Mahathir Is Walking On Thin Ice
First published: Bangkok Post Bangkok Post Feb 3, 1999; Keadilan Magazine April 18, 1999
Author’s note: The brutality unleashed on Anwar and the judicial absurdity were shocking and beyond understanding. He was brutally beatened by the police chief and denied bail on a flimsy sexual immorality, and minor corruption charges.
On a January morning 1999 I arrived at the packed court house to see my path to the press gallery blocked. The police officer said no more reporter allowed as the quota was fulfilled. Panic-strickened I pleaded and flashed my Time magazine card, ‘Please give me five minutes to go in and have a peep; I came all the way from Bangkok, at least I can write how the judge is like, the audience and how Anwar look.. or else I sure ‘kena buang kerja'(get sacked). He laughed, ‘OK no more than five minutes!’
I rushed in and squeezed into the press bench beside a lady reporter and explained my predicament. She smiled and kindheartedly made space for me to cramped beside her. Thank the police they did not bother me further.
More people may have visited the home of Mahathir on Malaysia’s recent religious open-house holiday, but it was at Anwar Ibrahim’s home where the more sympathetic gathered.
The scene at Kuala Lumpur’s Court of Appeal on Jan 16 was unusually relaxed – the court session was over and the accused, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, was allowed to remain in the court room chatting with his defence lawyers and family members for several hours, while scores of police guards looked on benignly. “This is most unusual. Normally the accused is whisked away immediately after the court session and send back to jail,” said an observer from Amnesty International who has been monitoring the trial since its inception last September. Even the Bangkok Post was able to talk to Mr Anwar. “There seems to be a change. The police seem more lenient towards Anwar,” said the observer.
However, like most things in contemporary Kuala Lumpur, it is deceptive. The genial scene at the courtroom belies the brutality and conspiracy unleashed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to destroy his rival and former protege.
Minutes earlier the judge had turned down Mr Anwar’s appeal against a high court decision not to grant bail. Among the reasons given was the presence of Mr Anwar’s supporters shouting slogans to greet him each time he passes in and out of court. “What legal argument is that? It is shocking to hear. If you are a famous singer or public figure, you can’t get bail and justice because there are crowds wherever you go,” said Mr Anwar. “I was prepared for this… What can I say? The defence had done a good job in refuting all the accusations (of sexual misconduct). “By deciding that the Court of Appeal has no jurisdiction over an appeal for bail, I have no recourse against an erroneous decision by the High Court. And by suggesting that the presence of my supporters outside the court is additional grounds for refusing bail, the Court of Appeal has virtually killed all my chances of seeking a fresh application for bail before the High Court judge.”
Hopes of Mr Anwar spending Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Islam’s holiest holiday on Jan 18, back home with his family were squashed. It’s a time of family reunion and traditionally for leaders to open their homes to the public.
Lines of well-wishers came since morning, forming long lines to shake the hand of Mr Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, at the family home in Damansara, Kuala Lumpur’s posh suburb. By evening when the last guest had left after partaking of the food laid out on the lawn, the still beaming and smiling Mrs Wan Azizah told the Bangkok Post: “There were 17,600 visitors. When we had the open house at the World Trade Centre last year the figure was only 14,000. I am really touched by their support.”
Minutes earlier as the well-wishers were slowly drifting home, a burly Chinese man came forward to wish her well and press a card into her hand. She looked at it and smiled: “Oh, it’s a free entry card to an amusement park, but my children should not be going to enjoy themselves. There is so much to do while their father is detained. He means well.”
A Chinese couple walk up, shake her hand and present her with what looks like a food parcel. “Please give this to Anwar when you visit Sungei Buloh (prison) tomorrow,” said the man. Mrs Wan Azizah turned around and smiled. “My husband is not around but the warmth is still there,” she said softly. “Though I feel slightly depressed not having Anwar by my side, the warmth and support is overwhelming and this has strengthened my courage to face the challenge of the future. Even though Anwar is not beside me during Hari Raya, I have the comfort of having my children beside me. “For this festival I did not buy any clothes for my children but friends bought for them. It’s very sad for the children but I try to explain to them.”
After being married for 19 years, this is the first Hari Raya without her husband. In previous years she would go back to Penang with her husband and children and visit her relatives and friends, particularly her mother-in-law, she said. “In previous years when Anwar was the deputy prime minister, we would visit PM Mahathir in the morning on Hari Raya day. Then proceed to the World Trade Centre for the open house. In the evening Mahathir and his wife together with his children would come over to our house for dinner. The children would eat separately. This was the routine all the years since he was first deputy PM.”
Among the well-wishers was Shamsidar Taharin, the wife of Mr Anwar’s private secretary with whom Mr Anwar is accused of having sex. She came with her husband and children, and they were warmly greeted and mobbed by the crowd. She is a good friend of Mr Anwar’s wife. They are like sisters, said a family member.
