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Monday, Jan. 30, 2012

Anwar Ibrahim's amazing journey

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — For 13 long years, politics in Malaysia has been soured by preoccupation with the sexual activities of one of its leading figures. The recent acquittal of Anwar Ibrahim on politically motivated and probably trumped up charges of sodomy should clear the way for a real contest in Malaysia's general election whenever Prime Minister Najib Razak dares to call one — at least by March next year. But politics in Malaysia has become a devious game, and who knows what fresh skullduggery may be played?

Anwar was toppled from his powerful posts as finance minister, deputy prime minister and favored successor to Mahathir Mohamad and accused of corruption and sodomy. Under indictment or in jail on those charges and on later ones, he remained a major threat to the Barisan Nasional (National Front) government.

Now he has to show that he can get away from victim mode and offer practical policies that have better answers than Najib's to Malaysia's growing problems. Indeed, political leaders on all sides should seize the opportunity of moving away from their preoccupation with the sex life of Anwar to tackle looming real problems.

The economy is one. In last year's budget Najib, who is also finance minister, handed out sweeteners, including higher pay and pensions for civil servants and cash payments of 500 ringgit ($160) to households earning less than 3,000 ringgit a month, as if preparing for an election.

The prime minister probably has up to midyear before the warm political glow of the goodies is overtaken by Malaysia's economic difficulties, notably its exposed place in a world leaning toward recession. Even with a broad array of exports from agriculture and oil and liquefied natural gas to manufactures and electronic components, Malaysia depends heavily on export growth in the industrialized world.

At first glance, the country is in good shape, especially compared with the rich industrial countries. Growth is still above 4 percent, and total gross domestic product is $420 billion on a purchasing power parity basis, making Malaysia the 30th biggest economy in the world. Per capita GDP topped $15,000 last year, respectable middle-income territory, but it is only in 78th position in the world, a poor performance given Malaysia's rich potential.

When I went to the country in the 1970s, first in charge of the Asia coverage of the Financial Times and then to start Business Times in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia seemed the most promising country in all Asia. The splitting of common institutions shared with Singapore, such as the airline and stock exchange as well as the convertibility of the currency, had been completed. With plenty of space to grow, Malaysia could have become the strongest Asian tiger. Tiny neighboring Singapore showed it up. Singapore today is a $300 billion economy, 41st in the world in size, while its per capita income is about $64,000, fifth in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Overconfidence in Malaysia was based on failure to understand that developing a sprawling, rural, multiracial economy is more complicated than governing a compact city-state, especially when greed, cronyism, corruption and the dead hand of state enterprise have taken their cuts.

Back then, the Malaysian government was a coalition of parties each representing a major racial group, led by the sainted Hussein Onn of the United Malays National Organization (Umno). The Malaysian Chinese Association held the important finance portfolio, care of its austere and capable leader Tan Siew Sin.

After Tan retired, Umno grabbed the finance portfolio and extended its grip on other important ministries. This happened when the government was embarking on a New Economic Policy of giving advantages to disadvantaged Malays. Problems were compounded when Mahathir took over in 1981 and immediately showed the single-minded determination to drag Malays with Malaysia into the economic 21st century.

Whatever plaudits Mahathir deserves for his determination to improve the lot of the Malays in their own country, his intolerance of argument and his determination to smash any challenger — Anwar was the third of his deputies to be sacked — by fair means or foul is proof of Lord Acton's dictum that "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The result was that many talented Chinese and Indians left Malaysia. The Chinese portion of the population of 29 million has fallen from about 37 percent in the 1970s to 26 percent today. Few bright members of the minority communities wanted to get entangled with politics after the Malays took the top and most lucrative government jobs. As some Malays seized their advantages and others remained poor, Malaysia fell further behind Singapore.

Prime Minister Najib has recognized the need for reforms with rather gentle measures, though he has stopped short of scrapping the now elderly New Economic Policy with its opportunities for favoritism and corruption. One reason is that a powerful section in Umno wants to retain comfortable Malay privileges in perpetuity, and is waiting for Najib to slip up.

On the other side is Anwar, who rightly has a formidable reputation. As finance minister, he was impressive, competent, and a speaker who wooed large crowds. Still, his past as a Malay radical scares some Malaysians, including those in the multiracial, multi-squabbling Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance), which hopes to take power. The alliance is an uncomfortable coalition among Anwar's own multiracial party, a conservative Malay Islamic party that wants an Islamic state, and a secular social-democratic party led by Chinese and Indian minorities long-suffering in opposition to the Umno-dominated government.

Both government and opposition groupings are obviously vulnerable to internal contradictions. The government is so Malay dominated that Najib will have to make big concessions to convince the minorities that he will give them a chance. Any reforms will invite a backlash from privileged Malays within Umno.

In some ways, Anwar is more exposed because of the suspicions about his own past and the gulfs within his own coalition. How will he bridge the glaring gap between demands on one side for an Islamic state and on the other for secular fairness for all?

Can Anwar, after shaking off the legal shackles, convince supporters that he is a good Malaysian and a good Malay, while convincing voters that multiracial solutions are the only answer to the problems of a multiracial country? It's a challenge he must face if Malaysia is to fulfill its potential.

Kevin Rafferty was founder-editor of Business Times Malaysia

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