I have received many requests
for interviews, which I have had to decline for various reasons. In this
interview, I have tried to address most of the questions posed to me, though
not necessarily in the same way. You are free to publish, use and circulate
the interview, but must insist that I not be quoted out of context in what
is undoubtedly a very complex and rapidly unfolding situation. I would
also appreciate being informed of how and where the interview may be used.
Thank you and best wishes,
Q: What's going on?
J: Basically, many informed observers seem to think that Dr Mahathir decided Anwar could no longer be trusted to protect Dr Mahathir's interests anymore, especially after Dr Mahathir is no longer PM.
Q: Why do you say that?
J: Dr Mahathir was certainly not too pleased with various things Anwar did from mid-1997. When Dr Mahathir went away for two months, Anwar gave the impression that he was going to be tougher on corruption. Then after Dr Mahathir took over economic policy after his return, the foreign media began mocking his conspiratorial analysis, generally running him down and promoting the idea of an early Anwar succession. From the end of the year, Anwar seemed to take over economic policy, cutting government spending, raising interest rates and tightening liquidity, which arguably exacerbated the crisis and took the economy into recession in 1998, especially after the Kongsi Raya holiday reprieve.
But I think the straw which broke the camel's back came around late May or in June, with developments in Indonesia and the subsequent adoption of the reformasi slogan and the anti-KKN (corruption, cronyism, nepotism) campaign by the UMNO Youth leadership then, who were close to Anwar. I don't think Dr Mahathir minded attacking korupsi and kronisme, but nepotisme came too close to the bone. Several months earlier, PRM president Dr Syed Husin Ali and a couple of associates had asked the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) to investigate how Dr Mahathir's three sons had gained stock in over two hundred companies by late 1994. Soeharto's resignation on 21 May and the continued attacks on the ex-president who had only recently joined the ranks of Forbes magazine's richest men in the world - after the Sultan of Brunei and Bill Gates – must have upset Dr Mahathir even though there are important differences between the two.
Q: But the charges against Anwar were raised earlier at the 1997 UMNO general assembly?
J: I am not sure; many believe that some of Anwar's enemies had hatched up the 'plot' to finish off Anwar politically before that, but Dr Mahathir still felt Anwar was the Prime Minister's least problematic option then, and was not yet willing to go along with them at that point.
Q: So you agree with those in Dr Mahathir's camp that Anwar was going for number one?
J: Perhaps. I don't know, but if Anwar's camp was making a bid, it was naïve, ill-considered and bound to fail. As I said earlier, Dr Mahathir is not Soeharto. He will go with his boots on. I don't believe that he was about to quit, to give way to Anwar. Besides wanting to cling on to power for all the usual reasons, I think Dr Mahathir honestly believes that he is the best thing Malaysia has ever had and could hope for, and many would agree with him.
Q: If Anwar was not going for number one, what was happening?
J: There were Anwar's critical Johor speech, the unevenly attended Pemuda economic convention a couple of weeks before the late June general assembly and Zahid's speech at the UMNO Youth assembly itself. Anwar's assembly speech did not criticise Mahathir at all, and in fact announced a U-turn from his December 1997 economic policy, by increasing government spending and liquidity and trying to lower interest rates, almost as if in response to Daim's and Dr Mahathir's earlier criticisms.
Others Anwar had consulted had voiced similar concerns as well. Maybe he was keeping his cards very close to his chest, but Anwar did not respond positively, for example, to those who called for him to 'lead us out of this darkness' and even went out of his way to explain Mahathir's concerns.
There is little evidence of any serious effort by Anwar's camp to mobilise forces and resources to actually try to oust Dr Mahathir. Pointed criticism of nepotism, yes, but a effective plan or strategy to oust Mahathir, unlikely. And if there was one, it was terribly amateurish and bound to fail. But whatever it was, it was enough to convince Dr Mahathir that Anwar was out to replace him.
Q: How did Dr Mahathir respond?
J: Dr Mahathir was very cool. I saw him smiling proudly at the St Petersburg Orchestra's concert at the Petronas Philharmonic Concert Hall the night before he delivered his devastating rounding-up speech and released the partial lists of tender, contract and privatisation beneficiaries from the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), all of which reflected sound preparation.
Q: And then?
J: Although it was later evident that a purge of Anwar's camp had begun, beginning with the media, I thought that Dr Mahathir had Anwar exactly where Dr Mahathir wanted Anwar - weakened, compliant and constrained from mounting an effective challenge. I wrongly thought Dr Mahathir would prefer the safety of such an arrangement rather than risk an Anwar challenge by sacking him or forcing him to resign.
Q: So why the subsequent turn of events?
J: Probably, in their calculations, Anwar's only real strength is his popularity based on his personal charisma and moral standing. There is nothing much one can do about his charisma, hence the need to destroy his reputation. Given the reputations of many ministers in this country, straightforward adultery or something in that league would not be good, or rather, bad enough to damage Anwar irreparably.
Thus, the need for something truly scurrilous or scandalous in the form of the sodomy allegations given the presumed homophobia in our society. At first, in the earlier version which came out with the surat layang at the 1997 assembly, the allegations seemed plausible.
