Monday, September 15, 2008

Sodomy Dichotomy

Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely
-Lord Acton

Funny how sodomy in a headline gets my attention, what with the 22,000 Big Mac guy and the elections in North America vying for my reading time. Especially when it's a crime, like in Malaysia where opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is planning on seizing power September 16th, Malaysia's national day, despite having to fight a sodomy charge from a 23-year-old former aide. If he's found guilty of the sexual assault charge he can receive a 20 year jail sentence to go along with the whipping. My first foray into Malaysian politics finds the country at a crossroads.

Anwar (Malay's use a personal name followed by a patronym) just completed a political comeback August 26, winning a landslide victory to regain his seat in Parliament in a riding vacated for him by his wife. Corruption and a previous sodomy conviction got him kicked out for a spell. He only served four of the ten year conviction in 2000 for the sodomy charge as he was released after it was overturned. Earlier this year the ruling party gained a majority 140 of 222 seats in elections in March, however this was viewed as a defeat as they had 198 seats going in. To take control, Anwar hopes to lure 30 MPs over to the opposition, composed of his own Keadilan party, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

It's been an almost 50 year run for the National Party (UMNO), having held power in coalition with other parties or alone since Malaysia's independence in 1957. Anwar joined the right wing party in 1982 and moved quickly up the ladder. He made the cabinet as minister of Culture, Youth and Sports in 1983, then headed the agriculture ministry in 1984 before becoming Minister of Education in 1986, then in 1991 Anwar was appointed Minister of Finance and finally in 1993, he became Prime Minister Mahathir's Deputy Prime Minister. He even served as acting PM while Mahathir took a little 2 months holiday in 1997. However, about the time he was named Newsweek's Asian Man of the Year in 1998, his falling out with Mahathir came to a head. Anwar had been becoming louder in his criticism of the nepotism and cronyism in the government which coupled with his policies to fight the 1997 Asian crisis brought him into direct confrontation with the leadership of his party and his ultimate downfall as he was eventually implicated as benefiting from the cronyism. Further allegations of corruption and then homosexuality came from a book released around that time leading a libelous campaign to discredit Anwar that ended with him in prison.

Public support rallied around Anwar leading to his eventual release after many of the charges were proved to be false. He is seen as a possible moderate link between Islam and the west by many observers, he was even in the running to become the UN Secretary General in 2006. He's also been an outspoken voice in support of democracy in the Muslim world pointing to the democratic societies of Iran and Indonesia of the 1950's to draw attention to the fallacy that Islam in not ready for or compatible with democracy. Beyond corruption and radical Islam, Malaysian society also faces the "affirmative action" institution of bumiputera — a system of economic and social policies designed to favor ethnic Malays set out in the New Economic Policy. C seems to be more than a system, almost a belief, where Malays should be afforded better access to the whole spectrum of society than their Chinese and Indian Malaysian countrymen. Originally brought in to defuse the ethnic tensions following the May 13 Incident in 1969 as wikipedia says, it succeeded in creating a significant urban Malay middle class but have been less effective in eradicating poverty among rural communities and have caused a backlash of resentment from excluded groups.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has promoted his concept of Islam Hadhari, Civilizational Islam, a modernist interpretation of the faith that stresses moderation and technological an economic competitiveness, god and business. His party, the UMNO, is an instrument of division among the people, spewing rhetoric like, "UMNO is willing to risk lives and bathe in blood to defend the race and religion. Don't play with fire. If the (other races) mess with our rights, we will mess with theirs." Racism, scary; religious fanaticism, scary; mix them together and you have a volatile mix, one which the ruling UMNO has been able to work to their advantage for a long time but could be on the verge of exploding. You have a discontented Chinese Malay population who has seen their proportion of the wealth dwindle as part of the NEP mandated the bumiputera share of corporate stock ownership from 1.5% in 1969 to 30% in 1990. The program was to have a life span of only 20 years or when the ownership threshold was past. However, the NEP has ostensibly been replaced by the National Development Policy associated with the Second Outline Perspective Plan for 1991–2000, and then by the National Vision Policy linked to the Third Outline Perspective Plan for 2001–2010, all with similar goals. There is a double flaw to the measurement of 30% bumiputera ownership target: firstly, publicly traded share capital constitutes only a fraction of national wealth and does not for instance include privately held assets. In addition, the current breakdown of share capital ownership by ethnic group is Bumiputera 18.7%, Chinese 40.9%, Indian 1.5%, other 0.8%, foreigners 28.8% and nominee companies 9.2%. Strangely, the 30% Bumiputera target is measured against shareholder groups like foreigners and nominee companies. If it can be safely assumed that foreigners and nominee companies are not ethnic groups, the figures look more like this; Bumiputeras 30.2%, Chinese 66.0%, Indian 2.5% and other 1.3%. Furthermore, a report in February 2006 by the Centre for Public Policy Studies, said ethnic Malays may own as much as 45 percent of Malaysia's corporate equity. The report proved so controversial that Dr Lim Teik Ghee, a former World Bank social scientist, was forced to resign due to political pressure.

