According to the old adage, history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. Personally, I think history is not that particular about order and precedence. History, after all, is in the eye of the beholder or, more precisely, the historian. And one should never overlook the possibility of simultaneity, that things are both tragedy and farce at one and the same time. It is much like slapstick comedy which is not to everyone’s taste. While there will always be those who guffaw at the carnage of missteps and pratfalls and see only the farcical there will necessarily be others of my disposition who see nothing but cruel and inhuman treatment meted out to undeserving put-upon victims which makes one prone to weep rather than laugh.
As I survey recent events around the Muslim world there is little to make one laugh and no suspicion of slapstick – just a lot of torture. Yet a famous line from that genre often comes to mind: ‘Another fine mess you’ve gotten us into’. This was the constant refrain of Oliver Hardy forever turning the blame for their latest predicament onto the guileless Stan Laurel as Stan scratched his head and wondered how what had seemed so logical and obvious had somehow turned to disaster. It makes one want to weep. In this perspective the Arab Spring is akin to that most iconic of silent slapstick movies The Plank. Clearly, in this analogy the plank is symbolic: new building, hope for the future. The narrative, however, turns out the same: man carries plank and gathers a crowd of interested and intrigued followers. Inevitably something makes the man turn and the enthusiastic host who follow get smashed in the face. The man, oblivious to the innumerable dangers in his path, continues on his way turning and turning and with each turn the plank keeps on smashing into innocent followers. Think of the plank of wood as the serial elections that have followed the outpouring of euphoria in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and you see what I mean.
What the Arab Spring has proved beyond reasonable doubt is that it is not sufficient to hope and demonstrate, even with the consummate courage these acts of defiance require in nations that, whatever they lack, are amply supplied with well-equipped repressive dragoons of police and army. It is also evident that something more than elections is necessary to create a genuine new dispensation of sustainable democratic good governance. Authoritarian rule is not just about figureheads, familiar dictators. The power they manipulate to maintain themselves is institutionalised, embedded in deep structures of privilege that corruptly deliver a nation’s bounty into the hands of a chosen few. Institutionalised authoritarian power constructs the terrain of nationhood as an obstacle course designed with determined purpose to forestall and frustrate all efforts to effect change by mere popular will. Simply putting the X in another box is only part, the lesser part of the task.
Nowhere better demonstrates the complex nature of the challenge that so far has confounded the Arab Spring than Malaysia, where the definition of the problem and quest to achieve sustainable democratic good governance began some years before the outbreak of the Arab Spring and remains ongoing.
The conventional narrative of Malaysian politics in turbulent times is presented as a succession struggle centred on the fate of Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar was considered the heir apparent to the long serving Prime Minister, Mahathir Muhammad. It was Mahathir who had brought the radical activist Anwar into the fold of the ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) party and then rapidly advanced his ministerial career. The most charismatic and popular figure in Mahathir’s lacklustre administration, Anwar rose through the ranks to become Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. The question clearly was when would Mahathir, whose actual age is never precise but was well into his eighth decade, step down? Much had been achieved, much was changing rapidly in Malaysia and much needed remedying. Speculation was rife that the time for a generational change was at hand. Out with the old making room for a new better cleaner dispensation in government with Anwar in the lead. Camps were aligning themselves as Anwar or Mahathir loyalists. There were naïve and overzealous efforts to bring the issue of succession to the top of the political agenda. In a culture where gossip is an art form as well as a national pastime the capital, Kuala Lumpur, is sufficiently small and coherent: the concentrated living space for all interested in politics, business and administration for the rumour mill to be in overdrive 24/7.
What actually happened was not among the scenarios debated at the tea stalls. On 2 September 1998 Anwar was summarily sacked from his cabinet posts and later expelled from the ruling party UMNO. The ostensible reason concerned a swirl of allegations of sexual misconduct and misuse of office. Anwar was arrested and badly beaten while in custody by none other than the Inspector General of Police. The legal proceedings that followed came to be known as Sodomy I, which led to a sentence of six years imprisonment for Anwar, with Sodomy II the legal morass that continues to embroil Anwar today. In Sodomy II his acquittal on the charges can become guilty on appeal and more appeals await.
The court cases have been truly Dickensian in their serpentine course and duration as well as lending as much support as possible to Dickens’ dictum that ‘the law is an ass’. Anwar and his lawyers have consistently sought to argue, and been denied the right to present this defence, that the charges are politically motivated fabrications designed to destroy his reputation. Several libel and defamation cases, which Anwar has won, have accompanied the main drama. International observers such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have deemed the trials political and criticised the nature and conduct of the proceedings. And yet, as opinion polls have shown, the greater part of the Malaysian public still does not believe any of the charges to be true. Nevertheless the trials achieved their clear objective by ensuring Anwar has been unable to stand in most of the elections of the last seventeen years.