But as Anwar covered himself, by the time the book came out, the charges against Anwar had begun to overload. They eventually made so many allegations, probably making them up as they went along, in the hope that most people would believe at least some of them, and at least a few of them would stick and do the necessary damage.
Q: So has it worked?
J: Partly perhaps, but certainly not as intended. They have been their own worst enemies. Their flagrant disregard for at least nominally complying with accepted procedure has shocked even those usually blissfully insensitive to such matters. With the benefit of hindsight, some now argue that Dr Mahathir should instead have first charged Anwar, then eased him out of government and the party.
Whatever the reasons for the particular sequence adopted, it backfired.
Q: What do you mean by backfiring?
J: As what happened began to sink in, popular support for Anwar quickly picked up. Yet, besides those completely committed to Anwar and those who reject everything Dr Mahathir claims, there are many who might have been more receptive to Dr Mahathir's claims if not for the manner in which he, the police and the prosecutors have conducted themselves. The arrests of those closest to Anwar in UMNO as well as ABIM and related leaders under the Internal Security Act have reminded everyone what Anwar's dismissal is all about, i.e. not sex, but power. Just look at the Inspector General of Police's press conference, where he unwittingly managed to convince those present that Malaysia becoming a police state. Or former Deputy Prime Minister Ghafar's Jakarta visit, where he managed to insult and antagonise almost everyone there. Or Dr Mahathir's claim that Anwar may have deliberately injured himself in the left eye to gain public sympathy.
Q: So what are the changes you see?
J: There seems to be an irreversible sea change going on in Malay political culture. Most non-Malays are watching quietly from the sidelines, partly because they see this as an intra-Malay affair, and also because of the fear of violence, bearing in mind the May 1969 riots in KL and the May 1998 events in Jakarta, particularly traumatic for the ethnic Chinese. Their fear is that desperate politicians may chose to play the ethnic card, the traditional card of first choice in Malaysian politics.
Among Malays, even before Anwar was sacked, you have quiet, but widespread sympathy for jailed DAP Deputy Secretary General and Member of Parliament Lim Guan Eng. Not necessarily support for the DAP, but tremendous unease at the great injustice involved in jailing an opposition politician for championing the cause of an under-aged girl who had been (statutorily) raped and her helpless grandmother, while the man widely believed to be responsible toured the country to speak in rallies supporting the Prime Minister.
Q: Where will all this go?
J: It's still difficult to say. But Anwar's dismissal and its aftermath have only further undermined Malay public confidence in the regime and the leader, greatly increasing the number of Malays 'who can say no', opening up a new conjuncture in Malaysian politics.
Anwar's forces have no choice but to build a broad coalition with existing opposition forces in which they hope to and should play a leading role. With limited and deteriorating public confidence in the judicial system and process, the increasingly shared belief is that only an electoral victory from their combined strength can reverse Anwar's expected fate. That is still very much an uphill task.
But the unexpected developments and accompanying effervescence are also forcing ordinary people to think of alternatives, of reform, of new institutions for the creation and sustenance of a more decent and just society rid of the dominance of political business, money politics and related depravities. Beyond Mahathir versus Anwar, the legitimacy of many official institutions and public faith in them, especially among Malays, has been shaken as never before. But contrary to some pronouncements, this is unlikely to descend into anarchy, but rather, is leading to greater demands for democracy and accountability, though not necessarily in that language or idiom.
While the reform movement may fail, Malaysian politics and political culture will never be the same again.
Jomo's Responses to Follow-up Questions
Q: How important will the economic situation be for electoral politics?
J: After Anwar's black-eye appearance in court, I doubt an early election before the end of the year. But March-April 1999 makes sense in light of the economic strategy now in place. With Malaysia's high savings rate (40% in 1996, presumably slightly less in recent circumstances), you don't need foreign capital inflows to ensure a high investment rate and growth. Of course, with government spending likely to lead recovery, the quality and productivity of these investments will be problematic in the long term, but should still ensure growth in the short term. Then, they can contrast some modest growth in the last quarter, say, with 6.8% in the second quarter, which will be blamed on Anwar.
Q: What do you think their legal strategy is?
J: After further adverse publicity for Anwar, mainly from the court proceedings over the coming months, all they need is one sodomy conviction to stick in order to put Anwar away - physically, morally and politically. Acquittal on other charges as well as seemingly stern official action over the black eye will only enhance credibility.
Q: What is the significance of Zahid's statement?
J: With Zahid capitulating, there will be no one of his stature (Zahid was UMNO Youth leader cum vice president) to lead and organize Anwar's forces within UMNO and the Malay community. Effective leadership will be crucial. With the heavy repression against street demonstrations and the like, it will be difficult and probably undesirable from the Anwar camp's point of view to sustain that kind of momentum. After Anwar's last appearance, it seems that many of his more gullible supporters fell prey to agents provocateurs who took them to the PWTC and then ransacked the UMNO gallery (on a difficult to access upper floor) after the crowd had gone off to Sri Perdana, falling into another trap. On the Commonwealth Games special holiday, it appears that many showed up for a demonstration called by such agents provocateurs not the nascent opposition coalition which warned their followers not to go - where the police were 'well-prepared' for them. Much will depend on the extent to which Anwar's supporters succeed in mobilizing and organizing their grassroots distinctly from PAS and the rest of the opposition, and in targeting and isolating their enemies.
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