The political revival of Malaysia's Anwar
KUALA LUMPUR - "Anwar! Anwar! Anwar!" chanted a crowd of young voters at a recent by-election rally in the rural Malaysian village of Machap Baru.
The cheers of course were nothing new for Anwar Ibrahim, now 59, who in the turbulent 1970s rose to political prominence as a feisty Islamist student leader and in the wake of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis as a deputy premier led street protests calling for reform against his boss and mentor, then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
But this time Anwar's political rise is different and, if successful, promises to alter fundamentally Malaysia's race-based political landscape. Anwar has recently emerged as Malaysia's most visible opposition politician by campaigning on a racial-inclusion card - a message that elicited cheers in the majority-Chinese village of Machap Baru, a traditional stronghold for the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) political party currently represented in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysia's largest political party and founder of the BN, has ruled the country uninterrupted since it achieved independence in 1957. Since 1970, UMNO has perpetuated the affirmative-action New Economic Policy (NEP), which grants preferential status in equity, employment and education to ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups known collectively as bumiputera. Although the policy ended officially in 1990, its pro-Malay measures remain in place.
Minority Chinese and Indians, who combined account for more than 33% of Malaysia's total population, have long carped about UMNO's race-based policies and contend that unequal treatment has led to the chronic brain drain of Malaysia's best and brightest to Western countries or neighboring Singapore.
A controversial study released last year by the Center for Public Policy Studies and led by former World Bank economist Lim Teik Ghee claimed that the bumiputera's share of the country's total equity had widely surpassed the NEP's stated goal of 30% and could be as high as 45%. The UMNO-led government quickly refuted the academic findings, saying that according to official statistics, bumiputera only owned 18.9% of the country's total equity, which if true would justify maintaining the NEP.
Despite those contradictory claims, some sense an emerging inter-ethnic consensus for a new deal, including among urban-based Malays. Economic analysts contend that the NEP is undermining the country's international competitiveness and weighs against much-needed new foreign investments. Recent seminars critiquing the NEP organized by youth groups such as Youth for Change and the National Young Lawyers Committee have drawn enthusiastic multi-ethnic crowds in Kuala Lumpur.
If Anwar has his way, Malaysia's next general election - which is due by May 2009 but many expect to be held either this year or in early 2008 - will be a de facto referendum on UMNO's unwavering support for the NEP, particularly in urban areas where Anwar apparently aims to swing the Chinese, Indians and progressive Malays to vote for his party.
Yet two big questions loom over Anwar's new brand of progressive politics. First, will he be able to court non-Malays successfully at the ballot box? And second, if successful in wooing the minority vote, will he alienate the super-majority of ethnic Malays, including those in rural areas, who may perceive him to be too pro-Chinese or pro-Indian?
Officially, Anwar is only the adviser to the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), or People's Justice Party, which was formed by his wife and political supporters in 1999 after he was sentenced to six years in prison on corruption charges and later for an additional nine years for sodomy, a criminal offense in majority-Muslim Malaysia.
In 2004 an appeals court reversed the sodomy conviction, Anwar was released from prison and he quickly resumed his political ambitions. Anwar is still legally banned from entering politics until next April because of the original corruption charges, and some political analysts believe Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi may opt to call snap polls before his term is up and while Anwar is still ineligible to run for the premiership.
So far the PKR has operated on the electoral margins, winning only five seats in its 1999 electoral debut and just one at the 2004 polls. Now, the multi-ethnic PKR is bidding to bring together the country's other two main opposition parties, the staunchly Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the secular Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party (DAP), into a new coalition.
The three parties formed the Barisan Alternatif (BA) in 1999, but it broke down in 2001 when the DAP quit in protest of PAS's agenda to establish an Islamic state, a policy stance that cost that party dearly at the 2004 polls and which party leaders have since claimed to abandon.
To succeed now, Anwar will first need to convince the ethnic Chinese community that he has genuinely changed his political stripes, which won't be easy among the older generation of voters. That's primarily because Anwar was a pivotal figure in the race-based political crisis that then-premier Mahathir brought to an authoritarian close with the arrest of 106 social political leaders, of whom DAP members represented the majority, as well as the suspension of three critical newspapers, including a punchy Chinese-language daily.
Then serving as education minister, Anwar later that year ordered the appointment of a group of non-Chinese-speakers to run a number of state-funded Chinese-language primary schools, which many construed as a government-led conspiracy to erode the Chinese-language education system. In response, Chinese political parties, including MCA, another BN-affiliated party known as Gerakan, and the opposition DAP, and a handful of powerful Chinese civil-society groups staged a 2,000-strong protest.
The UMNO Youth Wing retaliated with a counter-rally of 15,000 Malays in central Kuala Lumpur and its then acting chief, now UMNO-affiliated deputy prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, in a widely documented speech threatened to bathe his keris, or Malaysian dagger, in Chinese blood, resurrecting fears of the country's calamitous Malay-Chinese race riots of 1969. Anwar, who headed the UMNO Youth before Najib, many now note had earlier warned the Chinese against demonstrating "because others can demonstrate as well".
