Interview: Anwar Ibrahim

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Interview: Anwar Ibrahim

The Malaysian opposition leader talks about his impending return to jail, political oppression and Obama’s visit.

Interview: Anwar Ibrahim
Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

The Diplomat’s Jarni Blakkarly spoke recently with Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim about the likelihood that he will return to jail, political oppression in Malaysia, and the upcoming visit to Malaysia by U.S. President Barack Obama.

You’ve recently had your prior acquittal on sodomy charges overturned by the courts and been sentenced to five years in jail. As this case has been going back and forth for many years now, how likely do you think it is that you will find yourself behind bars again?

Looking at the names of the judges and the way they expedited the process, they even disallowed me to ask for just a few days to get medical documents. So looking at the judgment I think it is clearly fundamentally flawed, because they did not deal with the facts that were abused. So I think that it is clear that the executive is acting under the instruction of their political masters.

Therefore I’m not too optimistic that I will get a fair hearing and I think that it is a foregone conclusion. Notwithstanding we are of course doing our very best to get the best team of lawyers to expose the whole fiasco in the courts. Since Karpal Singh died in the accident I am now faced also with the problem of getting new lead counsel.

So you do think it is quite likely you will go to jail again?

Yes. In fact colleagues I was with in London for the Al Gore group meeting as well as some friends and Muslim groups in the U.K., all of them without hesitation tried to persuade me to remain in London instead of coming back. They all know and assume that because of the opaque system here and the judiciary that I will go to prison. But I said to them, thank you very much, but I have made my decision, I will continue the fight from within Malaysia.

What do you think will be the political ramifications if you are sent to prison? Would we see Refomasi-like protests on the streets again?

Well the system is still oppressive and there are serious signs of it. It’s not just me and Karpal Signh they are trying to haul to prison, but also a few other MPs, assemblymen, party leaders and protest leaders and I think this trend will continue. Therefore you are giving people hardly any option for recourse. Where do you go if you have a problem? Are you going to go to the courts? You will not get a fair trial. So I think what the authoritarian leaders fail to realize is that there is a limit to what people and the society can endure.

However I think with the ineptitude in dealing with MH370, the international community and the international media are becoming aware of the opaqueness of the system and the failure of governance. So I think we are left with no option but to demand our rights not within the prescribed method of elections that are fraudulent or the courts.

So are you saying that Pakatan will be calling people to the streets if you are sent to jail again?

Well I’m not suggesting that; that is for people to decide. For now we are just organizing a series of meetings to explain what is going on. As you know, even the funeral of Karpal Singh—one of the great opposition leaders and icons—was not reported at all in the mainstream media. And during the final funeral possession not one leader from the ruling party or the government attended, so you can see the tendency to consider opposition leaders as the enemies of the state and I think it is very unhealthy. I can’t predict exactly what will happen. There is also this movement on the first of May for example. There is already this call to protest in opposition to new taxation, fraudulent elections, and the beginning for Reformasi 2.0 will be on the first of May.

Do you think the persecution of politicians like yourself, Karpal Singh prior to his death, Tian Chua and other politicians is strengthening or weakening the positions of Barisan National?

I think that when they become more desperate they become more ruthless and this series of measures is unprecedented. We’ve seen it under Mahathir, we’ve seen it under Abdullah, but under Najib now it has gotten worse. The number of people denied entry to Sabah and Sarawack, even during a by-election, can you believe this? The election commission is just completely muted, when party leaders are denied entry to come and campaign, because they say this is the law, but this is the Election Commission acting like a small government department.

Now for example the number of MPs and State Assemblymen being hauled to court over unlawful assembly and sedition just keeps on increasing. It is also a sign of desperation, when the ruling party becomes weak they will resort to creating this enemy of the state business. I mean I’m for now [not being called] an “American CIA agent” only because Obama’s visiting. So now they are downplaying the American agent thing. In fact the ruling party UMNO’s paper Utusan even inferred that the MH370 is the work of the Americans and the CIA. They have now downplayed that too because of the Obama visit.

Do you think the ongoing infighting within your own party PKR will end after the party elections this coming month or will they continue?

These are democratic elections, there are of course major contenders for all the seats and all the major positions, which is very healthy. Initially in the formative period you have this consensus among the whole team of leadership. Now there are more qualified personnel, they are more critical and the environment is very democratic and I believe we will go through this process. Sure it will be messy and some may feel a bit disheartened but we are going through this, there may be one or two that say goodbye, but the rest will continue. But what is important to see is this huge groundswell of people coming to vote because it is the only party in the country that had one member, one vote.

Isn’t disunity within PKR a worrying sign for the unity of the broader opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition?

I can’t see that, just because there are competing groups and factions vying for the deputy presidency or challenging the incumbent – I don’t read this as a sign of division. We have had problems with the leadership in the state of Selangor in the past and there have been criticisms, but still during the by-elections it went very smoothly and the whole party was together intact during the past month and I don’t foresee any problems. Because this is a democratic party, which is not too familiar here within the ruling establishment, we allow everyone to give their own agenda, speeches, and public meetings. That is not a sign of disunity; that’s a sign of healthy competition in a democratic party.

At the last general election you said that you would stand down if Pakatan lost. Do you have any plans for retirement or will you be leading the coalition in the 14th General Election?

I don’t know; GE 14 is some way to go. For now, I am the leader coordinating the efforts of the opposition. Yes, I did say that in the event we lose the election I would retire, but we won the election, both the popular votes and the seats had there not been this fraudulent Election Commission. Thirty seats would have been won without early voting. Thousands of voters came in five days early and all the ballot boxes were kept under police custody and there was no monitoring by any other people. Then when these votes are being counted eighty percent go to the government. It’s not reflective of any of the constituencies.

