Friday, February 02, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, January 31, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Terengganu, Malaysia

The world must still remember the black eye Anwar Ibrahim received from a policeman, which was caught on camera and beamed around the world. The scene unfolded when the then deposed Malaysian deputy prime minister was walking into court on Sept. 29, 1998 for the alleged crime of sodomy and corruption.

But the event and his subsequent imprisonment at Sungai Buloh Penitentiary went beyond a mere black eye: "The incident was also an eye-opener for my country, for all Malaysians, that injustice was an acute problem in this country," Ibrahim, who describes himself as a liberal and democrat, recently told The Jakarta Post.

In the midst of the 1997 economic crisis, Ibrahim -- who supported free market principles -- campaigned for greater accountability and rejected handing government bail-outs to politically connected companies. He also severely cut government expenditure in mega projects and introduced the controversial Anti-Corruption Legislation as acting prime minister.

All these moves are believed to have displeased then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Ibrahim was sacked and was imprisoned under what many believed to be a fabricated conviction.

Ibrahim was finally released in 2004, but is still barred from running for office until 2008. He is presently advisor to the People's Justice Party, of which his wife Dr. Wan Azizah is president.

Born on Aug. 10, 1947 in Cherok Tok Kun, Penang, Ibrahim is known for his student activism. Today, he is seen as a prominent advocate of the "Asian Renaissance" and a leading proponent of greater cooperation among nations. He is also passionate about Shakespeare, and his favorite singers are Asha Bhosle and Latta Manggeskar.

During a recent interview with the Post at Kenyir Lakeview Resort in Terengganu, Malaysia, Ibrahim shared his views on freedom of expression, justice, democracy, multiculturalism, interfaith dialog, economy and problems faced by Muslims around the world and in Malaysia.

Question: If you became prime minister, would you relax restrictions on the Malaysian press?

Answer: The issue of prime minister has to be decided by Malaysians and also be dealt within the party. However, the position of the opposition is very clear that the media must be free from government's control. In Mahathir's era, the media freedom index was 150; now we are a few points worse.

Would you also abrogate the repressive Internal Security Act?

We (The People's Justice Party) oppose not only the ISA, but also all draconian laws, all restriction on the media, students and unions. The present government (under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi) might be a bit more relaxed than that of Mahathir, but all repressive laws are still in place.

How do you assess multiculturalism in your country, and what is the progress of the interfaith dialog that you initiated?

We have initiated a number of interfaith discussions at the civil society level, and I am encouraged that all the meetings and forums that we conducted were well attended. The deliberation was frank and there was a willingness and readiness to support a reform agenda for freedom, for respect of religion, for tolerance and against any form of extremism.

We are not for challenging other faiths, but for understanding and having the humility to learn and accept others. The politics of engagement would moderate even the fundamentalists.

Unfortunately, the government refuses to engage in a public discourse on these issues, and our national media is in a total blackout on this kind of news.

Actually, the issue is not merely extremists as alleged, but also the incompetence of the government to grasp the issue. Like the government apparatus arresting a couple on the street. This has nothing to do with fundamentalism and extremism; this is a total hypocrisy because the government allows all of the excesses of corrupt practices among the rich or the ruling clique, but harass young couples on the street.

You have mentioned that you are a consensus builder and you allow open debate within the members of the People's Justice Party. Do you give your personal stand on strategic issues?

I actually listen a lot, and indeed I would give my personal views on important issues.

So what is your personal view on Muslims converting to different religions?

This is not really a big issue. It affects only a very few individuals, and not only among practicing Muslims in the first place. I think we have to be a bit farfetched to use this as criteria for general Muslims converting to Christianity or Hinduism or others. We have to mold the discussion with better understanding of some specific issues.

Under Malaysian rules, if you want to convert to Islam, you have to go to a (specific) religious court.

So this is not a public decision, not a governmental decision, it is an individual decision that needs to be discussed with religious authority that he or she endorsed at the first place.

How would you lure non-Muslims to become members of the People's Justice Party?

There are quite a substantial number of non-Muslim party leaders and followers; you know there are Chinese and Indians ... many of them are Christians. And one of the vice presidents of the party is Lee Boon Chye, a famous Chinese surgeon.

If you become prime minister and you replace the New Economic Policy with Malaysian New Economic Agenda, wouldn't you fear being left behind by Malay Muslim constituents?

Well, this issue is being debated by Muslims as well -- or the Malays. The policy has benefited certain parts of the Malays -- it has been abused.

We have UMNO (United Malays National Organization) leaders using this (policy) to enrich themselves, while a vast majority of the Malays themselves are being marginalized.

So we ask the Malays, why do you need this agenda? The new agenda, of course, would not marginalize the poor, of which the majority are Malay, but we would encourage all Malaysians -- Chinese, Indians -- to fully participate in the economic process.

We have made it clear that dismantling this New Economic Policy and replacing it with the Malaysian New Economic Agenda -- which is more competitive, more vibrant -- will attract more foreign investment, is able to rid the country of corruption which is endemic, is able to rid the country of cronyism... we have evidence that government contracts are benefiting ministers and their family members and cronies directly.

What do you think of problems faced by Muslims around the world, particularly in Malaysia?

Of course, many of them are enraged by the policy of the West, particularly the United States under this administration of Bush. It is very difficult for them to see a just resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; we see this unending battle in Afghanistan and continuing occupation of Iraq. This has caused a lot of anxiety among Muslims.

But we have to deal with this and that, notwithstanding our disagreements with some of the foreign policy prescribed by the U.S. We must remain in a moderate voice and promote understanding.

The restrictions on you will be officially lifted in 2008; are you optimistic?

I will always be an optimist. Otherwise, I would not have survived in jail.

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