Nowhere in Asia can one find so many different races and cultures calling one country home. Besides the majority Malays, other racial groups include Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Europeans, Eurasians and dozens of ethnic and aboriginal communities. A potpourri of religions co-exist from the majority Muslims to Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Sikhs and numerous native belief systems. "We coexist, even live together but we live separately in our own worlds," said opposition lawmaker Kula Segaran from the minority Indian community. Some 90% of Chinese students attend private Mandarin-language schools. Meanwhile, most Malays attend public schools and most Indians Tamil-language institutions of learning. A survey of race relations found some startling facts: Sixty-four percent of Malays, 58 percent of Chinese and 20 percent of Indians agreed that ''in general, most Indians cannot be trusted." The minority Chinese and Indians see the majority Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population of 25 million people, as lazy. Eleven percent of the respondents said they had eaten often with friends from other races in the past three months. Thirty four percent said they have never had a meal with people of other races. The survey also found that 42 percent do not consider themselves Malaysian first, 46 percent say ethnicity is important in voting, 55 percent blame politicians for racial problems and 70 percent would help their own ethnic group first. Meanwhile, 71 percent of Malays, 60 percent of Chinese and 47 percent of Indians agree that ''in general, most Chinese are greedy.''

The last major turnover in power occurred in Malaysia after the 1969 race riots. While the ruling UMNO party maintained its position, there was a changing of the guard in leadership. Today Malaysia finds itself in a similar position, on the precipice of change, but the old guard won't go down without a fight. The country appears more racially polarized than it's been in decades, with voting falling according to racial lines and the majority Malays desperate to hold onto power. Last November when Hindraf, a coalition of Hindu nongovernmental organizations, staged demonstrations for the rights of the ethnic Indian community, the government detained five Hindraf leaders under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which permits indefinite detention without charge or trial. Malaysia’s media too, is tightly controlled by the state. According to the most recent Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, Malaysia ranked 124 out of 169 countries (thirty-two ranks down from 2006). Yet Malaysia has an estimated 10 million Internet users, therefore it's particularly troubling that the country's leading blogger was arrested last Friday for posting anti-government comments.

Despite whatever advances that may have been achieved by the racist policies of the past 40 years, Malay wealth is in the hands of a politically well connected elite while in the rural areas of the country the Malay poor predominate. Income distribution remains a problem as the poorest 40%household’s share of total gross household income was 12% in 1970; nearly three decades later, this figure increased marginally to about 14% in 1999. The 30% ownership criterion by a particular segment of shareholders creates artificial impediments to companies and investors in financial markets, which is having an effect as foreign direct investment in Malaysia in 2005 dropped to 15 billion ringgit from 17.6 billion ringgit in 2004.

Under Middle East influence and driven partly by domestic politics, official Malay Islam has become increasingly restrictive in its interpretations, increasingly arrogant in its assumptions about the primacy of Islam and the extent of the jurisdiction of sharia courts. It's time for Anwar to bring about a change and he was hoping to do it September 16th, but the ISA is being used to bully the opposition, with the detention of Seputeh MP Teresa Kok, Sin Chew Daily journalist Tan Hoon Cheng and blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin in the past week, which was enough for Washington to summon its Malaysian envoy to protest. The government has even resorted to flying as many MPs out of the country as possible to 'explore Taiwan's agricultural and industrial technology'. Anwar may not be an angel, as he has been responsible for racist changes such as renaming the national language from Bahasa Malaysia to Bahasa Melayu as Education Minister. Recently, he said of his newest sodomy charges, "They should do a good deed in this holy month of Ramadan and just drop the charge". It is more than likely the charges are once again false. This only Malaysian to ever make it into Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world also once said: “There is a right to disagree but no one has the right to cause destruction or destroy life,” and in times like we find ourselves today, that may be the best we can hope for and I wish him luck tomorrow in uniting this divided nation.