What is most noticeable about the well-wishers thronging into Mr Anwar’s house is the number of Chinese supporters, many coming with their children. “This is a good sign. Twenty percent of the visitors are Chinese,” said Philip Tan, a bookseller. “In the beginning the Chinese were frightened by the demonstrations. Now after 45 days of the trial, the picture has become clear. Anwar has been framed and Mahathir is the brutal and evil one.” “Earlier, the Chinese didn’t come out because they don’t want to create trouble. They were scared by the Indonesian riots. Now they know the government must change. They know that only when Mahathir is removed can the economy improve.
“Not only ordinary people but a lot of businessmen say that if Mahathir steps down, things will go up. If the election is fair, the Barisan National led by Umno (Dr Mahathir’s United Malays National Organisation) will lose. So they are using the May 13 racial riots as a threat to the Chinese voters. They will lose Sabah to the opposition for sure. So there is a likelihood the general election will be held at the same time as the Sabah election.”
Mr Tan said that like other businesses, his sales figures are down 20 to 30 percent. Henry Ong, a tour operator, said: “I do not believe the economy is recovering. If it is, the tourism industry should be enjoying a boom like in Thailand because of the cheap ringgit. Instead we are facing a disaster. The hoteliers have predicted that for the next six months, hotel occupancy will hover at around 20 to 30 percent.” “It is bleak, it is more gloom than boom for us. I come to support Anwar because of the great injustice. I believe Mahathir must go in order for the economy to recover. An accountant who asked not to be named added: “Justice, that is why I came. Even the layman knows that there is great injustice being shown to Anwar. As an educated professional, I feel even more outraged. That’s why I came here.”
One of six Chinese university students said: “We came to Anwar’s house because we have not been here before, and this is a chance for us to come and have a look. We cannot comment and tell you why we came because of the university act. We will be expelled. Just say we are neutral.”
Sonia Randhawa, whose father was detained and tortured under the Internal Security Act for 40 hours because he is a close friend of Mr Anwar, said: “I am not an Anwar supporter. I come here because I am disgusted by the way they treat him. I am disgusted by the lack of justice.”
The open house at Dr Mahathir’s sprawling chateau-like residence, Sri Perdana, was in total contrast. Chinese and Indians made up the majority of the huge crowd estimated at 40,000. If numbers in the open house contest were a factor, Dr Mahathir won hands down. “This is the first time in my seven years here that the gate has been thrown wide open to allow a free flow of visitors,” said a security guard with the Special Action Force. “In previous years, we allowed only batches of 300 to come in at a time.”
While the crowd at Mr Anwar’s house was made up of committed supporters and educated professionals, Dr Mahathir’s crowd were mostly from the working class who came more out of curiosity than for political reasons. “This is the first and last time I will come here. He will soon be gone,” laughed Pari Davi after queuing for an hour before she managed to shake Dr Mahathir’s hand. “He looks gaunt and tired,” she said. “I have nothing to do and this is my last chance to see him and look around the place,” said Rosli bin
Abdul Rahman. Madam Wong came with his son and daughter and saw the crowd was too big. After looking around the sprawling compound, he went home disappointed. “We came because my 12-year-old daughter wanted to come and see him,” he said. “And this is Hari Raya. My daughter has seen his pictures every day and wanted to see him in person.
This is an expression of support for the government,” proclaimed Dr Mahathir. “The number of visitors is extraordinary. I expected a smaller crowd as some people might get the impression that there will be riots.” Like all Dr Mahathir’s claims and strategies, what appears on the surface is deceiving.
An Umno division leader who is a famous lawyer and well connected in the party said: “Anwar is getting more and more sympathy every day and the people are getting more and more angry with Mahathir as the court case proceeds and various charges and evidence are proven to be false.
Mahathir is like a drowning man clinging to the last straw to stay afloat,” he said. “Anwar’s trial will not damage him even if he is jailed. He has a future. Politically he is still there.” “You can’t get rid of him because some ministers say so. The ordinary people do not see the charges as a serious matter because the charges (which were amended last week) are abuse of power to cover up something that is false. The tragedy is Unmo as a pragmatic and liberal party for the Malays will be discredited. More and more Malays will join PAS (Islamic Party) because they have no choice.
And PAS is an ideology- (religious-) based party which is not suitable to rule over the country. Look at the BJP in India or what would happen if a religious party took over Israel.”
“Sebagai rakyat yang patriotik, adalah menjadi tanggungjawab kita untuk membawa negara kita keluar dari kemelut sekarang. Maruah negara perlu dikembalikan. Arang yang terconteng di muka bangsa Malaysia perlu dibersihkan. Nama Malaysia perlu diharumkan kembali, iaitu negara yang mempunyai rakyat yang berani berjuang menegakkan kebenaran dan keadilan.” Datuk Seri Anwar
“Political parties and non-government organisations must work together and set aside their differences in order to free Malaysia from continuing stranglehold of crisis and oppression….Our party is prepared to sacrifice its own interests in order to achieve the larger goal of forging a credible alternative to the Barisan Nasional (National Front),” Dr. Wan Azizah.