Q: What's going on?
J: Basically, many informed observers seem to think that Dr Mahathir
decided Anwar could no longer be trusted to protect Dr Mahathir's
interests anymore, especially after Dr Mahathir is no longer PM.
Q: Why do you say that?
J: Dr Mahathir was certainly not too pleased with various things Anwar
did from mid-1997. When Dr Mahathir went away for two months,
gave the impression that he was going to be tougher on corruption.
after Dr Mahathir took over economic policy after his return, the
foreign media began mocking his conspiratorial analysis, generally
running him down and promoting the idea of an early Anwar succession.
From the end of the year, Anwar seemed to take over economic policy,
cutting government spending, raising interest rates and tightening
liquidity, which arguably exacerbated the crisis and took the economy
into recession in 1998, especially after the Kongsi Raya holiday
But I think the straw which broke the camel's back came around
or in June, with developments in Indonesia and the subsequent adoption
of the reformasi slogan and the anti-KKN (corruption, cronyism,
nepotism) campaign by the UMNO Youth leadership then, who were close
Anwar. I don't think Dr Mahathir minded attacking korupsi and
but nepotisme came too close to the bone. Several months earlier, PRM
president Dr Syed Husin Ali and a couple of associates had asked the
Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) to investigate how Dr Mahathir's three
sons had gained stock in over two hundred companies by late 1994.
Soeharto's resignation on 21 May and the continued attacks on the
ex-president who had only recently joined the ranks of Forbes
richest men in the world - after the Sultan of Brunei and Bill Gates -
must have upset Dr Mahathir even though there are important
between the two.
Q: But the charges against Anwar were raised earlier at the 1997
J: I am not sure; many believe that some of Anwar's enemies had
up the 'plot' to finish off Anwar politically before that, but Dr
Mahathir still felt Anwar was the Prime Minister's least problematic
option then, and was not yet willing to go along with them at that
Q: So you agree with those in Dr Mahathir's camp that Anwar was
for number one?
J: Perhaps. I don't know, but if Anwar's camp was making a bid, it was
naïve, ill-considered and bound to fail. As I said earlier,
is not Soeharto. He will go with his boots on. I don't believe that he
was about to quit, to give way to Anwar. Besides wanting to cling
power for all the usual reasons, I think Dr Mahathir honestly believes
that he is the best thing Malaysia has ever had and could hope
many would agree with him.
Q: If Anwar was not going for number one, what was happening?
J: There were Anwar's critical Johor speech, the unevenly attended
Pemuda economic convention a couple of weeks before the late June
general assembly and Zahid's speech at the UMNO Youth assembly itself.
Anwar's assembly speech did not criticise Mahathir at all, and in fact
announced a U-turn from his December 1997 economic policy, by
government spending and liquidity and trying to lower interest rates,
almost as if in response to Daim's and Dr Mahathir's earlier
Others Anwar had consulted had voiced similar concerns as well.
he was keeping his cards very close to his chest, but Anwar did not
respond positively, for example, to those who called for him to 'lead
out of this darkness' and even went out of his way to explain
concerns. There is little evidence of any serious effort by Anwar's
to mobilise forces and resources to actually try to oust Dr Mahathir.
Pointed criticism of nepotism, yes, but a effective plan or strategy
oust Mahathir, unlikely. And if there was one, it was terribly
amateurish and bound to fail. But whatever it was, it was enough to
convince Dr Mahathir that Anwar was out to replace him.
Q: How did Dr Mahathir respond?
J: Dr Mahathir was very cool. I saw him smiling proudly at the
Petersburg Orchestra's concert at the Petronas Philharmonic Concert
the night before he delivered his devastating rounding-up speech and
released the partial lists of tender, contract and privatisation
beneficiaries from the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) and the Ministry
International Trade and Industry (MITI), all of which reflected sound
Q: And then?
J: Although it was later evident that a purge of Anwar's camp
beginning with the media, I thought that Dr Mahathir had Anwar exactly
where Dr Mahathir wanted Anwar - weakened, compliant and constrained
from mounting an effective challenge. I wrongly thought Dr Mahathir
would prefer the safety of such an arrangement rather than risk an
challenge by sacking him or forcing him to resign.