Non-Muslim Malaysians also recall Anwar's past role in pushing the nation toward Islamization. Indeed, Mahathir first recruited Anwar to UMNO in 1982 as the party's answer to the Islamist agenda pushed by PAS. Some liberal Muslims hold him accountable for the exclusivist and segregationist Islamic politics still prevalent in Malaysian society.
It was only when serving as deputy prime minister from 1993 to 1998 that Anwar managed to reinvent himself as a proponent of multiculturalism, inter-faith understanding and economic openness. The Chinese parties now in the BN coalition, which sang Anwar's praises when he was an UMNO member, have now refocused on Anwar's youthful days as a gung-ho Islamist and are moving to remind the Chinese electorate of that history.
To many, Anwar has moved convincingly from his middle-ground politics in the mid-1990s to his current progressive position, which was no doubt influenced by his purge from government and UMNO in 1998 and his subsequent imprisonment for six years after a highly political trial that included accusations of homosexuality, which many Malay Muslims view as an unforgivable form of immorality.
Because Malaysia does not hold mid-term elections, by-elections are closely watched as a predictor of voter trends ahead of the next general election. The death of three BN representatives this year has resulted in three by-elections for seats in state legislative assemblies.
The opposition boycotted the first one in Batu Talam, a rural Malay-majority constituency, to protest what they alleged were rampant irregularities and vote-buying. The second by-election was held in Machap Baru and contiguous areas on April 12, and despite an initial dispute between the DAP and PKR on candidate choices, the two parties agreed to join hands by allowing the DAP to compete head-to-head against the ruling BN.
The DAP lost in what is a traditional BN stronghold, but notably by a much smaller margin thanks to a swing toward the DAP in Machap Baru village. While Anwar's multi-ethnic message may have persuaded some Chinese formerly loyal to the MCA to switch to the DAP, he also significantly failed to win over ethnic-Malay votes.
The April 28 by-election in the semi-rural area of Ijok - the first such poll contested by the PKR since Anwar was released from prison - was a clearer litmus test for what political analysts here are starting to call the "Anwar factor". That's because the constituency's ethnic composition - Malay 52%, Indian 28% and Chinese 20% - was more representative of the vast number of ethnically mixed seats that the PKR is expected to compete heartily for during the next general elections.
In 2004 Abdullah led the BN to a whopping win of 91% of the constituency's seats by carrying 64% of the popular vote. After a heated campaign, which saw Anwar implicate Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Najib in arms-deal kickbacks and even a murder involving his aide and bodyguard, the BN nonetheless retained the seat. (Najib has consistently denied the charges.)
In one nearly all-Malay area, the PKR saw its support fall from 52% at the previous poll to 35%. PKR also suffered a 10% drop in another predominantly Malay area, but maintained its majority at 56%. At the same time, the PKR increased its support from 28% to 49% in a township where Chinese voters made up two-thirds of the electorate, but also failed to make inroads into Indian-majority areas.
So then does the Ijok result indicate that Anwar's new brand of progressive politics is doomed?
A year is a long time in Malaysian politics, particularly as former premier Mahathir through his criticisms erodes Abdullah's credibility and sows fissures inside UMNO. Because the symbolic stakes were so high, political commentators such as MalaysiaKini's Kim Quek have written, the Ijok by-elections were the "dirtiest" in Malaysian history.
Abdullah has reportedly instructed both the MCA and Gerakan to explain the significant loss of coalition support among Chinese voters during the Ijok by-election, indicating at least a mild sense of BN panic. And while UMNO is clearly still in the driver's seat, Anwar already appears to be changing the rules of the electoral game.
Hypothetically, if Anwar and the PKR could deliver a cohesive opposition coalition with 40% of all Malay votes and 60% of ethnic-Chinese ballots, as many as 29 parliamentary seats that BN now holds - half through the MCA and 11 through UMNO - would conceivably be up for grabs. And should the BN-affiliated MCA loose a significant number of seats to the PKR and DAP, as it did at the recent Ijok polls, the BN could conceivably become less multi-ethnic and more ethnic-Malay, while a strong multi-ethnic opposition could emerge with the strong support among non-Malays and progressive Malays.
That at least appears to be Anwar's electoral strategy, which if successful could fragment the historically monolithic UMNO. Since Ijok, Anwar has already shifted his critique toward the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), the BN-affiliated party that recently won the Ijok by-election and has over the years delivered solid ethnic-Indian support for the ruling coalition, including a clean sweep of the seats it contested at the 2004 polls. The charismatic opposition leader now claims the MIC has failed to defend the welfare of the Indians who make up about 8% of Malaysia's population.
"The Indians in the [plantation] estates were treated like slaves. They live in abject poverty in fear of thugs and their overlord minister," Anwar said. That would only change, he contends, if more Indians voted him and his PKR-led opposition into office in the next general elections.
Chin Huat Wong is a journalism lecturer at a foreign university in Kuala Lumpur, with a special interest in Malaysia's electoral politics.