Anwar's acquittal is Malaysia's chance to move on and tackle real problems

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 January, 2012, 12:00am


Anwar Ibrahim's acquittal on politically motivated and probably trumped up charges of sodomy should now clear the way for a real contest in Malaysia's general election whenever Prime Minister Najib Razak dares to call one, but at least by March next year.

It should, but politics in Malaysia has become such a devious and dirty game that who knows what fresh skullduggery may be played.

It is more than 13 years since Anwar was abruptly toppled from his powerful posts as finance minister, deputy prime minister and favoured successor to Dr Mahathir Mohamad and accused of corruption and sodomy. Under indictment or in jail on those charges and on the later ones, he remained a major threat to the National Front government.

Now he has to show he can get out of victim mode and offer practical policies that have better answers than Najib's to Malaysia's growing problems. Indeed, political leaders on all sides should seize the opportunity to move away from their preoccupation with Anwar's sex life to tackle looming real problems.

The economy is one. In last year's budget Najib, who is also the finance minister, handed out sweeteners, including higher pay and pensions for civil servants and cash payments of 500 ringgit (HK$1,250) to households earning less than 3,000 ringgit a month, as if preparing the way for an election.

Najib has a window of opportunity, probably up to mid-year, while the warm political glow of the goodies has the edge over the economic difficulties catching up with Malaysia, notably its exposed place in a world heading towards recession. Even with a broad array of exports, from agriculture, oil and liquefied natural gas to manufacturers and electronic components, Malaysia depends heavily on export growth in the industrialised world.

At first glance, the country is in good shape, especially compared with the rich industrial countries. Growth is still above 4 per cent, and gross domestic product is US$414 billion on a purchasing power parity basis, making Malaysia the 30th biggest economy in the world. Per capita GDP was about US$14,700 in 2010, respectable middle-income territory, but it is only in 78th position in the world, a poor performance given its rich potential.

When I went there in the 1970s, Malaysia seemed the most promising country in all of Asia. It had completed the division of the institutions it shared with Singapore, such as the airline and stock exchange, and the currency had become convertible. It seemed that well-endowed Malaysia with plenty of space to grow could become the strongest Asian tiger.

Tiny Singapore is today a US$300 billion economy, 41st in the world in size, but its per capita income is about US$62,000, fifth in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The overconfidence was based on failure to understand that developing a sprawling, rural multiracial economy is more complicated than governing a compact city state, especially when greed, cronyism, corruption and the dead hand of state enterprise have taken their cuts.

Back then, the government was a coalition of parties, each representing a major racial group, led by the sainted Hussein Onn of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), with the Malaysian Chinese Association holding the important finance portfolio in the capable hands of its leader Tan Siew Sin.

After Tan retired, Umno grabbed the finance portfolio and extended its grip on the other important ministries. This happened as the government embarked on a new economic policy of deliberately giving advantages to the disadvantaged Malays. The problems were compounded when Mahathir took over in 1981 and immediately showed single-minded determination to drag Malays with Malaysia into the economic 21st century, refusing to brook any opposition to his way of doing it.

The result was that many talented Chinese and Indians left, and few bright minorities wanted to get tangled in politics. Some Malays seized their advantages, others remained poor, and Malaysia fell further behind Singapore and its best potential.

Malaysia's stage is now set for a fascinating struggle as far as political scientists are concerned, maybe not so fascinating for Malaysians who will suffer in the fallout. Najib recognises the need for reforms, though he has stopped short of scrapping the now elderly 'new' economic policy with its opportunities for favouritism and corruption. One reason is that a substantial section in Umno wants to retain comfortable Malay privileges in perpetuity, and is waiting for Najib to slip up.

On the other side is Anwar, who rightly has a formidable reputation. As finance minister he was impressive and competent; as a speaker, he has proved able to woo vast crowds. But his past as a Malay radical scares some Malaysians, including those in the multiracial, multi-squabbling People's Alliance, which hopes to take power.

Both the government and opposition are obviously vulnerable to their internal contradictions. Can Anwar, fresh from shaking off the shackles of court cases, persuade his supporters that he is a good Malaysian as well as a good Malay and convince the voters that multiracial solutions are the only answer to the problems of a multiracial country? Will he be allowed to?

Kevin Rafferty was founder-editor of Business Times Malaysia