So well technically, yes we lost, not that we accepted the result, but we said well we have to move on otherwise there will just be chaos. However this has not been reciprocated by Najib and his administration and their display of arrogance is just excessive. They know the votes we got, and they only blame the ethnic Chinese. Until today all calls for meetings with the prime minister or leaders of the government have been rejected. Can you talk about democracy when the leader of the opposition cannot have one minute of air time on television? Cannot have any meetings with any ministers?

So there are no plans for retirement then?

No, of course, I’ve been going on some time. Just because they are putting me in prison now I can’t announce my retirement. If I retired during the Federal courts deliberation then they would say it is a matter of conceding defeat. I have to then declare that I will fight.

The protests around GE 13 have died down and your move to become Selangor Chief Minister has been blocked by your conviction. Faced with at least another four years now till the next general election, what are the plans for Pakatan?

Well the general mood is not just to be complacent and wait for the next election; we should challenge the corrupt system now. That is why we are having this rally on the first of May and we will continue having rallies. Rallies to question the attempts by the Election Commission to reinforce the strength and dominance of UMNO through the re-delineation of constituencies, which is going to be crudely and clearly favoring the ruling party. Also the introduction of the GST, I’ve always seen the GST as a taxation system as transparent and efficient but not when there is so much wastage and so much corruption. Whereby the Attorney  General’s remarks suggest that there is almost close to twenty billion ringgit in leakages, you can’t start by talking about taxes. You should start by talking about wiping out corruption and the amassing of wealth by the UMNO leaders and their cronies. These issues are now being highlighted and we are just focused on the next elections and challenging the authoritarian regime now.

Since your move to become Menteri Besar [Chief Minister] of Selangor has been blocked, what are your plans personally, moving forward?

I’ll continue the same. I’ve never been Menteri Besar. I’ve been out of prison since 2004, I’m still leader of the opposition, I’m still general advisor to Keadilan [PKR],  Azizah [Wan Ismail]  is still the president now. Today I stepped aside, the UMNO leaders they think there is going to be a contest between Anwar and [his wife] Azizah. They get very excited and will drown the country with talk of division between husband and wife. The reason is of course purely legal because UMNO used the judiciary to first deny me a seat at the state elections and now to deny me the post of president in the party. I was prepared to take the risk personally but then they would use the Register of Societies to deregister the party

PKR and Pakatan in general had a very poor showing in East Malaysia at the last election. Why is it that East Malaysians are so hesitant to embrace Pakatan? What if anything will be done differently leading up to Sarawak’s state election next year and further on into GE14?

Well I think the question assumes that everything is clean, that the electoral process is transparent, which it is not. When you’re dealing with the rural heartland, the Dayak, the Bajau and the Kadazans, [they] do not have the alternative media. At least in the urban base we won 90 per cent of the seats, including in Sabah and Sarawak. Primarily because people have the choice and they do not rely on the mainstream media, which is controlled by the government. You’re talking about the rural heartland, they don’t have that alternative. Secondly they are the poorest and most vulnerable and 500 ringgit handouts by the government affects them. But there have been major inroads into Sabah and Sarawak and understand that there has never been that sort of a challenge in the past.

We have leaders that can’t go and campaign, we have had one after the other being denied entry into Sabah and Sarawak. So these curbs are being put in place because they know people are coming to listen. I don’t have a problem gathering crowds in Sabah and Sarawak which means people are now eager, and there is a hunger for information, news and change. But I do concede it is more problematic because we don’t have the alternative media and secondly because the grinding poverty which makes them vulnerable to government power.

It has been reported that U.S. President Barack Obama won’t be meeting with you on his visit to Malaysia later this week. Is this a disappointment? And would you like to see the us become more involved in promoting democracy in Malaysia?

The U.S., Australia and Europe have been harping on about democracy and freedom. My view has been quite well known that there should be a consistent and coherent message. You can’t be like the Australians sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and then being completely muted when there are efforts for example to forestall democratic reforms in your own neighborhood. So our expectation of President Obama particularly after the very significant Cairo address is to give a clear, consistent and coherent message. Meeting Anwar is not the issue here but give a clear consistent message—that was our message in meeting with Susan Rice and we will keep sending key prominent party leaders to meet her with that message.

For example in his visit to Burma last year Obama met with Aung San Su Kyi and there was in a way a recognition that she was a leader in waiting and that there are fundamental flaws in the democratic system. Is that what you were hoping to see in Obama’s visit to Malaysia?

Yes of course, because if you are true to your foreign policy objectives then you cannot ignore the expression of 52 per cent of the Malaysian population and pretend that nothing is happening, everything is all right, this is a moderate Muslim country, democracy is at work and everything is all right like some of the Australian leaders express when they come here. This is not something that would be well received by the general public here. But I would say that Susan Rice clarified by her remarks in D.C. some days back said that though they are not meeting [me] there will be some clarity of the message, which means I think they will be true to the consistent position of the United States in promoting democracy and freedom.

Why is it that you think the U.S. have been inconsistent with their message in Malaysia? Do you think it is out of concern for Chinese influence in Malaysia and the region?

I’m not sure of the reason, but of course Obama is obsessed about the TPPA. Najib is quite unique in that he supports virtually every single policy objective or initiative of the U.S. Whether it is sending troops or civilians to support in Afghanistan or Iraq, or the Iranian nuclear program, or the TPP, I think Najib has been consistent in supporting the U.S. line and therefore they see him as a very important major ally and as always they will be willing to close one eye when it comes to political oppression, as of course we have seen in U.S. relations with [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak in the recent past.