Malaysia faces reform struggle after Anwar jailing

Click to follow
AS FRESH demonstrations followed midday prayers at a mosque in the centre of Malaysia's capital yesterday, many were wondering what the future held for the country's fledgling reform movement. Would the widespread revulsion at the treatment of Anwar Ibrahim be enough to topple the regime?

When the prison gates closed on the former deputy prime minister for six years last week, the country lost its most charismatic proponent of change. Barred from parliament for five years after his release, Mr Anwar will be 62 before he can re-enter the ring. He was convicted of using his position to cover up allegations of sodomy and adultery. He and his supporters say the charges were trumped up by the Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, to stop him challenging for the leadership.

Outside the court, Mr Anwar's wife pledged to continue the fight for reform as the head of a new multi-ethnic party. She faces a daunting task without her husband to "lambast Mahathir", says Bruce Gale, director of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Singapore. "The reform movement has no money, little political experience and is facing a well- oiled machine with plenty of money and the national media behind it."

Dr Mahathir, 73, is in his twilight years but clearly is not going to be ousted in the same dramatic fashion as Indonesia's former President Suharto - Malaysia does not share the same culture of dissent. Many Malaysians think they have a lot to be grateful for, and fear losing it. Azizah Ismail, the softly spoken former eye surgeon whose husband's arrest threw her into the limelight, is only too aware of this. "We are not doing too badly: we aren't hungry, things are relatively calm.The system has worked for us. Our country has come so far. But we are realising more and more that there are flaws in the system. The masses are now conscious that they need change."

With demonstrations likely soon to fizzle out, the opposition's only hope lies in an election which must be called by next April. Although the two main opposition parties are sharing a platform with Mrs Azizah's National Justice Party, few expect them to break the grip Dr Mahathir's coalition has had on power for 18 years.

Malaysian politics has always been ethnically based and the current coalition's success lies largely in the roots it has in each of the three main ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese and Indians. Dr Mahathir has always insisted that his own Malay party, Umno, heads a strictly secular government. For many, the sight of the NJP sharing a platform with the Parti Islam SeMalaysia, which has advocated an Islamic state, is an alarming one.

According to Mohamad Ezam Noor, Mr Anwar's former secretary and a driving force of the opposition coalition, the disparate groups can form a credible, multi-ethnic alternative. "We have admitted our differences and are willing to put them on one side. We all believe in financial transparency, no corruption and a just system, and those objectives supersede everything now." The younger generation, he says, is ready to cast aside racially based politics; 50,000 people have joined Mrs Azizah's party in 10 days.