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Thursday, February 11, 1999 Published at 09:44 GMT

Taking stock of the Anwar trial

Mr Anwar's trial has left many Malaysians disillusioned with politics

By Frances Harrison in Kuala Lumpur

Legend has it that the first Malay ruler in history came to an agreement with his people that they would remain totally loyal - provided he never shamed them in public, no matter what the offence.

Political scientists say Malay culture has an unwritten code of respect for authority and saving face.

Malaysia Crisis Section
There is no doubt that the dramatic downfall of Malaysia's erstwhile Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, amid lurid accusations about his sexual behaviour, run counter to some very deeply held social values.

There are times when the language used in the legal proceedings is so graphic that local journalists are embarrassed to translate for those who don't understand the Malay language.

The 'silent star witness'

Anyone who has been covering the trial for some time is now quite detached about discussing the male and female bodily fluids on the mattress, itself a key exhibit in the first half of the trial.

The trial has become the subject of endless jokes: the mattress on which Mr Anwar was alleged to have committed adultery was dubbed the silent star witness which had been turned over and neutralised while in detention.

[ image:  ]
Four months into the trial there is a sense that it has developed a life of its own - constantly throwing up the unexpected.

The judge has been trying to limit the defence lawyers to what is relevant in the four misuse of power charges.

They, on the other hand, have tried to broaden the issue, bringing in the prime minister's name and revelations about the workings of upper levels of government.

Conspiracy claim

On the stand, Mr Anwar has seemed to be enjoying himself, admitting that even as deputy prime minister of Malaysia he knew his phone was tapped - "similar to a police state", he said.

He has tried to show he angered cabinet colleagues by his investigations into state corruption and fell out with the prime minister over the handling of Malaysia's economic crisis. It is his contention that he is the victim of a high-level political conspiracy.

The judge has now ruled this line of defence irrelevant, limiting the scope of argument and almost certainly shortening the length of the trial.

Catalyst for opposition

General elections are due to be held in Malaysia before April 2000. So how much support Mr Anwar now has is a question everyone would like answered.

The ritual shaming of a prominent figure of authority has split the Malay community.

It has also acted as a catalyst for simmering frustrations with the political system in Malaysia - bringing together opposition groups with widely differing agendas.

[ image: Police have been used to quell pro-reform support on the streets]
Police have been used to quell pro-reform support on the streets
Even members of the prime minister's own party, the United Malay National Organisation, admit they have lost some support, and the Islamic PAS party say they have seen a marked increase in new membership since the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim.

But the large street protests of last year seem to be a thing of the past. At best a few hundred "reformasi" supporters come onto the streets now to call for political reform, rather than thousands.

The arrest of 126 demonstrators last year must have put all but the most politically committed off - opposition supporters say the movement is now going through a different phase and cannot be judged by its power to bring people on the streets.

The government points to this as evidence that the "reformasi" movement has run out of steam and has no new issues on which to galvanise support.

With early electioneering already underway there is no doubt the Anwar issue poses the most serious challenge yet to Dr Mahathir Mohamad in his 17 years in power.

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