Politics, however, is more than elections. When Anwar was sacked from government he became the focus of an unprecedented outpouring of popular protest in a country and culture groomed for quiet acceptance and respect for authority. Yet Anwar is more than a figurehead or emblematic cause celebre victim. He is the principal articulator of the analysis of genuine reform, thoroughgoing change to sweep aside the structures of authoritarian control and the inequity they beget and that sustains them. His analysis reveals the context in which events occur and pinpoints the problematic eventualities that become the normal practice that orders an environment of corruption, cronyism and nepotism where democracy is made into a gerrymandered veneer to serve and keep the powerful in power. It is the diligence and energy Anwar applies to broadcasting an alternate vision of good governance that have made him an important voice not only in Malaysia but around the Muslim world.
Charles Allers’ book seeks to track what he calls the evolution of a Muslim democrat. Therein lies part of the problem. Evolution – descent with change – infers and presumes one does not begin as a Muslim democrat. In this heavy hinting, Allers is in line with all the array of writers and commentators on Malaysian politics that he quotes and references. The possibilities for democracy within the context of Islam is a subject to be interrogated, it is a questionable category. The generalised lack of democratic instincts in Muslim populations, a standard trope of Western analysis since the sixteenth century, explains why authoritarian rulers proliferate and tyranny has such easy reign in nation after nation. When Muslim democracy is the rare beast being tracked through the jungle it is little wonder that a lot of the important landscape and topography slips out of focus.
Like many commentators, Allers starts with Anwar’s early career as an activist and founder of ABIM, a Malaysian Islamic youth movement. He gives the familiar context of the post-independence condition of Malaysia a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country where the indigenous Malay population were marginalised, impoverished and sensitive to being swamped by the Chinese, who dominated the economy, and Indian populations that had been imported to serve the colonial regime. In this context to be Malay is to be Muslim. Therefore it is little surprise that Islam serves as the natural rhetoric for justice and equity which has special reference to the specific conditions and needs of the Malays but does not necessarily, certainly not inevitably, imply a lack of tolerance or openness. And yet it could easily be otherwise.
Anwar was active in protesting the conditions of rural Malay poverty at a time of particular tension. It was at this time that Mahathir Mohammad was writing The Malay Dilemma a book which excoriated the West, condemned the colonial era and was heavily apologetic and chauvinistic about the Malay condition. Circumstance can make for uneasy political cohabitation. Both Anwar and Mahathir considered the Malaysian government was not making sufficient effort to uplift the condition of the Malay majority and therefore failing to deliver on the promise of independence. Agreement and collaboration on policy is pragmatism, the particular political disease which inoculates politicians allowing activity without common identity of outlook. It could and should be said that Anwar began as a natural democrat using the rhetoric of Islam and Malay issues while Mahathir began as a natural authoritarian with an insular ethnic bias. What brought them together was politics, or as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan so succinctly described it ‘events dear boy, events.’ To be political is to deal with the events of the day along with all other array of politicians engaged in events. Islam and Malayness are not invariable givens that impact on individuals in exactly the same way.
That Muslim democracy is the natural and best way is the leitmotif of Anwar’s career. That Islam is the source from which he draws his inspiration as a democrat, his ideals of justice and equity, tolerance and openness is evident in the quotations Allers selects from a busy life of speech making and writing. What Allers, like so many political commentators, is less willing to acknowledge is the business of politics. Principle is forever, policy is all adaptation, changes in the articulation of how principle is to be translated into policy. Politics is events, change and circumstance that have to be harnessed and ushered as best they can to the objectives of principle. Politicians are constrained by their environment and access to power. Radical politics, the politics of change, however much it may irritate theorisers, is impossible without access to the levers of power. One must gain control before one can shift those levers in more democratic equitable and just directions.
It is the specific nature and orientation of the levers of power in Malaysia that are the concern of Anwar’s career in politics. Malaysia has been ruled since independence by a coalition of communal based political parties: UMNO for the Malays, MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) for the Chinese, MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) for the Indians, that issues and interests could transcend ethnic boundaries was not on the list of political possibles. After the race riots of 1969 a New Economic Policy (NEP) was crafted as a national objective for growth and development with redistribution designed to redress and advance the participation of Malays in education and the economy. The communal based political parties were conduits of patronage through which the benefits of the NEP would be distributed. By definition government would be the central actor in fashioning economic growth and effecting redistribution, which thereby tied the populace to the communal party political structure. Malaysia became a totally politicised country, a nation where calculating the political runes and operating accordingly if one hoped to succeed, but especially if one worked in any arm of government, public service or business, is first nature.
