We must defend the finance minister with a black eye

Anwar represents all that the global community has asked of Asia - now he is being beaten to a pulp
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The Independent Culture
FOR THE last few years, Mr Anwar Ibrahim's appearances at the World Bank and IMF annual meetings, and at the preceding Commonwealth Finance Ministers' meeting, have hardly been characterised by a black eye and facial bruising. So photographs of him on his way to a court appearance, on trumped-up charges in Kuala Lumpur, must have alarmed and dismayed his friends and admirers in the international financial community. Perhaps they even caused concern to his erstwhile boss, Malaysia's prime minister, Dr Mahathir, at whose behest he is now in prison.

Until he was ousted as Malaysia's Finance Minister and Deputy Premier a few weeks ago, Anwar Ibrahim had been for years the deserved darling of the international financial community. Admired as much in Asia as in the West, he epitomises all that the global economy wants of a finance minister in a developing country.

Anwar Ibrahim's views and record give the lie to the argument that values are relative. He has called for free trade and open markets, for effective regulation of banks and financial services, for greater openness and transparency in Asia's financial management, for an attack on corruption and nepotism, for the rule of law, for civil liberties, and - what more provocation will this man offer? - greater democracy.

He has argued vehemently for the universality of human rights. I remember him saying to me, the passion rising in his voice, that he abhorred those who suggested that Asians didn't care about freedom and democracy. That was a racist proposition, he rightly said. His parents' generation, he went on, had fought my parents' generation for freedom from colonialism, and for democracy under the rule of law.

Not only did Anwar Ibrahim say the right things, he did the right things too. He was a superbly competent official often tasked by the politics of his position with clearing up the mess left behind by the populist excesses of his boss.

Ask any banker or official who attended the last World Bank and IMF meetings in Hong Kong, and witnessed the blazing row between the hapless (and eminently decent) George Soros and the Malaysian Prime Minister. Anwar swept up the debris that folly created.

For years now, Anwar Ibrahim has won plaudits for his courage, honesty and competence. The great and the good of the international finance world took Anwar to their bosom. He was their brave exemplar, their friend.

Not surprisingly, if a tad belatedly, they have started to speak up about his plight. For example, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, James Wolfensohn, the World Bank President and Robert Rubin, the American Treasury Secretary, have all expressed concern.

But, as the World Bank and the IMF pursue their annual round of meetings and schmoozings in Washington, rather more than concern is surely required.

Our own Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is this year's shop steward for the G7 industrial powers. He has called himself a friend of Anwar Ibrahim. So will he urge the G7 to say something collectively about their old friend, or will they pass by on the other side? I do not believe that Mr Brown, a decent and principled man, will allow that to happen.

But I can hear some of the arguments now. Central Bank governors and finance ministers will be told that this is all a matter of internal Malaysian politics. So have not events required our intervention again and again in the domestic politics of other Asian countries?

Secondly, they will be advised that for finance ministers and central bankers to say anything about Anwar Ibrahim would be to sink into grubby politics, something, of course, that they never do.

Why don't they try telling that to, say, the Indonesians, who are at present wrestling with some courage (at last) with the political consequences of what the international financial community has asked them to do. The problem for the Indonesians is that we seem disinclined to help them cope with the social costs of change.

They are now trapped between riot and reform, with the awful prospect of social unrest derailing their efforts at political and economic change, unless we provide more aid to help the 80 million Indonesians now living below the poverty level.

Thirdly, I am sure that Mr Brown and his colleagues will be warned off any statement about Anwar Ibrahim on the grounds that it might be bad for future business with Dr Mahathir's Malaysia. Who's kidding whom? What are the great projects that Malaysia's new brand of siege economics is going to be able to finance in the future? Haven't we learned the real lesson of the Asian crash - that the best countries in which to do business are the countries that treat their citizens the most decently?

Anwar Ibrahim represented everything that the international community has asked of Asia in the last decade. It's as simple as that. Now that he is being beaten to a pulp for what he believes - his brave wife terrorised, his children distraught - are we simply to keep our counsel, worried lest Dr Mahathir should stamp his foot at us? What price an ethical foreign policy?

To be fair to him, Mr Cook mentioned Anwar's case to his Malaysian opposite number during a meeting at the UN the other day. And I am sure that Mr Cook had no idea that while Her Majesty the Queen was in Kuala Lumpur for the closing of the Commonwealth Games, Anwar Ibrahim was just down the road being beaten up by the police - blindfolded and thrashed until he lost consciousness. But at least the Commonwealth Games ended peacefully, without any embarrassment to anyone.

But isn't it time that there was some embarrassment? If Asians are to take seriously what we keep on saying about political freedom and economic liberty, doesn't there have to be a moment when we put our mouths where our principles are supposed to be.

Anwar Ibrahim would not have chosen that things should turn out like this. He did not pick a fight with Dr Mahathir. But now, battered and imprisoned, he is the threatened symbol of a brighter, better future rather than a return to the shadows. To abandon him now would be to throw away our moral authority in arguing for pluralism and open markets around the world.

That cannot be a price that world financial leaders think is worth paying. Time, I suggest, to speak up for the Finance Minister with the principles and the black eye.