- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2008

Former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibraham’s opposition alliance shook up the multiracial country Saturday, denying Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s ruling coalition its two-thirds parliamentary majority and gaining control of five state governments.

The result was a rebuke to the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, an alliance of Mr. Abdullah’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and 13 other parties.

The election capped a spectacular political comeback for Mr. Anwar. After he criticized Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad over government fiscal policies, he was fired in 1998 and accused of corruption and sodomy.

Mr. Anwar was imprisoned for six years and barred from politics for five years, until next month. He was released in 2004 when his sodomy conviction was overturned.

His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is likely to transfer her parliamentary seat to him after his expected win.

The Washington Times interviewed Mr. Anwar recently.

Question: What do you see as wrong with Malaysia, and what would you do to change matters?

Answer: We’re seeing more anger. The Indians are enraged because of perceived discrimination and demolition of temples. It’s widespread throughout the country. And among the Chinese, there’s a perception that the discriminatory policies have gone a bit too far to enrich the few at their expense. So this is the basic problem.

The government’s failure due to incompetence and poor leadership has affected them adversely. And the state of our economy: We rely to a large extent on [foreign direct investment] and we have lost that. We have lost our competitiveness; we have lost out to our neighbors.

Q: The Chinese and Indians have voiced frustration about a number of government policies. But over the years most have continued to support the Barisan Nasional. What’s happening now? Do you foresee a change?

A: Well I see change because I think [the government has] crossed the line. For example, we have seen the destruction of temples, the issue of permits, or building bylaws. This is the first time we have seen a 100-year-old temple demolished.

Nothing has been done to address the legitimate grievances of the Indian community: poverty, unemployment, housing, crime rate. And among the Chinese, when the economy becomes more sluggish then they of course will attach blame to poor governance and the New Economic Policy [a group of affirmative-action policies aimed at helping Malays and some indigenous groups].

I think, unlike the previous election, the Chinese and the Indians have virtually made a clear shift. Normally Malaysians maintain their decorum and are quite polite. But now you see ministers going and being booed, which is unheard of.

Q: Some people say Islam has begun to play to central a role in Malaysian life. Do you agree and what would you do to revise matters?

A: It depends on how you perceive this. The super-liberal wing of the public would want to have nothing to do with Islam. And you have an extremely conservative wing that wants to dictate.

I don’t share either view. But then we have to sort it out. You have to engage them, allow them to articulate their views.

I think for a person to suggest in Malaysia — to deny the role of religion and Islam — I don’t share that view. Where I think we draw the line is when it comes to compelling people. Or not allowing non-Muslims to use the civil courts. That’s unheard of in our 50 years.

Q: Obviously there is increased tension between races with religion playing a part, so how do we minimize it? What as a leader would you do to defuse the situation?

A: I am opposed to if a group, for example, wants to compel others to Islam: If you apostatize, you should be shot. And the other view says religion should have no role whatsoever; we should do away with the religious court. I also disagree with that.

I think the consensus among Muslims is that the Shariah court should be confined to Muslims’ personal law and Muslim affairs.

The problem is when you deny, when you use this legislation to compel the rest to deny non-Muslims to bring their cases to the civil courts. Because finally the issue of faith is a personal issue.

Q: Should Islam play a more prominent role in Malaysian society?

A: I use Islam in terms of an ethical and moral framework and anti-corruption. But then I don’t see why you should compel everyone to stop and pray at 1 o’clock. That’s compulsion. I think you should draw the line.

Q: Who would have thought that the former Muslim youth leader would be a victim, in effect, of anti-Semitism? The prime minister’s son-in-law and UMNO Deputy Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin recently branded you an agent of the Jews and the United States. There are reportedly pictures of you and former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz being disseminated in villages. This could be damaging.

A: It could. But look — I say yes I’m a friend of the Jews, I am a friend of the Chinese, a friend of the Muslims. Where is the problem? Iraq war? I am against it. There are many Americans, including Jews, who are against the Iraq war.

Q: Some people say you haven’t been very critical of the prime minister. This has led to speculation that you may one day attempt to rejoin UMNO. Why haven’t you been more critical?

A: I have nothing personal against him. But with Abdullah, there is incompetence. There is rampant corruption. He gives a multibillion-ringgit contract to his son to build a monorail in Penang without tender. He gives a 25 billion ringgit ($7.9 billion) development approval for Patrick Lim, his crony in Penang [state]. These things are being said.

But to make personal attacks, I refuse. But it’s wrong for them to say I haven’t been critical. You say the leadership is incompetent. You say that under Abdullah, we have been less competitive economically, that corruption has become more endemic, crime rate has increased — all under Abdullah. I have done that, made major criticisms of him.

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