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Time for Malaysia to change

On the 50th anniversary of his country’s I-Day, former Deputy Prime Minister-turned-dissident, Anwar Ibrahim speaks out, reports Amit Baruah.

world Updated: Aug 31, 2007 00:35 IST
Amit Baruah

Dressed in a black business suit, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister can easily pass for a corporate executive. Released three years ago after six years in jail, Anwar Ibrahim is in a reflective mood on the eve of Malaysia’s 50th birthday on Friday.

Fifty years on, Anwar believes that Malaysia has been able to prove its adversaries wrong and conduct its affairs as a united nation despite its diversity of religions and ethnic groups.

Malaysia has made economic progress due to its pragmatic, pro-growth policies, Anwar feels. But, the man who was deputy prime minister and finance minister from 1993 to 98, says that the country has destroyed its institutions of governance.

“We have no independent judiciary…no free media,” Anwar, who was jailed in 1998 on sodomy charges by his mentor-turned-foe Mahathir Mohamed, complains. After Mahathir ceased to be Prime Minister, Anwar was acquitted of the sodomy charges, but barred from contesting elections till April 2008.

Malaysia has slipped on its economic competitiveness over the years and yielded to countries like Singapore and Vietnam, Anwar, currently adviser to the People’s Justice Party (Keadilan), headed by his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, said.

Anwar told the Hindustan Times on Thursday that he wants change in Malaysia. Admitting it is “not easy” to end the reign of the ruling United Malays National Organisation, the Keadilan leader, however, rules out a return to the UMNO fold.

Anwar is ready to contest elections once again, but says that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmed Badawi will go in for early polls some time this year and he will not be able to take part.

That, however,may prove to be a blessing in disguise. “I will spend time campaigning for my party,” he says.

“I’m optimistic that my party will do well in the polls.”

Anwar the proceeds to bowl a googly. Malaysian elections, he alleges, have been fraudulent in the past and need international monitoring.

Anwar, who is scheduled to meet senior Indian politicians, says that New Delhi should use its “moral voice” to call for free and fair elections everywhere, including Malaysia.

On the status of Indian-origin Malaysians, who comprise about 10 per cent of the country’s 26 million people, the former deputy Prime Minister admits that they haven’t done well. But, he believes that the policy of affirmative action pursued by UMNO has not helped poor Malays either.

“I don’t think that you should tackle poverty based on ethnic groups,” he remarks. According to him, only a few cronies have been enriched through these policies.

Would he have tackled his problems with Prime Minister Mahathir differently a decade ago? “Naturally, you mature, but, no, I would not change on substantive issues like anti-corruption measures,” he says.

Lessons from his six years in jail? “I had time to reflect, meditate, read the holy Quran, other texts and sing,” he replies. Like many other Malays, Anwar displays considerable appreciation for things Indian.

He speaks a smattering of Hindi and tells me that he’s seen “old” Bollywood films. Anwar singles out Mother India and Mughal-e-Azam as his favourites. What about more contemporary films? “I’ve only seen a bit of Veer Zara.