TIME MAGAZINE, SEPTEMBER 21, 1998 VOL. 152 NO. 11
Malaysia's Anwar may have fallen from grace, but he's not taking the accusations lying down
By DAVID LIEBHOLD Kuala Lumpur
The crowd stirs as he makes his way toward the microphone. "Long live Anwar!" goes the chant as he squeezes through, smiling, shaking outstretched hands. He shouts to the crowd: "To defend the interests of the people, to uphold justice, to guarantee equal treatment for all, let us undertake reformasi!" The ecstatic reply: "Reformasi! Reformasi! Reformasi," a term borrowed from Indonesia that entails broad political and economic reform.
That was Tuesday, just another night at the Kuala Lumpur home of Anwar Ibrahim--except that the audience was three times as big as the evening before. Each night several thousand supporters fill his house, his garden and the surrounding streets, where merchants do a brisk trade in food, drink and tapes of Anwar's speeches. "If they charge him with a crime, they are making a big mistake," says worker Eric Bastian, 50, on his fourth visit. "Look at this crowd! The people want him back."
In all the excitement it would be easy to forget that, politically speaking, Anwar has just fallen off a cliff. Barely a week earlier, he was Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister, deputy president of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's anointed successor. Today Anwar is unemployed. He could be arrested at any time. Expelled from the party, he is trying to refute a host of damaging allegations, ranging from sexual misconduct to sedition. Many UMNO officials appear to have written him off. "Anwar cannot win, fighting against Mahathir," says former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Ghaffar Baba. "I pity him. He has wasted his talent for political leadership."
But Anwar is refusing to go quietly. He maintains that the claims of misbehavior have been fabricated as part of a high-level conspiracy to unseat him. Several influential political and religious groups have spoken in his defense, and his followers are busily distributing pamphlets, badges and bumper stickers proclaiming his innocence and calling for sweeping reforms. With or without a party, Anwar is launching a spirited opposition movement, and it is gathering momentum. "I never supported him," says Bastian, "but I would like to at this time because he has been unjustly treated and he will stand up against corruption and nepotism."
Mahathir, too, has been busy. Last Tuesday, the Prime Minister called a meeting of UMNO officials and told them that Anwar had been sacked because of immoral conduct. "It was not due to whatever differences he had with me over political or economic matters, but because his character does not qualify him to be a leader of a country like Malaysia," he later told journalists, without giving details. Mahathir did refer to a police investigation that is said to implicate Anwar in a wide range of moral and legal lapses, including womanizing, sodomy, corruption and treason. "I did my own investigations, and I am convinced," the Prime Minister said, adding that the dismissal was not related to a possible leadership challenge by Anwar in next year's party elections.
One after another, most of UMNO's leaders have come forward to express support for Mahathir's decision. "There was no conspiracy," says Ibrahim Ali, a member of the party's Supreme Council. "Anwar was sacked because of a purely personal problem." There have been calls for the resignation of UMNO Youth chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, an Anwar ally. And new allegations against Anwar have appeared. The police inspector-general says there is evidence that Anwar interfered in a police investigation and lied about a dna test to disprove a paternity claim. Anwar has also been criticized for lashing out at the government in the foreign press and for trying to mobilize the masses against the state.
Anwar's ordeal may look like an internal UMNO affair, but to some Malaysians the episode has stirred worrisome questions about the country's reputation for fairness. Among the concerns: allegations against Anwar were revealed via the widespread publication of affidavits filed in criminal proceedings against a friend of Anwar's, Solaimai Nallakaruppan, before the judge had ruled on the admissibility of the evidence. The Malaysian Bar Council has expressed "dismay" over the incident, saying it infringed the constitutional right of a person to defend himself. For his part, Nallakaruppan says his interrogators have used threats and inducements in failed attempts to make him sign false statements. Says Chandra Muzaffar, a political scientist and Anwar supporter: "The public feels that a great wrong has been done."
For now, many citizens assume that Anwar would not have been fired unless some of the allegations were true. But with Anwar's steadfast denials of any wrongdoing, that assumption could turn to skepticism unless he is indicted for something soon. "Anwar has only been charged by the local press," says Ahmad Zahid. "The people aren't stupid. They can read between the lines." Anwar, meanwhile, keeps talking about reformasi to all who will listen. And listen they do, thronging his two-story white stucco house and the tents set up outside. "Anwar is trying to rewrite the rules," says a diplomat. "He's trying to establish a new kind of structure." Malaysian politics may never be the same.
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