Out of the Cell, Into the Fire

Lim Guan Eng, released from prison two weeks ago, is rallying new life into the opposition in Malaysia. The multiracial coalition faces an imminent election against Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's ruling front. With the jailing of Mahathir's deputy Anwar Ibrahim last year, the reformasi movement has struggled to sustain a spirit of protest, and Lim is one of its rallying voices. In 1994 he criticized the government for not pressing charges against a senior government official who allegedly committed statutory rape on a 15-year-old Malay girl. After spending a year in jail on charges of sedition and printing false statements, Lim is now widely known as the Chinese who defended a Malay girl. Barred from holding political office for five years, he is drawing huge multiracial crowds for the opposition. Lim talked at his home in Malacca with NEWSWEEK's Mahlon Meyer. Excerpts:

MEYER: What was new to you when you got out of prison?
LIM: The reception I received outside the gates of the prison was to me a very moving experience. Because you have the Malays, Muslims, equally as emotional as the non-Malays, some with tears running down their eyes, everyone waiting to grasp my hand, pumping their fists in the air, giving me a tremendous round of applause at every stop to show that they are with me. To have a Malay calling me a savior of the Malays is something I thought would never happen to a Chinese person, after all the government's lies about racial tensions. And to see this lie openly discredited by an ordinary Malay, I think, was a very significant moment. Probably almost an epiphany.

The government says you were defending the Malay girl to attack a political opponent.
The point is that she was a victim and it is the right thing to defend her, and in fact I have defended other victims that were not given so much publicity in the press. In this case it's natural that it would be sensationalized because of the personalities involved.

How was your time in prison?
The first three months were very tough for me. Very tough physically because of the conditions that I had to endure, and I think also psychologically. When you go in and are labeled a criminal for something you have not done, when you know you have not done wrong, that you have tried to do something good, it's quite a painful experience. So I took some time to balance my feelings, to stop up my anger. I told myself, you should realize you are in prison because you are fighting an injustice.

Out of the Cell, Into the Fire:    page 2

Some say Anwar is an establishment figure belatedly learning what it's like to be the victim. How do you respond to that?
Some people will probably take some time to realize that their path to justice cannot be achieved inside the establishment, and probably Anwar realized it in a very painful manner, and he should have realized it earlier. But does this disqualify him to fight for justice when he has been a victim of injustice? Many leaders of the past came around slowly to the idea of right against wrong. During the American Civil War, not very many people went out for emancipation at first; it took time.

One of your coalition partners vows to impose an Islamic state, which the Chinese fear.
We have to see what the opposition can actually achieve. Instead of taking one big leap, we should look at the process in two steps. The first step is to deny the ruling front a two-thirds majority. Two thirds is a very important symbolic figure because the ruling party has never lost the right that the two-thirds majority gives to amend the Constitution as they please. Once they lose that right, we will put fear into them. Then they will know that if they do not re- spond to the wishes of the people, they may lose power.

Many businessmen support the prime minister because they say he has saved the economy and promises stability.
I think we have to convince people that the so-called economic recovery that we are having now has not really filtered down to the public. We are still a long way off from 1997 levels. The economy has stopped its slide, but to go back to the pre-crisis point will take at least another one and one half to two years. Unless we can ensure accountability and transparency as well as good governance, we will not fully recover that fast.

Some people say that a Chinese could never be prime minister. Will the Chinese always be the kingmakers and never the kings?
The more important question is whether they can ensure that they have an equal place in Malaysia. What is the use of being a kingmaker if you cannot even enjoy your basic fundamental rights?

Are both sides simply using race as a slogan or political tool?
The government is using the old British colonial policy of divide and rule to maintain the status quo, and they are willing to put at risk the racial harmony that has been built up over the past 40 years since independence. Only with genuine racial harmony can we enjoy the prosperity that we all dream of.

Newsweek International, September 13, 1999