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Wednesday, 10 July, 2002, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK
Analysis: the Anwar saga's legacy
Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, pictured in August 2000 during his sodomy trial
The decision comes at a key moment for Malaysia

With the Federal Court upholding the judgement on former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, politics in Malaysia has seen a great shift in power which may last for years to come.

First and foremost is the reality that, barring extraordinary events or incidents, the former protege of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will be physically kept away not only from his family, but from his supporters and sympathisers for a long time.

Love or loath him, Anwar Ibrahim does not seem to be just another politician

For some, with the passage of time, the memory of Anwar Ibrahim, 54, will fade and his influence wane.

But love or loathe him, Anwar Ibrahim does not seem to be just another politician.

He possesses a stoically strong personality. He has a set of ideas that supporters and sympathisers believe offer an alternative to the "secular" authoritarianism of Dr Mahathir and its opposite extreme, namely the militant Islamism epitomised by Osama Bin Laden.

Above all, the fact that the Anwar saga has split opinions and stirred passions not only in Malaysia, but also overseas, is evidence of the personality and ideas of the man who was, and still probably is, seen as a political bridge between the world of Islam and Asia on one hand, and the West on the other.

The Anwar saga has also revealed the workings of almost every Malaysian institution, from the secret police to the ISA security law, courts, prisons, political parties, official mass media and the diplomatic service.

In response, Anwar Ibrahim's supporters and sympathisers have resorted to protests in the streets as well as in cyberspace. There have been legal battles, prayers in mosques, churches and temples, and direct appeals to people in public forums organised by opposition parties.

Opening up

In short, the Anwar saga has, positively or negatively, made the Malaysian political system more transparent.

Prime Minister Mahathir
Dr Mahathir's popularity has recovered since 1998
That has brought to the surface underlying anti-establishment forces in Malaysia.

In the 1999 general elections, for example, the once dominant ruling party, United Malays National Organisation (Umno), was dealt a blow by a massive swing of Malay/Muslim voters to the predominantly Malay/Muslim opposition coalition, the Alternative Front.

The Federal Court's decision sits against several backdrops which are potentially epoch-making in Malaysian politics.

One is the impending retirement of Prime Minister Mahathir, 76, who is loved and loathed in Malaysia, and who still prides himself on being a "democratic dictator".

Another is the potential instability inside Umno as a result of the ascendance of his designated successor, the relatively weaker Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, 65.

This will be especially important if there is a jostle for power among the three elected vice-presidents of the party and their supporters once Dr Mahathir leaves office.

A third issue is the rise of the more assertive, energetic and populist leadership in the Islamic Party of Malaysia, PAS, under Abdul Hadi Awang, 54, who took over last month after the death of the more moderate Fadzil Noor.

Muslims constitute about 60% of Malaysia's population. With their politics in a state of flux, the fear of Malaysia being "Islamised" - real or merely felt - among non-Muslims increases.

The political competition among different factions of the Malaysian Chinese population is also disruptive, if it is not managed with prudence and wisdom by their top leaders.

The political future of Malaysia, while still not a cause for alarm as in the case of Indonesia in 1998, is certainly a cause for active concern.

James Wong Wing On, 40, is the Chief Analyst for and its research division, Strategic Analysis Malaysia (SAM).

See also:

10 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
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07 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
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