Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Malaysia Under Anwar Ibrahim and Mahatir Mohamad. . . Again: Sex, the Serpent and the Phoenix.

The political cycles in Malaysia run astonishingly fast.  And yet they appear, during the lives of its greatest protagonists, to merely replay patterns of alliance, rebellion, denunciation, delegitimization, incarceration, exile, and return to power that has marked the tempestuous relations between Anwar Ibrahim and Mahatir Mohamad.  

In the last few days, Anwar Ibrahim, at the head of a coalition likely to take power in Malaysia was freed form prison where he was serving time for the second conviction on sodomy charges.  The release follows a pardon granted by the country’s King Muhammad V at the invitation of Mahatir Mohamad.
“In the past it was said that I put him in prison. Now I have freed him,” Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, after Anwar’s release. Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy premier during his first stint as prime minister, before he was sacked in 1998 and later imprisoned for sodomy and corruption. (Bhavan Jaipragas, "‘Now I have freed him,’ says Malaysia’s Mahathir as Anwar walks," South China Morning Post 16 May 2018
The relationship between Mahatir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim is interesting not just for the repeating drama of the past  20 years, but for how clearly the relationship of these two men, the most powerful of their generation in Malaysia (and both loved and reviled by their respective factions among influential groups of Western elites who are embedded in government and media), evidence the interrelations of legitimacy, religion, sex and politics.

I considered the more general implications of this conflation a number of years ago during the course of Anwar Ibrahim's initial fall from grace and imprisonment. That focused on a consideration of the power of these ideologies to discipline people commonly gendered male, and through that disciplining deepen the disciplining of individuals gendered female. I argued then that
Ideologies of gender remain ascendant throughout the world. For my purposes here ideology might best be understood from the perspective of a community as its "articulated forms of social self-consciousness.". . .  An ideology of gender might, then, be reduced to a cluster of norms, expectations, understandings and the like, derived from the meaning of sex, where sex is used in its multiple and ambiguous senses.These ideologies are imprinted in the law of all states-modem and ancient, religious and secular.5 These ideologies become increasingly less visible as societies substitute the language of corruption, psychosis, and ethno-national chauvinism for that of gender.6 Corruption, especially in the political discourse of religion, has reinvigorated gender discipline in some countries. (Larry Catá Backer, Emasculated Men, Effeminate Law in the United States, Zimbabwe and Malaysia,  Yale Journal of Law & Feminism 17(1):1-63 (2005, pp. )1-2).
Further thoughts followed here, here, here, here, here, and here.

A little context from my prior work and the contemporary reporting byBhavan Jaipragas, "‘Now I have freed him,’ says Malaysia’s Mahathir as Anwar walks," follows below, for those who want to stay current.  My own analysis of the sex, gender, religion and legitimacy implicaitons for modern states can be accessed HERE: Emasculated Men, Effeminate Law in the United States, Zimbabwe and Malaysia,  Yale Journal of Law & Feminism 17(1):1-63 (2005)

The disciplinary power of gender tropes, intermeshed with notions of legitimacy, corruption, and sin had a specific context of meaning in Malaysia:
The tensions and transitions inherent in Malaysia worked together nicely to produce the gendered intensity of the Anwar affair. Anwar was personally dishonored by his sexual conduct; that dishonor in turn corrupted the political system as Anwar sought to subvert the process of investigation of his 'crimes;' and the aggregate corruptions threatened to dishonor the state itself. The foundation of that dishonor was immorality; and the character of that immorality was gendered. There was an unmistakable double meaning to the newspaper article that trumped a headline "We Were Sodomized" in reporting the allegations of the "victims" of Anwar's sexual attentions. 237 The headline could as easily have referred to the Malaysian state as well.

The charges against Anwar combine a loss of personal honor (maruah)and social recognition (nama) as traditionally understood, with the notions of corruption (in the body of Anwar, gendered female) within Islam. The penetrative acts of government-gendered male-to deploy a sexualized Islam in the disciplining of sexually disordered males to restore traditional social gender order is not unique to Malaysia and the Anwar Ibrahim trial in this region. In the context of Muslim Southeast Asia, then, the pairing of political and sexual corruption through the gendering language of religion appears natural in the campaign to ruin Anwar. The Malaysian government went out of its way to conflate the two. 239 The moral weakness of homosexuality provides the vehicle through which political corruption becomes easy. Any political state that does not protect itself from governance by a man of this type faces ruin. (Emasculated Men, Effeminate Law in the United States, Zimbabwe and Malaysia,  supra, pp. 41-42).
Anwar had also sought to use the language of religion and corruption against Mahatir, but lost in the end. "Anwar focused on the institutional corruption of Mahathir's government and lost. Mahathir focused on the personal corruption of Anwar and won." (Ibid., 42-43). The results debiliated both actors, but in different ways.

