The Future of Malaysia

Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is on trial in Kuala Lumpur on sodomy charges for a second time, speaks to journalist WAJAHAT ALI about the controversy and discusses the country’s ethnic and religious conflicts as well as issues facing the Muslim world.

WAJAHAT ALI: Dr. Ibrahim, you are currently facing controversial, criminal charges of sodomy in Kuala Lumpur alleged by an ex-aide. The trial is under way as we speak, and the Malaysian press has dubbed this event “Sodomy 2” since you were convicted on similar charges in 1998 (which were overturned by the Supreme Court in 2004). You also served six years in solitary confinement after being convicted in ’98 for corruption. First, if there was no truth to these allegations then why would the aide under oath swear and testify in graphic detail to such a sordid event and also be subjected to such humiliation, considering sodomy is both illegal and highly disfavored in Malaysia? Second, if these allegations are “trumped up” (by the ruling coalition) and a sham, as you and your followers have said, why?

Anwar Ibrahim: The government today is in survival mode. Sensing its own protracted demise, and bereft of ideas that would enable it to regain popular support, its strategy is to tear down the opposition no matter what the cost. Since our unprecedented victory in the March 2008 polls, there have been relentless attacks to destabilize our state governments, to threaten and intimidate our elected officials and to undermine public confidence in our ability to govern. You name it and it’s been hurled at us…. The charges leveled against me have to be seen in this broader context. The fact that the same plot that was hatched in 1998 is being repeated reflects a certain bankruptcy and lack of creativity on their part. They must still believe some segment of the Malay-Muslim electorate, who will likely determine the outcome of the next General Election, will be alienated by these charges. I doubt that is the case. There is polling to prove it and when we go around the country now the crowds of people number sometimes in the tens of thousands. The Malaysian people are much smarter and more aware today and will not easily be fooled.

As for the swearing of oaths in courts and in mosques — these are theatrics that ignore due process and legal principles. In a normal court of law, a verdict would rest on objective, incontrovertible evidence. But in Malaysia, show trials are being used to defame and discredit those who have fallen out of the favor of the establishment. This gives us all the more resolve to fight for reform.

(The Malaysian government has rejected allegations of wrongdoing and all claims that it has tried to silence Anwar and his political party. The Government has also denied any involvement in the sodomy cases against Anwar.)

WAJAHAT ALI: Malaysia promotes itself as a peaceful, democratic, multi-ethnic, Muslim country. On December 31, a court ruled that non-Muslims, namely Christians, were finally allowed to use the word “Allah” as a term for God, which quickly prompted a government appeal. Following the ruling, nearly 11 churches have been attacked, Christians have been harassed, and even a Sikh temple and several mosques were vandalized. Both the government’s appeal and the conduct of several Malays seem to suggest discrimination towards their non-Muslim neighbors. Many in America assume this is due to an innate Muslim antagonism and elitism towards the “other.” How would you explain this current phenomenon, and why is the term “Allah” only reserved for Muslims?

Anwar Ibrahim: The handling of the Allah issue sent the wrong message to people around the world about Islam. In the current climate of xenophobia in Europe and the U.S., how can we as Muslims say we are any better when we treat our non-Muslim citizens with disrespect and disdain? It is odd that this issue seems relevant only in Malaysia and not in the Middle East or even Indonesia.

Dialogue and engagement are essential. The mainstream media all controlled by the ruling coalition should present all viewpoints and not just the most extreme views supported by the government. Sensitive issues that touch on religious and ethnic sentiments should be handled delicately. Instead the government allowed the case to be dragged through the courts, sanctioned incendiary public demonstrations and only after the situation exploded in violence did its leaders start to make more measured statements and call for calm. I find this deplorable.

In Malaysia such posturing by Muslim leaders has much more to do with politics than religion and ideology. The ruling government hopes that by taking a hard line it will curry some favor with an increasingly radical right wing upon which its party is increasingly based. The recent caning of individuals for illicit sexual relations is likewise part of an effort to boost the perceived Islamic credentials of the government and portray the opposition as soft on morals and subservient to international pressure.

I understand there are broader concerns about the ability of contemporary Islamic societies to deal with issues of pluralism and diversity. Malaysia’s handling of this issue is certainly not helping to abate these fears. But there is a silver lining. We have used this incident as an opportunity to launch a series of interfaith dialogues around the country. And I am very encouraged by statements from Pan Islamic Party of Malaysia, PAS, which has come out strongly in support of the rights of all Malaysian citizens under the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of conscience and religion.

WAJAHAT ALI: Following on that question, is there space for Muslims and non-Muslims to live harmoniously in Malaysia? If your party had power, how would it handle the current situation and subsequently implement changes that would minimize ethnic and religious conflicts in the future?

