Anwar Ibrahim

Democracy as Safeguard Against Repressive Islam

Ethnic tensions, economic problems – many observers believe that Malaysia now stands at a critical juncture. The early release of the former Deputy Prime Minister, imprisoned for corruption, is giving rise to heated speculation. Lennart Lehman reports

photo: AP
Wan Azizah Ismail in front of "Justice Party" logo

​​The release from prison of former Malaysian Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has led observers outside the country to view events there with renewed interest. After the United Malaysian National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled the country for the past fifty years, denied Ibrahim entry into their ranks, he is now planning to found a new party.

According to his spokesman and legal representative, Sivarasa Rahsia, whom the "Zentrum Moderner Orient" ("Center for Modern Oriental Studies") invited to speak in Berlin, the new "Justice Party" (PJP) will stand up for democracy and pluralism, fusing the "National Justice Party" (NJP) founded by Ibrahim in 1998 with several NGOs.

"This is something new, since politics in Malaysia otherwise has more of a community character," says Malaysian political scientist Farish A. Noor. Up until now the parties here represented specific ethnic or religious groups in this melting pot nation. And there are frequent violent clashes between the Muslim-Malayan population and the Chinese minority.

Rejection of radical Islam

"The administration has deliberately fomented tensions between the groups in order to justify its repressive political measures. A modern state is thus shoring up its power using premodern tactics. The Asian crisis of 1998 suddenly exposed the inner workings of this system. Until that time repressive Asian dictators had been able to hide behind economic success and the slogan of the 'Asian way' being followed by the so-called Tiger States."

Ibrahim now intends to change all that. However, the NJP, which was carried on and expanded by Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah, during his imprisonment, has had a difficult time taking a clear position on the issues. As an oppositional catchall, the party is at pains to unite a variety of contradictory interests.

"Crucial to the party’s success will be whether Ibrahim manages to take an unequivocal stand, to reject radical Islam and at the same time offer the Muslim majority an interesting alternative vision," comments Noor. This will require Ibrahim to master a delicate balancing act. He is regarded internationally as a progressive Muslim politician, and both in Kuala Lumpur and in Washington there are hopes that he could exercise a pacifying influence on radical Islam.

From Islamist to philosopher

Ibrahim began his career as an Islamist activist with very good contacts on the corresponding international scene. During the 1998 Asian crisis he supported the consolidation proposals put forward by the World Bank, which were vehemently opposed by the Prime Minister at the time, Mahatir Mumammad.

Will this help him to gain the favour of the Chinese and Indian minorities in Malaysia and become a strong rival for the powerful Islamist opposition party (PAS)?

"Anwar Ibrahim is the only politician in Malaysia, who can believably represent an anti-racist position, precisely because he comes from the dominant Malayan-Muslim scene," says Noor. Ibrahim’s spokesman, Rahsia, depicts the politician as an enlightened, reflective, philosophical man who has long since abandoned the political Islam of the 70s.

"The Islamization advancing today in Malaysia is a global phenomenon. Democratization is the key to ending the vicious circle of Islamization and repression. We need to encourage open democratic discourse. To date there has been no public space in Malaysia where this could take place."

Faith in the state destroyed

The developments in Malaysia play an important role in the future of Asia, since this country is still seen as the region’s role model. Although the nation is in some aspects enjoying an economic boom, the state apparatus is still regarded as repressive.

"The seemingly arbitrary arrest of Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, after he had developed into a strong opponent of Premier Mahatir, massively destroyed people’s faith in the state, politics and the police," according to Noor.

"At the same time, after fifty years of one-party-rule under the UNMO, people cannot imagine that political change could be something normal, and that the world won’t come to an end. It is a real challenge for the PJP to try to reach these people."

Mahatir’s successor as Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, is taking cautious steps, in the aftermath of the Mahatir era, to even out the gulf in development between city and countryside, and to fight the corruption and bribery that have proliferated throughout the administration.

His release of Ibrahim brought him some moral credibility among the populace. But the spirits he had unleashed could soon turn against him.

Lennart Lehmann, © 2004

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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