In order to fully invoke the morality of religion in developing the gendered corruption charges against Anwar, Mahathir had to corrupt the political system itself. . . It was also clear that Mahathir had manipulated the political and judicial systems to smear Anwar and then avoid prosecution himself on the basis of his immunity from office. All of this was well known at the time. And there were consequences for Mahathir and his government.244 But none of it affected the outcome to any appreciable degree.245 The use of personal corruption as an intensifier raised the level of Anwar's corruption well above any that could be laid on Mahathir. The intensification effect occurred not only in the court but in the press as well, where the government permitted reporting in a way designed to expose Anwar to the maximum negative effects of the charges. (Ibid., 43).
But politics erases many things. And necessity recasts even the fierst enemy into the most expedient friend.  And finally, the gloss of gender and sex and corruption, in this context, takes on a wholly different and symbolic character.  There appears to be a sometimes substantial gulf between the "reality" of a thing and its symbolic existence. Anwar's sexual identification, his sexual activity, his corruption, and that of Mahatir was ¡beside the point--in fact.  It was, however, critical in form, that is, it was critical within the play of the symbolic from which political power could be exercised.  And thus as well the power of "pardon." The pardon was not related so much to the "facts" o past action as to their symbolic and political consequences with respect to the exercise of the forms of mass power within the Malaysian political system. The forgiveness erases consequence, but will always be available to discipline bad (political) behavior in the future. And that political behavior, of course, is the stuff of the deal that made Mahatir and Anwar friends again.

South China Morning Post 
Bhavan Jaipragas16 May 2018

Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian political veteran who helped build the Pakatan Harapan coalition that swept to power in elections last week, has been freed after being jailed during the tenure of the scandal-haunted deposed premier Najib Razak.

The 70-year-old, who was granted a full pardon by the country’s King Muhammad V. Anwar, had been serving a five year jail term – his second prison sentence in two decades – for a sodomy conviction he says was trumped up.


“In the past it was said that I put him in prison. Now I have freed him,” Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, after Anwar’s release.

Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy premier during his first stint as prime minister, before he was sacked in 1998 and later imprisoned for sodomy and corruption.

Anwar maintains that, like his latest conviction, that prison sentence was a result of trumped up charges to remove him from frontline politics.

Anwar on Wednesday said he had forgiven Mahathir, 92, adding that it was the current premier who helped facilitate his release.

Mahathir reiterated Anwar’s comments earlier that there were no immediate plans for the younger leader to join the cabinet following his release from prison.

“He is not a member of government, therefore his role will be in the party,” Mahathir said, referring to the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition of which Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party) is the biggest party.

In an earlier press conference Anwar said his immediate plan was to go on a lecture circuit in leading universities around the world to spread the message of moderate Islam.

The premier meanwhile gave an update on investigations into the 1MDB corruption scandal, which his defeated predecessor Najib Razak is allegedly linked to.

Mahathir said officials are now seeking to recover funds from the government investment arm that are in Singapore, Switzerland, the United States and Luxembourg.

Najib, his wife Rosmah Mansor and senior officials including the former attorney general, anti-corruption chief and treasury chief have been barred from leaving the country while investigations are ongoing.

Najib has denied accusations he funnelled money from the fund into his personal accounts, claiming instead that the US$700 million found in those accounts were “donations” from a Saudi monarch.

Mahathir said the government is committed to repaying any debt linked to the fund – whose losses at one point amounted to 42 billion Malaysian ringgit (US$10.6 billion).

“We have to... if it implicates the government, the government has to pay,” Mahathir said when asked if the government would honour 1MDB’s debts.


In a press conference in his house just after 2pm, a jubilant Anwar Ibrahim thanked Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, his one-time nemesis, for facilitating the royal pardon that led to his freedom.

“I have gone from prison to the palace,” Anwar said in Malay, referring to his earlier audience with King Muhammad V.

He said his conviction was the result of “lies and the wrong use of power”.

“In my case we appealed that there was a miscarriage of justice, there was a travesty of justice ... the entire conviction is erased,” he said. “Now there is a new dawn for Malaysia.” he added.

He said he would give Mahathir and his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the deputy prime minister, full support to carry out the newly elected Pakatan Harapan’s reform agenda.

