbeing.
Even if the party loses power, it can return, but in a new shape and in new alliances. The worst-case scenario is that Umno may go the way of the Communist Party in Yugoslavia and disappear. The fear then is that the country will disintegrate along with it. The best-case scenario is that politics in Malaysia will mature to the extent that political opponents no longer wish destruction on each other.
Losing will not be everything; winning will not be everything.
From now to September 16 and December, what are the signs to look for?
Abdullah presented his budget on August 29 and Parliament is now in recess until the fasting month of Ramadan is over. In the meantime, we have Wednesday to watch, when Anwar goes on trial. Should the sodomy charge be dropped, then BN admits that its tactic has backfired and it withdraws to fight another day. Should it stick, Anwar’s camp will try its best to keep him out of jail.
Given how Anwar was treated the last time he was in detention, his closest supporters fear that some serious harm will come to him while in jail.
September 16 is the day to watch — Malaysia Day, the day 45 years ago when Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined the federation. Anwar chose that day as a day of reckoning because it is very symbolic to the East Malaysians who feel let down by the federal government. He promises them a better deal, a simple enough strategy.
Even if Anwar cannot convince 30 BN Members of Parliament (MPs) to cross over to his side, he is expected to mark that day in a dramatic fashion. What he could do is perhaps to get some defectors to announce their intention publicly on September 16, and then hope for a snowball effect from there. He could also announce a defection by Umno MPs. Should nine of them defect, it would mean that Umno loses its majority within the ruling BN coalition. A bigger scoop would be to get a whole party to defect, threatening the existence of BN itself.
Also important to watch will be the Umno’s division elections next month. What support Abdullah still has will become clearer from that. The main challenger to Abdullah within Umno, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, will also be gauging his own strength during that time.
If Anwar were to be Prime Minister, what kind of leader would he be?
His rhetoric seems to echo the wishes of a large segment of the Malaysian population at the moment, and that segment will be dictating what kind of PM he will be. Malaysia is suffering from a leadership problem at the moment, and many are putting a lot of hope in him.
Anwar has to balance the aims of the parties in his coalition, and we will see compromises being made. That is the reality in Malaysia. But I think a culture of dialogue will be developed under his watch and that will be a great achievement indeed. I think at least that can be accomplished by him.
Anwar can be expected to use a global economic focus to expedite institutional changes and minimise differences in the agendas of various parties. There is a lot of room for change, and with the political support he seems to enjoy, he should be able to do a good job. I think the new democratic atmosphere in Malaysia will see to that.
*The writer is a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He is the author of Lost in Transition: Malaysia under Abdullah and The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time.
16 September 2008. That is Malaysia Day. That is also the day Anwar Ibrahim is supposed to take over the government. Today, some well-known personalities are joining Parti Keadilan Rakyat. From thereon, more are expected to follow, culminating in the final exodus of Barisan Nasional Members of Parliament.
Stay tuned for the announcements to follow.
Many just can’t believe that Anwar will really take over on 16 September 2008. Some just wish it were true. Some say it’s too good to be true. Others say Anwar is just playing poker. The sceptics say Anwar is laying the ground for a self-fulfilling prophecy. What is foremost in everyone’s mind is: is Anwar playing a high-stakes poker game or will this be a gunfight at the OK Corral?
At this point of time, Anwar can no longer just play poker. No one asked him to take over the government. No one set 16 September 2008 as the deadline. This was entirely Anwar’s own choice with no pressure or cohesion whatsoever on anyone’s part. It was Anwar who ‘volunteered’ the entire exercise. No one forced him into the situation.
Taking all this into consideration, there is no way Anwar can renege on his ‘promise’. To do so would result in a serious erosion of credibility. If Anwar fails to deliver his 16 September 2008 promise, he might as well disappear from the scene. If 16 September 2008 comes and goes as a non-event, Anwar too will become a non-event and will have to throw in the towel and call it quits.
Anwar is no novice. He is not an amateur politician. He is as seasoned as they come. And no seasoned politician like Anwar will commit Hara Kiri. And Hara Kiri it will be if Anwar turns around on 16 September 2008 and say, “I was just joking lah.”
So my money is on 16 September 2008 happening. Not happening would mean the death knell of Anwar Ibrahim. And Anwar is not ready to die just yet. If Anwar fails to deliver, that would trigger the beginning of the end for Parti Keadilan Rakyat.
Parti Gerakan Rakyat is on the verge of leaving the ruling coalition. No, it is not going to join Pakatan Rakyat. It is going to remain as an ‘independent’ party. And from there it is going to re-build its lost fortunes and revert to what it used to be when it was first launched 40 years ago in 1968.
Gerakan is going to be a most attractive party once it leaves Barisan Nasional and it launches its ‘remaking’ exercise. Hell, even I might get attracted to it once it transforms into what it started out in 1968. Gerakan will of course need to attract not only many professionals but from amongst all the races as well. And if Anwar falls short on 16 September 2008, Gerakan will be there with open arms to receive all the disappointed ex-Anwaristas who no longer have any confidence that Anwar is true to his word.
So, the stakes are too high not to succeed. This is not a game. It is not even a high-stakes poker game. It is a fight to the finish. It is a winner-takes-all situation. It is a last-man-standing duel. It is a gunfight at the OK Corral. And only one walks away from such a fight. And that one will be Anwar. My money is on that happening. Hell, my freedom is on that as well.
Today, I received many phone calls from concerned friends who told me that the government is considering detaining me under the Internal Security Act ‘very soon’. If that does happen, then this could probably be the last article I write, at least until 16 September 2008. So I too need Anwar to succeed. If not I will be in Kamunting for quite some time to come and you will not hear from me over the next couple of years.
Yes, I too have placed, not only my money, but also my freedom on Anwar. And if Anwar fails to deliver his promise on 16 September 2008, not only he but I as well am headed for a fall. But I have confidence he will do it. And I have confidence that my stay in Kamunting will not be for two years but for a mere two weeks.
But if I am wrong…..well, then see you maybe in six or seven years time, because for sure Najib Tun Razak will not release me in 2010 when he becomes Prime Minister. What he would do, instead, would be to rollover my two-year detention another two years, and another two years, and another two years, until I am too old to think and write anymore.
Till we meet again, if we do meet again, take care and keep the flame burning. There is still a long fight ahead of us in bringing reforms to this beloved country of ours.