With the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim last week, Malaysia appears to have again resorted to dubious law to eliminate political challenges. This unfortunate practice has been seen in many Asian nations: Thailand, Myanmar and Singapore are in the unsavoury line-up.
All too often, the courts are used to shape the course of politics. Opponents and vocal critics are arrested, charged, convicted and jailed. Sometimes the courts are doing the governments’ bidding. Sometimes, it seems, the courts are trying to second-guess the desires of the nation’s rulers or to put their own (usually conservative) stamp on developments.
Whether at the government’s instigation, or acting on its own initiative, Malaysia’s highest court trod a regressive line on Anwar’s case. Rejecting an appeal against his conviction on a charge of ‘sodomy’ (having sexual relations in 2008 with a young man who had worked for him), the court upheld the five-year jail sentence handed down by a lower court last March.
Prison terms of more than one year in Malaysia also carry a five-year ban on standing for political office, effective from the date of release. The prison term and the ban together, then, bar the 67-year-old from politics for a total of ten years, effectively ending his political career.
Critics around the world have deplored the ruling, the archaic law, and Malaysia’s failure to deal in a mature and responsible way with Anwar, whose three-party Pakatan Rakyat alliance almost toppled the government at the last national election.
Ordinary Malaysians are increasingly fed up with the vast wealth displayed by the nation’s elites, by the abrogation of rule of law, and the rulers’ almost casual disregard of people’s needs. There is fear the rulers’ rampant greed is influencing their political decisions, and Malaysia is the poorer for it. The ruling UMNO party, the United Malays National Organisation which has enjoyed nearly six decades of running Malaysia, is on the nose.
Pakatan campaigned in the last election as a clean player, and one that would provide a long overdue change from Malaysia’s usual system of entrenched patronage and corruption. Led by Anwar, Pakatan won most ballots in the poll and the coalition was only prevented from taking power by the distribution of votes in Malaysia’s gerrymandered seats.
Since his sentencing, Anwar has been no real threat to the Malaysian government. Locked up in a spartan jail cell (with a thin foam mattress on the floor and a squat toilet, according to his lawyers), his political career has been cut short, his ambitions stymied. A challenge to the government has been quashed. Yet the government insists the judges determined Anwar’s guilt with no political interference and the independence of the judiciary was in no way compromised.
The Human Rights Watch monitoring group described the court’s verdict as a “travesty” and cited research that noted the discriminatory law under which Anwar had been convicted had only been wheeled out seven times since 1938.
It’s almost impossible to tell whether or not the judges were entirely judicially impartial, or whether anyone from the government gave them a nudge, or whether they acted independently to rid the government of a vocal critic. In any case, the nature of the so-called crime and the hounding of Anwar over the years has stained Malaysia’s reputation. The sooner that particular ‘sodomy’ law is abolished, the better for the nation.
On the face of it, Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak can now rest easy, but he and his supporters should remember that Anwar’s most vocal critics from within the ruling UMNO party may well now turn their sights on the prime minister. With the threat of the popular Anwar looming large, they stood firm behind the party boss. With that threat largely eliminated, these in-party critics may feel the leash is off. Certainly Dr Mahathir Mohamed, once a long-standing UNMO prime minister, has cast aside party allegiances to publicly excoriate Mr Najib’s performance and ask him to resign.
At the same time, the recent arrest of an outspoken political cartoonist known as Zunar, for a typically critical tweet slamming Anwar’s verdict, has done little to reassure those international observers who doubt the government’s direction. Using archaic sedition laws to silence critics such as Zunar is hardly the mark of a modern, moderate nation in charge of its destiny.