“My position is to give [Mahathir] all the support... I don’t think I would want to be seen to be hasty to demand or insist on any time frame,” he said.

He said for now he was first going to go on a lecture circuit in leading universities the world around to spread the message of moderate Islam.

He said he had received calls of congratulation from international leaders including the former US president Al Gore, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On whether he had forgiven Mahathir, his former boss with whom he has a testy relationship, Anwar said: “I have forgiven him, it’s been a long time already ... He has proven himself. He has struggled and worked indefatigably hard. He has supported the reform agenda. He has facilitated my release. Why would I harbour malice towards him?”

Mahathir sacked Anwar as his deputy in 1998, during his first stint in power. Anwar was later sent to prison on sodomy and corruption charges until 2004.

His latest stint came as a result of another sodomy conviction in 2015, during the tenure of the just-deposed premier Najib.

Anwar insists he was a prisoner of conscience, and that charges were trumped up on both occasions.

Asked about Chinese investments, Anwar said like Mahathir he was not “against Chinese investment”.

“But we are concerned about the manner some of the deals were made,” Anwar said.


Anwar, 70, walked out of a rehabilitation hospital where he was recuperating from a shoulder surgery just after 11.29am on Wednesday.

Dressed in a dark suit, a beaming Anwar gave the thumbs up sign to the assembled crowds and appeared ready to deliver a few remarks, but was ushered into a car amid an intense media scrum.

He was accompanied by his wife Wan Azizah and his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar, an MP.

He was released after the country’s constitutional king Muhammad V granted him a full pardon.

Anwar met the king in the national palace in Kuala Lumpur immediately after his release.

Pakatan Harapan leaders had asked the monarch for the pardon last week.

The coalition has promised that the newly elected prime minister, Mahathir, Anwar’s mentor-turned-rival-turned-ally, will hand over power to his one-time protégé within two years.

Mohamad Suhaimi, one of hundreds of jubilant Anwar supporters who lined the streets outside the hospital, told This Week in Asia he “couldn’t wait for Anwar to be prime minister”.

The charismatic orator’s large urban base was also out in full force at the gates of the national palace, holding flags of the leader’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (National Justice Party, or PKR) – Pakatan Harapan’s biggest party.

Anwar is scheduled to hold a press conference in his house at 4.30pm, and will speak at a rally in the district of Petaling Jaya near Kuala Lumpur at 10pm.

Anwar’s release on Wednesday caps a tumultuous two decades in which the opposition icon endured two spells in jail after falling out with two different prime ministers.

Anwar had been serving as Mahathir’s deputy during the veteran politician’s first stint as prime minister when he was suddenly sacked in 1998, and later jailed for sodomy and corruption.

At the time Mahathir had said he needed to remove Anwar because he was “not fit for office” – though Anwar has always maintained that the charge was spurious and that Mahathir felt threatened at his popularity with the masses.
After Anwar’s pardon, when will Mahathir let him take power in Malaysia?

Upon his release in 2004, Anwar galvanised the “Reformasi” movement against the Barisan Nasional coalition that Mahathir was then leading – and that Anwar himself had helped start before going to jail.

The movement provided a much-needed boost for the languishing opposition, which Anwar fashioned into a potent force. Pakatan Harapan’s predecessor, Pakatan Rakyat, dealt heavy blows to Barisan Nasional in the 2008 and 2013 elections.

Anwar Ibrahim wanted to deliver a few remarks but the media scrum was too crazy. He ducked into the waiting car that will take him to the National Palace. What a moment in history. #GE14— Bhavan Jaipragas 八万 (@jbhavan) 11:32 PM - May 15, 2018

While still in prison Anwar embraced Mahathir’s decision to quit Barisan Nasional and join Pakatan Harapan in 2016.
Breaking Barisan Nasional’s 60-year grip was the easy part. Here’s Mahathir’s real challenge

Mahathir crossed aisles because he felt it was untenable to support Najib as premier following widespread allegations of his involvement in the 1MDB financial scandal.

On the eve of last week’s election, Anwar urged supporters to back Mahathir, who had brought him into government in the 1980s.

Anwar was a firebrand Islamist student activist before his entry into politics, and had served 20 months in jail in the 1970s after being detained without trial for his activism.

Later in his political life, he preached moderate Islam and democratisation.

“Mahathir has proven his tenacity, accepted his past limitations, apologised and sacrificed his time and energy to raise the dignity of the people,” Anwar wrote to his supporters on May 8. “I urge you all to join the people’s movement to demand change.”

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