Anwar Ibrahim: Southeast Asian Islam is known for its inclusivistic approach. The religion came to this region via traders from Arabia and by Sufi masters who integrated with the existing cultural and social landscape. While Islam gradually became the dominant civilization this was not done at the expense of the other groups. In fact I recall back in the ’90s we convened the first-ever conference on Islam and Confucianism that led to the founding of an entire department at the University of Malaya on this topic. This in my mind represents the vast potential of our multi-ethnic society.

The religious tensions currently on display are a recent phenomenon in that they are largely the result of a political conflict rather than deep-seated religious antagonisms. This is not to ignore the challenges Malaysia faces as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. But for the most part these tensions can be alleviated through efforts to promote greater integration and interaction within the society. Politicians unfortunately have found it expedient to exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions as a means of prolonging a political system that benefits the few at the expense of the many. We see deliberate attempts to provoke religious tensions to give a pretext to clamp down on civil liberties and justify the continuation of the same old race-based policies of the past.

The antidote for this behavior is to restore credibility to the institutions of civil society. The media should be free, politicians must be held accountable through free and fair elections and the judiciary must be able to operate without interference from politicians. Economics also factor importantly into the equation. Income inequality in Malaysia is among the worst in the world. Despite decades of an affirmative action policy designed to uplift the poor and marginalized Malays, in Malaysia the rich get richer while the poor stay poor — and that includes poor Malays, Chinese and Indians.

We need to revisit the design of economic policy and how the country allocates welfare and resources. Affirmative action remains essential to ensure that the poor marginalized are not forgotten. But there is no reason to exclude poor Chinese and Indians from the policy, as has been the case for so long. Endemic corruption has led to the enrichment of a few well-connected businessmen and politicians but the vast majority of their wealth never trickles down.

If we can overcome some of the most basic shortcomings in governance and accountability I am quite confident that Malaysia will be on a better footing when it comes to building a peaceful society.

WAJAHAT ALI: U.S. President Barack Obama was embraced with rapturous applause, standing ovations, and stunning poll numbers by Muslim communities worldwide last year when he gave his historic speech in Cairo. A year later, there has been a significant dip in his polls numbers both domestically and abroad. How confident do Muslims feel about him and America as a “true partner” in 2010 when compared to Bush’s administration? What will Obama have to do to regain Muslim trust and achieve a true conciliation between America and Muslims around the world?

Anwar Ibrahim: When he won I shared in the optimism expressed by many that his presidency would usher in a new chapter in relations between America and the Muslim world. I did not expect he alone to solve all the problems. After all he is not the Caliph. He is the President of the United States, and therefore bound by significant constraints. But he is certainly better than his predecessor and we appreciated his Cairo speech, which was a historic and bold statement of friendship between two civilizations.

His pronouncements — such as closing Guantanamo, an end to settlement activity in the West Bank and pushing for a two state-solution, withdrawing from Iraq and searching for diplomatic solutions to dealing with Iran — are the right statements. Unfortunately he has yet to deliver on major initiatives. At this point, few see much difference between his foreign policy and that of the Bush administration. I remain optimistic for now — it is too soon to offer a final verdict.

I believe Muslims are willing to give whoever sits in the White House a chance. Muslims respect America as a democracy and want to see its policies as fair, just and consistent. For there to be a real watershed in the Obama administration’s approach he will have to be seen to be acting fairly in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and show more compassion (when) it comes to dealing with Afghanistan, where thousands of innocent people are still being killed. Otherwise I fear the good will he has built will be forgotten.

WAJAHAT ALI: Why does the Israeli occupation of Palestine overwhelmingly dominate the emotions and anger of Muslims worldwide when Muslims are also suffering tremendously in Iraq, Africa, Russia, Afghanistan and so forth? Can Muslims move “beyond” the Palestine issue?

Anwar Ibrahim: It is often forgotten that Jerusalem holds a special, symbolic meaning for Muslims as the site of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven. In fact, Muslims living during the Prophet’s time prayed towards Jerusalem until instructions were later given to switch the direction of the prayer to Mecca. This makes Jerusalem and access to the holy sites very relevant to Muslims around the world.

Certainly there is deep anger over the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The enduring conflicts in other countries, the imposition of dictatorial regimes and the legacy of colonialism and rampant poverty are all factors which affect the relationship. But the Arab-Israeli conflict has come to symbolize the entire grouse of the Muslim world with the interference of foreign powers in our affairs.

Our frustration with the United States stems entirely from its lopsided handling of the conflict. Consider the result of Palestinian elections which were held democratically and brought Hamas into power. America punished Palestinians for voting (with) their conscience. Or consider (Israel’s) blockade on Gaza — another example of collective punishment being used to force a different political outcome. If America is seen to be inconsistent in applying principles of freedom, justice and self-determination in Palestine then Muslims elsewhere are going to have a hard time believing the rhetoric is real.

