New party rises in Malaysia's limbo
by Michael Sheridan
Kuala Lumpur

From The Sunday Times, UK
4th April 1999

THE strain is taking its toll as Malaysia's "trial of the century" grinds on. For Anwar Ibrahim, the fallen deputy prime minister, and his campaigning wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, it is a wait for justice. For the fretful politics of this multiracial nation, it is also a countdown to the moment of truth.

"I still have the sense and the hope that he might be acquitted," Azizah said last week. "But perhaps it is wishful thinking."

Anwar's campaign to oust Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's veteran prime minister, is due to receive a big boost this morning. A multiracial grouping, the National Justice party, is to be launched in the ballroom of a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur with Azizah as its president.

Its aim is to unite Malays, Chinese and other races in a coalition against Mahathir's ruling order, with Anwar as its imprisoned figurehead.

Azizah, an eye specialist by profession who trained in Dublin, has thrown herself night and day into the heady task of fomenting opposition. She is also bracing herself and the couple's six children for the personal pain she fears lies ahead.

"However well prepared one is for the verdict, it will still come as something unwanted," she said. "I am helping the children to prepare for it and for the reality of a sentence after so long a trial. It's necessary for them to realise that they will be seeing less of their father and to be prepared for that.

"I am telling them to remember that their father is still there, that it is as if he has just gone away somewhere but we will still be able to see him from time to time."

Judge Augustine Paul, who is hearing the case against Anwar on four charges of interfering with a police inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct, has set a date of April 14 for his verdict. After a long trial in which the sex charges facing Anwar were dropped but the judge ruled consistently in favour of the prosecution on points of law, few people in Kuala Lumpur have much doubt about the outcome.

The Malaysian legal system does not allow for trial by jury.

But even in jail, Anwar, 51, is writing, agitating and organising opponents of the prime minister in the expectation that Mahathir, who is now 73, will call general elections before April next year.

Since he was beaten up by a senior police officer - who subsequently retired abruptly - Anwar has enjoyed the overt sympathy of warders and policemen inside jail. None the less, he is a lonely man.

Every night at 6.30pm he is returned to his solitary cell after consultations with his lawyers and family visitors, and is locked in until dawn with his books, his Koran, his prayers and his thoughts.

"Anwar was psychologically prepared for this," explained Mohamad Ezam Noor, his former political secretary, who left the country last September on the day a battered Anwar was led into court with a black eye.

"He talked several times even before his sacking as deputy prime minister about the prospect of two to four years in prison. But he said two years in prison would do more than 20 years in UMNO [Mahathir's United Malays National Organisation]."

Ezam, 32, now reunited with his wife and three children in Kuala Lumpur, is the organiser behind the new political party, which he believes will capitalise on disillusion with UMNO, the dominant force in Malaysia's ruling coalition.

"It's not difficult to convince people that UMNO is not theirs any more, it's Mahathir's," said Ezam. He claimed it was steadily losing members to the fundamentalist opposition Islamic party of Malaysia (PAS).

Ezam faces historic obstacles in getting voters from different communities to unite behind a single non-racial agenda. "Distrust is still very great among the races," he explained. "Mahathir is trying to frighten people, but I'm optimistic. Things are changing between Malays and Chinese, especially the younger generation."

Since Malaysia gained independence from Britain, political harmony has depended on balancing affirmative action for the majority Malay Muslims, who make up 55% of the 21m population, against the economic dominance of the ethnic Chinese, roughly 30% of Malaysians, while accommodating Indians, indigenous tribes and people of mixed race.

Mahathir's ruling coalition accomplished this by including a traditional Chinese party. Indeed, the prime minister frequently conjures up the spectre of Indonesia's anti-Chinese pogrom last year to warn voters of the perils of sudden change. Many Chinese distrust Anwar and believe he has played politics with Muslim prejudices.

Race riots in the 1960s left them with psychological scars and a deep aversion to instability. But the Anwar trial, plus demands for economic reform and wariness of corruption have created a new political landscape.

Nowhere was that more evident than on a hot tropical night in Kota Bharu, capital of the fundamentalist heartland of Kelantan state, on the northeast coast, where an attentive crowd of devout Muslims gathered last week to witness the rare sight of a Chinese orator, Tian Chua, on a platform of speakers advocating reform.

The event was billed as a "seminar" organised by PAS, whose religious doctrines swept it to power in Kelantan early in the 1990s. Since then the fundamentalists have talked much of the rule of Islamic law, but there is little sign of dour sanctions in Kota Bharu, with its vibrant night markets, flitting transvestites and Internet cafes full of demurely veiled teenage girls engaged in online chatter.

Tian's audience had shunned these nocturnal distractions to congregate in the PAS headquarters, spilling over outside to sit cross-legged on the street as if assembled for prayers in a mosque. It seemed as if political as well as social compromise might be in the air.

"It is said by the prime minister that if he falls from power racial riots will erupt," declared Tian. "But after 42 years of independence the Malaysian people have matured and they will not allow such things to take place."

Fed up with Mahathir, sceptical of Anwar, whom they consider insufficiently Islamic, at arm's length from the Chinese, PAS leaders are none the less edging towards an opposition electoral alliance. "These people in power have been acting like God himself," said Kelantan's chief minister, Nik Abdul Aziz, an Islamic scholar renowned for his personal austerity.

"Now there is a leadership vacuum - but it is certainly the case that Anwar has the potential for good leadership."