Mahathir became Prime Minister in 1981, a post he held for 22 years. Throughout his career Mahathir has enjoyed a following across the Third World, the formerly colonised nations of the South as a radical critic of the West and all its nefarious ways. His cachet goes hand in hand with his various updating of the NEP through the Look East phase, modelling economic planning on the economies of South Korea and Taiwan to make Malaysia part of what was called the East Asian Economic miracle. Then there was Vision 2020, the plan to make Malaysia a fully industrialised country by that year. It survives his deregulation and privatisation policies which created the nexus of cronies who have become the mega rich, the Malaysiarchs. It also endured through the vanity mega projects he conceived, from building a new capital city to a Formula 1 race track. Deregulation and privatisation has made no difference to government as central to the structure of inequitable wealth and power distribution. Government must work with the powerhouses constructed under its tutelage and business gets business from government. This is the legacy of Mahathir’s stamp on power. He purposefully designed the concept of strong business corporations controlling crucial sectors of the economy as the essence of being a fully developed economy. In doing so he was working to the Western economic playbook. Far from creating an alternative to the dominant system he formed a locally controlled offshoot.
Cronyism and nepotism became endemic during the Mahathir years. Corruption was the staple of tea stall gossip because it was normal practice. The problems came to roost with the contagion of the currency crisis which began in Thailand and rapidly spread around the region. In Malaysia many overstretched cronies were in dire trouble. Much like the banks in the West in more recent times they clamoured for cover from government. Mahathir again donned the mantle of scourge of the West by insisting on currency controls and rudely rebuffing the IMF. Behind his closed currency walls, however, it was the revitalisation of the inequities of crony capitalism that was to be effected by the diversion of public funds. And therein lay the rub. Anwar opposed the currency controls and refused to go along with using public funds to rescue reckless capitalists, notable among them Mahathir’s own son. It was at that point that Anwar was summarily sacked.
The charges of sodomy were a façade drawn over the substantive political difference that existed. From the moment he was sacked crowds flocked around Anwar. In no time at all he formulated the agenda of Reformasi which has matured, grown in rhetorical sophistication of argument rather than substance in the subsequent years. At the heart of the reformation of Malaysia is the deconstruction of the communal based view of politics. During his years in government, Anwar kept developing the theme of Malaysia as a truly multicultural nation. The logical culmination of this outlook is a new development policy which replaces the dependency growth of Malay economic interests with affirmative action according to need, irrespective of race or ethnicity. The political party of which Anwar is now de facto leader, Keadilan, is indeed a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious party of Malaysians. It is doubtful any other politician could have effected such a momentous sea change. Perhaps one ought to stop wondering whether Anwar needed to evolve as a democrat and start realising it was the circumstances of Malaysian society and politics that had to alter.
Allers offers a painstaking track through the life and times of Anwar Ibrahim. His book is the most copiously footnoted I have ever read. Sadly it reads like a student dissertation and one that would have been well served by better editing. Anyone seeking a compendium for resources about Malaysia will be well served by his footnotes and bibliography. However, the cautious framing of his questioning and relentless focus on the person of Anwar rather than the context of circumstance and events leads Allers to miss some of the most salient points. It is the deep structure of inequity that are the substance of the issues articulated by Anwar that matter most. The inequity, for example, of the gerrymandering of constituencies that meant the opposition triumphed in the popular vote in the 2013 elections yet won fewer seats than the UMNO dominated Barisan. Election fraud is beside the point if governments can cling to power by rigging the entire system. To change an inequitable system requires more than one man. It needs all those officials who turn their eyes to and take their cue from political masters to accept their own responsibility for running judiciary, police, electoral commissions, anti-corruption agencies and the like without fear or favour. Politicians exhort, it is people who deliver change.
Anwar Ibrahim has been consistent in making a coherent and increasingly cogent case for open, tolerant democracy. Allers fails to note that Mahathir not only left the imprint of inequitable development on Malaysia but continues to be the eminence grise who manipulates from behind the scenes. In fact Mahathir is the icon and spokesperson of the embedded structures’ inequity. Allers would have done well to note that Mahathir has seen off one successor Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, and publically speculated about his willingness to replace the second, the current incumbent Najib Tun Razak. As Najib founders in the wake of his electoral weakness and the debacle of the handling of the loss of the MH 370 airliner, he is trimming his supposed reforms to the familiar contours of Mahathir’s preferred plan. Electoral weakness means only one thing to Mahathir: Malay insecurity. There can be no mistaking the support and encouragement he has given to the openly racist Perkasa movement, a sort of local Malay defence league.
Malaysia is a beautiful country, rich in resources and possibilities. It is a test case of the real agenda for change and democracy in the Muslim World. It is clear that in Malaysia, as elsewhere in so many other countries, change will come at personal cost. Change will require more than just elections: it requires dismantling the institutional structures of inequity, most of all it will depend upon building the strength and capacity of civil society, the plethora of organisations and associations by which ordinary people hold their governments to account. The quest for democracy and good governance is not unique to the Muslim world. The democracy deficit is rife in Britain or the United States too. The motion that the democratic instinct is unique to the West and somehow deficient in the Muslim world is absurd. Power prevents and power has to be confronted for democracy to reign supreme. Not all the power that prevents and prevaricates the democratic quest comes from within Muslim nations. Anwar has spent his career speaking for and articulating an agenda of politics as the art of what we wish were possible. Making it so is everyone’s assignment.