And the failure to achieve a meaningful peace gives authoritarian Muslim governments an easy opportunity to score political mileage out of the Palestinians’ plight. Stoking the flames of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism is a good distraction from the stench in their own backyard, namely rampant corruption, denial of basic human rights, abuse of power and the suppression of civil society.

WAJAHAT ALI: Do you think it’s time for Muslims to readjust their grievances and sources of victimization?

Anwar Ibrahim: When Abu Ghraib happened it was rightly condemned as a terrible injustice and came to symbolize what was wrong about the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. But Muslims have to be consistent. The lack of due process, gruesome prison conditions and corruption in law enforcement agencies are very serious problems in Muslim countries that must also be condemned. So when many Muslim governments attacked the U.S. they were being hypocritical.

Muslims have expressed clear views on this matter. The (Gallup) Muslim World Poll demonstrated that the vast majority of Muslims prefer governments that are more democratic, more accountable and more humane than the ones that exist today. Which means many would be quite supportive of a change in the corrupt and authoritarian governments that exist throughout the Middle East. The frustration that many Muslims have with the West is that America often preaches one thing about democracy but turns a blind eye to some of the worst dictators. So they are squeezed on both sides — their own governments and the so-called savior from the West.

I think oppression and injustice has to be condemned whenever and wherever it exists and Muslims should be at the forefront of this call for justice. Otherwise what is it that we hope to tell the world about our values and ethics?

WAJAHAT ALI: Do you believe that democracy and Islam are capable of coexistence, especially as a functional system of government in the modern age? Judging by the track record over the past century, it seems Islam and politics make volatile bed fellows.

Anwar Ibrahim: The experience of democracy in the Muslim world has not been entirely negative as the question suggests. Independence movements were often based on political parties which organized around principles of freedom and justice. Freedom fighters didn’t expel their colonial master only to want to replace them with ruthless dictators. On the contrary — there were vibrant democracies emerging in places like Indonesia, Iran and even Iraq in the 1950s. The great betrayal happened later, when secular autocrats who, in the name of nationalism, socialism or modernity, hijacked the governments and imposed a level cruelty worse than what existed under colonialism. But let us be clear — these were secular movements which used religion only to buy legitimacy from the people.

It is therefore quite historic to see democracy re-emerging in places like Indonesia and Turkey. The peaceful transformation of Indonesia to the world’s largest Muslim democracy is one of the most important developments in the world. Likewise, Turkey has taken its place as a vibrant democracy. And what is more interesting is that in Indonesia in recent elections the more conservative Islamic parties were allowed to campaign openly — and they were handed defeat. This did not require locking them up in prison. On the contrary it was the people themselves who opted for a system that was inclusive, democratic and at the same time cognizant of the country’s religious and cultural heritage.

WAJAHAT ALI: You’re an active presence in new media with a popular Facebook profile and a steady stream of tweets from your Twitter account. In fact, you and many of your supporters have been tweeting throughout the trial. Last year, Iranians successfully used Twitter to educate the world about the daily protests against the government crackdowns following the controversial election results. First, what do you hope to achieve by tweeting throughout your trial? Secondly, do you believe new media and the Internet is the transformative vehicle and tool for Muslims in the 21st century to reclaim both their political and religious voices, which have been silenced or hijacked by those claiming legitimacy and power?

Anwar Ibrahim: New media has been a cornerstone of the opposition’s communications strategy. The mainstream press in Malaysia is completely controlled by the government, but the Internet has remained free. An attempt last year to introduce an Internet filter was quickly shot down, not surprisingly, by an overwhelming response of Internet users in Malaysia.

The coverage of my trial has been quite favorable in the international media but locally you would be surprised how vicious and despicable the manipulation of facts has already become. We need to be active online and develop innovative ways of reaching out to online and offline constituencies to compensate for this information deficit.

And we also realize there is a new generation of Malaysians who were too young to remember the Reform movement that started a decade ago. Reaching out to them will happen in large part through technology.
I never believed technology is a panacea. But it is certainly changing the course of politics and policy around the world. The president of the United States ran an effective online campaign and continues to do so while in office, but so too have extremist groups. Opposition parties in Malaysia are actively courting voters online. Who ultimately benefits from technology will depend on two things — the execution of a coherent strategy and the quality of the message. Information tends to travel quickly by whatever means if there is a demand for the content.

WAJAHAT ALI’s acclaimed play, “The Domestic Crusaders,” is playing at U.C. Berkeley’s Durham Theater on April 10-11. He blogs at Goatmilk.

Originally published on

Wajahat Ali is a poet, playwright and essayist living in the Bay Area. His widely acclaimed work, The Domestic Crusaders, the first major play about Muslim-Americans was produced by Ishmael Reed. He can be reached at: