Nine years after he was dismissed, arrested, beaten and brought to the trial that displayed the utter corruption of Malaysia’s judiciary, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, now a leader of the opposition, seems to have got something on a silver plate on September 19.
The scoop came in the form of a video-clip of a prominent government-linked lawyer, in telephone conversation with a top judge (now Malaysia’s chief justice), who was among those involved in Anwar’s trials on charges brought by then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. In audio and video clips, recorded some time in 2002, while Anwar was still in jail, the lawyer is seen in intense negotiation by telephone about Anwar’s case and other prominent trials in which the government had an interest. Among other things, he is heard telling how he had been in touch with Mahathir to discuss Anwar’s case, discussing the appointment of the next chief justice, and soliciting private meetings between him and billionaire tycoons.
“Don’t worry, we [will] organize this. If Tan Sri Vincent and Tengku Adnan [tycoons linked to the government] want to meet you privately, they will, I will call you … No don’t worry, Datuk… we want to make sure our friends are there for the sake of the PM and the sake of the country,” he is heard saying in very clear sound.
Many, including government supporters, are resigned to the fact that Anwar’s trials and convictions are part of a conspiracy to banish him from political life, but the clip confirms the suspicions of Malaysians about the illusory independence of the judiciary. The current chief justice appears to have been selected after intense negotiation between him, prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his tycoon friends.
“Too much, too late” perhaps best describes the latest exposÃ©, which the opposition should be celebrating, especially in the run-up to the impending general elections. In many countries such an exposure would have been on the front pages of national newspapers daily for at least several days, followed by the dismissal of judges and retrial of cases. With the help of a tightly controlled media, the government of Abdullah Badawi is out to ensure that the latest revelations will have no impact, or as little as they can manage.
This latest proof of judicial rot brings to mind yet another legacy of the Mahathir era, during which the border-line between the executive and the judiciary evaporated, and institutions such as the police and media slowly succumbed to full government control. When Abdullah Badawi took over in late 2003, many hoped that at least some of the damage could be reversed. Yet Abdullah’s own reaction to the video clip is to threaten. Throwing doubt on the authenticity of the clip, he has even threatened action against those distributing it, ostensibly because it could undermine the public’s faith in the integrity of the country’s courts.
Integrity, however, has long deserted the Malaysian judiciary. Nor should people deceive themselves by hoping that such an opportunity to stop the rot will be taken. But beyond that, the clip refreshes the public’s memory of the basic problems plaguing major issues in Malaysian politics: a corrupt judiciary working hand-in-hand with an equally corrupt police force, both cooperating to hand out whatever verdict the government demands. The truth of this statement has become apparent many times, such as during the Anwar trials, when he was convicted after solid proofs of his innocence were dismissed as “irrelevant”. Yet the Anwar case is only the tip of the iceberg of the extent of judicial malpractice in Malaysia.
Coming hot on the heels of the trial of the suspected murderer of Altantuya Sharibu, a Mongolian woman and former lover of a political analyst closely connected to Najib Abdul Razak, the current deputy prime minister, the video-clip and the government’s nonchalant response to it underline how far corruption has reached every corner of the Malaysian polity, as well as how little has changed since Abdullah took over from Mahathir. His initial sloganeering about fighting corrupt practices had been well received even by the opposition parties; later Malaysians found that he is just the proverbial new wine in old bottles, with a somewhat more Islamic-sounding label.
Demanding an independent tribunal, Anwar has said that his party will meet the country’s conference of rulers, comprised of sultans from various states who do not have political weight but whose rare voices can occasionally sound an alarm. “This is matter of utmost public importance and we demand the setting up of an independent tribunal to investigate this shameful and scandalous episode. In this regard, we make a special appeal to the conference of rulers to continue to play their constitutionally entrenched role in safeguarding the rights of the people by exercising their discretionary powers in all matters within their jurisdiction.”
His decision to go to the sultans (and no Malaysian is hopeful for them to take up any issue against the ruling government either) betrays the exhaustion of every other avenue for solutions to Malaysia’s corruption-ridden public life. Like fighting a losing battle, every weapon counts, including sticks and stones. The country’s Anti-Corruption Agency and the police have long lost their credibility. Nothing underlines this more than the recent clashes in the east-coast state of Terengganu, where police fired live bullets to disperse crowd of PAS supporters who wanted to hear an opposition speech. Later, video clips taken by UMNO’s own people were posted on internet sites such as YouTube, showing the ‘riots’ to be a carefully planned exercise by the police conspiring with UMNO.
Because the general elections are expected before April next year (UMNO will not want to give Anwar an opportunity to contest after his ban on holding political office ends), issues for the opposition to choose to play up are a dime a dozen. How well they can cope with any of them, especially when faced with state machinery and media propaganda, is a foregone conclusion. Now that they are even denied public rallies to meet people and discuss issues, the opposition is left with the internet. The influence of that medium, however, is minimal, especially in the Malay heartlands, which are mostly rural.
Clearly, elections will be no avenue to bring about change in Malaysian politics unless the system is remade. For that to happen, heads must roll in the judiciary and other institutions. Anwar, having once been one of the two most powerful men in government, knows this more than any other opposition politician. How, when and who are the questions about his approach to this challenge and to his people’s expectations. That he will actually succeed, even partially, is very far from being a possibility in anyone’s mind: failure is only too likely.