Q: So why the subsequent turn of events?
J: Probably, in their calculations, Anwar's only real strength
popularity based on his personal charisma and moral standing. There is
nothing much one can do about his charisma, hence the need to
his reputation. Given the reputations of many ministers in this
country, straightforward adultery or something in that league would
be good, or rather, bad enough to damage Anwar irreparably.
Thus, the need for something truly scurrilous or scandalous in
of the sodomy allegations given the presumed homophobia in our
At first, in the earlier version which came out with the surat layang
the 1997 assembly, the allegations seemed plausible.
But as Anwar covered himself, by the time the book came out,
against Anwar had begun to overload. They eventually made so many
allegations, probably making them up as they went along, in the hope
that most people would believe at least some of them, and at least a
of them would stick and do the necessary damage.
Q: So has it worked?
J: Partly perhaps, but certainly not as intended. They have been their
own worst enemies. Their flagrant disregard for at least nominally
complying with accepted procedure has shocked even those usually
blissfully insensitive to such matters. With the benefit of hindsight,
some now argue that Dr Mahathir should instead have first charged
then eased him out of government and the party.
Whatever the reasons for the particular sequence adopted, it
Q: What do you mean by backfiring?
J: As what happened began to sink in, popular support for Anwar
picked up. Yet, besides those completely committed to Anwar and those
who reject everything Dr Mahathir claims, there are many who might
been more receptive to Dr Mahathir's claims if not for the manner in
which he, the police and the prosecutors have conducted themselves.
The arrests of those closest to Anwar in UMNO as well as ABIM
related leaders under the Internal Security Act have reminded everyone
what Anwar's dismissal is all about, i.e. not sex, but power.
at the Inspector General of Police's press conference, where he
unwittingly managed to convince those present that Malaysia becoming a
police state. Or former Deputy Prime Minister Ghafar's Jakarta
where he managed to insult and antagonise almost everyone there. Or Dr
Mahathir's claim that Anwar may have deliberately injured himself
the left eye to gain public sympathy.
Q: So what are the changes you see?
J: There seems to be an irreversible sea change going on in Malay
political culture. Most non-Malays are watching quietly from the
sidelines, partly because they see this as an intra-Malay affair, and
also because of the fear of violence, bearing in mind the May 1969
in KL and the May 1998 events in Jakarta, particularly traumatic for
ethnic Chinese. Their fear is that desperate politicians may chose to
play the ethnic card, the traditional card of first choice in
Among Malays, even before Anwar was sacked, you have quiet, but
widespread sympathy for jailed DAP Deputy Secretary General and Member
of Parliament Lim Guan Eng. Not necessarily support for the DAP,
tremendous unease at the great injustice involved in jailing an
opposition politician for championing the cause of an under-aged girl
who had been (statutorily) raped and her helpless grandmother, while
man widely believed to be responsible toured the country to speak in
rallies supporting the Prime Minister.
Q: Where will all this go?
J: It's still difficult to say. But Anwar's dismissal and its
aftermath have only further undermined Malay public confidence in the
regime and the leader, greatly increasing the number of Malays 'who
say no', opening up a new conjuncture in Malaysian politics.
Anwar's forces have no choice but to build a broad coalition
existing opposition forces in which they hope to and should play a
leading role. With limited and deteriorating public confidence in the
judicial system and process, the increasingly shared belief is that
an electoral victory from their combined strength can reverse Anwar's
expected fate. That is still very much an uphill task.
But the unexpected developments and accompanying effervescence
forcing ordinary people to think of alternatives, of reform, of new
institutions for the creation and sustenance of a more decent and just
society rid of the dominance of political business, money politics and
related depravities. Beyond Mahathir versus Anwar, the legitimacy
many official institutions and public faith in them, especially among
Malays, has been shaken as never before. But
contrary to some pronouncements, this is unlikely to descend into
anarchy, but rather, is leading to greater demands for democracy and
accountability, though not necessarily in that language or idiom.
While the reform movement may fail, Malaysian politics and political
culture will never be the same again.