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Stone Walls Do Not a Prison Make- The Case of Anwar Ibrahim

Paper No. 5873                                Dated 19-Feb-2015

Guest Column by Dr. V. Suryanarayan

The recent decision of the Malaysian Federal Court to uphold the judgement of the lower court and punish Anwar Ibrahim in the sodomy case has sent shock waves throughout Malaysia. The judgement has also saddened the upholders of human rights throughout the world.

Soon after the judgement was delivered Anwar Ibrahim, former Deputy Prime Minister and currently leader of Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) condemned the judgement as a “political conspiracy” to sideline him. He criticized the judiciary for “bowing to the dictates of the political masters”. By toeing the government line, judicial independence and integrity “have been compromised”. Anwar Ibrahim held forth the promise that “his struggle will continue wherever I am sent and whatever is done to me”. The Amnesty International pointed out that the judgement “will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression” in Malaysia.

To Prime Minister Najib Razak and his colleagues in the ruling Barisan Nasional Anwar Ibrahim had always been a thorn in the flesh. In the last parliamentary election, while Barisan Nasional was able to retain power, the opposition front led by Anwar Ibrahim was able to get majority of votes. In Malaysia disproportionate weightage is given to rural areas and to the states of Sabah and Sarawak, which enabled Najib Razak to get majority of seats. What is irksome to the government is the fact that Anwar Ibrahim enjoys the trust and confidence of the Western world and UN funding organizations. No wonder, the sodomy case was reopened; Anwar Ibrahim was found guilty and sentenced to six years of imprisonment. By resorting to this strong arm tactics, Najib Razak believes that Anwar could be sent into political oblivion. What is more, by using carrot and stick tactics the opposition leaders could be silenced or won over to the government side.

Prime Minister Najib Razak does not realize the validity of the famous poem, written by Richard Lovelace, the 17th century British poet, which reads, “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage, minds innocent and quiet take that for a hermitage”.

Anwar Ibrahim had a stormy and chequered political career. Born in Bukit Mertajam in Penang in a poor Malay family Anwar was drawn into radical Malay politics while he was a student in the University of Malaya. He mobilized the poor landless labourers in the State of Kedah and started fighting for their rights. He founded the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) or Muslim Youth Movement in Malaysia. Alarmed by his growing popularity the Malaysian Government detained him under the notorious Internal Security Act ISA), introduced by the British colonialists to fight against communist guerrillas. The ISA provided for detention without trial. After serving 20 months in Jail, Anwar was released.

Much to the dismay of his colleagues, Anwar became a changed man when he was released from detention. He came under the spell of Dr. Mahathir, joined the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and began to rise high in the political ladder. He was appointed as Minister for Sports and Culture, then Minister for Agriculture and later Minister for Education. In Malaysia education is an important portfolio and education ministers invariably become Prime Ministers. To ingratiate himself with the Malay bhumiputras, Anwar renamed Bahasa Malaysia as Bahasa Malayu. With Mahathir’s support, in the election to the office bearers of UMNO Anwar defeated Ghafar Baba and became the Deputy President of UMNO. Soon he was elevated to the post of Deputy Prime Minister.  During the Mahathir-Anwar rule Malaysia witnessed unprecedented prosperity.

Gradually differences between Mahathir and Anwar began to come out into the open. Anwar began to criticize “cronyism” perfected by Dr. Mahathir which led to large scale corruption through official patronage. When the Asian Economic Crisis developed and the export oriented economies of Southeast Asia suffered serious setbacks, the two leaders differed on the causes and also on the policies to be adopted to overcome the crisis. Dr Mahathir openly criticized international financial speculators like George Soros for starting the financial crisis. Dr. Anwar Ibrahim advocated further liberalization of the economy as advised by the World Bank and other international financial institutions. The politically ruthless Dr. Mahathir detained Anwar Ibrahim, accused him of corruption and political favouratism and sexual misconduct. The Western media began to criticize Dr. Mahathir in a big way. The US Vice President Al Gore demanded the immediate release of Anwar Ibrahim from prison. The Amnesty International named Anwar Ibrahim as a “prisoner of conscience” While in prison, Anwar was subjected to physical abuse and third degree methods. His trial attracted much international attention.

After few years in prison Anwar was declared innocent; out of prison he began to advocate a more tolerant and democratic Malaysia. And what is more, he was able to forge a united front against the government. He brought together extreme Malay organization like the Partai Islam Malaysia (PSA), which wants Islamic tenets to be observed in administration, the Chinese supported Democratic Action Party (DAP), which advocates the establishment of a secular state and abolition of Malay privileges with his own Partai Kedilan (Justice Party) into a broad united front. This opposition grouping was able to fully utilise the new media and the internet to its advantage. And, as mentioned earlier, in the last general election the opposition was able to capture power in six states; what is more, though it was not able to capture power in the centre, it was able to secure more than 50 per cent of the total votes polled.  The reopening of the sodomy case and Anwar’s imprisonment has to be viewed in the background of the growing popularity of Anwar Ibrahim and his political grouping.

What does the immediate future holds for Malaysia? Malaysia watchers feel that the absence of Anwar Ibrahim from active politics will have an adverse fall out on opposition unity. Malaysian politics has shown that political leaders fall easy prey to allurement and power. It may be recalled that sections of the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) joined hands with the ruling Barisan Nasional on the mistaken belief that the government will find a just and honourable solution to the manifold problems facing the Indian community. Will PAS be able to work together with the DAP in the days to come? Only time can provide an answer.

Stormy days are ahead of Malaysia.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Nelson Mandela Professor for Afro-Asian Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala. His e mail id: