Looking at Malaysia these days from 20,000 feet, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s 1999, and not 2009. The prime minister, a longtime power player in the ruling coalition, fights for his life amidst a tangled web of corruption allegations swirling around his party. The economy is going nowhere, and educated Malaysians are leaving the country in droves. And opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the most charismatic – and divisive – politician in the country, is facing a trial for sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia. Oh, and, like in 1999, when witnesses recanted testimony against Anwar and said they had been tortured in custody, the evidence against Anwar this time wouldn’t exactly pass the test in a U.S. court. (For his part, Anwar denied the previous charges and denies these as well.) All you need is a Y2K scare, maybe a new album by Brittany Spears and it seems like 1999 all over again.
But – not so fast. During Anwar’s previous trial, the trumped-up charges against him did infuriate many Malaysians, and helped spark protests throughout Kuala Lumpur, but ultimately the ruling coalition held on, maintaining its ethnic Malay base and guiding the country through the Asian financial crisis with solid fiscal management. It also, at the time, had the advantage of Mahathir Mohamad in the driver seat, who, for all his flaws, commanded a kind of loyalty within the party and grudging respect throughout the country.
This time, the government, led by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, son of a former prime minister, is in a much weaker position, and Anwar’s case could prove even more explosive. The government has proven incapable of controlling the news cycle the way it did in the late 1990s; Malaysia’s promises to allow online media relatively free rein, critical to the government’s desire to position the country as a high-tech center, has made it easier for critics to expose government failures – or obviously flawed trials. Rumors about the prime minister’s links to a murky murder of a model linked, by some sources, to Najib, have been all over the Web, even if the prime minister refuses to address them. Stories of opposition activists who mysteriously disappeared or plunged to their deaths receive plenty of coverage in online Malaysian sites, read by much of the educated classes.
Meanwhile, the ethnic Malay voting base has splintered, with some segments going over to the Anwar-led opposition coalition, which includes the Islamist party PAS. Najib hardly possesses the steely charisma of Mahathir, and he is having trouble holding his own coalition together. And after a decade of greater openness, many average Malaysians are simply unwilling to return to the more repressive days of the 1990s and before, when the government could get away with simply framing an opposition leader. The government may still go through, again, with the Anwar trial, but they can’t count on keeping the peace afterwards.