The Anwar Episode: An Analysis
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar
4 October 1998 
One month after he was sacked from the government and the ruling party, a lot of people are still wondering what was the real reason behind Anwar Ibrahim's expulsion. Is Anwar's 'low morals', his indulgence in homosexual activities, as alleged by the Prime Minister and UMNO President, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the real reason? Or, is the former Deputy Prime Minister and UMNO Deputy President, the victim of 'a high-level conspiracy', as Anwar and his supporters maintain?


To understand Anwar's dismissal one has to understand the relationship between Mahathir and Anwar. It was Mahathir who brought Anwar into government, in 1982. It was Mahathir who groomed Anwar, accelerated his ascendancy within UMNO, exposed him to a variety of governmental roles until he assumed the mantle of Deputy UMNO President and Deputy Prime Minister. Anwar was indisputably Mahathir's heir-apparent. Though the older man was instrumental in the younger man's meteoric rise, Anwar himself, there was no doubt, was an astute politician with a knack for mass mobilisation and for the intrigues of intra-party manoeuvres. Besides, he was also a gifted orator with tremendous rapport with his followers.


Anwar reciprocated Mahathir's patronage by giving unstinted support to the latter whenever he was confronted by a political crisis. From the 1983 Constitutional crisis through the 1987 UMNO split to the 1988 Judicial calamity to the 1991 curbing of the powers of the Sultans, Anwar was Mahathir's loyal lieutenant garnering support for his boss. This relationship between the two men created quite a bit of resentment within UMNO especially among party stalwarts who had joined the organisation long before Anwar was coopted into government. In fact, from 1982 itself, there were groups who sought to drive a wedge between Mahathir and Anwar through poison-pen letters and whispering campaigns. To his credit, Mahathir ignored these sinister moves and stood by his Deputy.

Then in May 1997, Mahathir sent the clearest signal yet to UMNO, the government and the people that Anwar would be his successor by appointing him Acting UMNO President and Acting Prime Minister when he went off on two months' leave. Anwar's adversaries in the party, some corporate figures who regarded his ascendancy as a threat to their interests and a few individuals in certain public institutions viewed his appointment as a danger sign. They were more determined than ever to stop him at all costs. In June 1997, they circulated a signed document alleging that Anwar had an adulterous relationship with the wife of his Confidential Secretary, on the one hand, and a homosexual relationship with his wife's former driver, on the other. Close aides of the Prime Minister brought both the document and the individuals who had made the allegations to his attention as soon as he returned from leave. The Prime Minister, according to the local media, got the Police to investigate the allegations and in early August 1997, he announced publicly that investigations had revealed that there was no basis to the allegations. Subsequently, a member of the government, in response to a question in the Malaysian Parliament, reiterated that the allegations were baseless and that the two individuals who had levelled the accusations against Anwar had, through sworn statements, repudiated their earlier allegations and were completely penitent.


The sex allegations would have ended there -- except for a series of developments since August 1997 which brought those allegations into the limelight again and which impacted adversely upon the Mahathir-Anwar relationship. It is these developments which provide the key to an understanding of the present crisis.

As the ringgit and the stock market declined and businesses collapsed and people lost their jobs, in the wake of the East Asian financial crisis, the general public became more and more critical of the leadership of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Though the crisis was largely due to an external factor -- volatile equity capital suddenly exiting East Asian markets -- the popular perception was that Dr. Mahathir had not managed the economy well. His frequent, and often justifiable, attacks upon currency speculators as the main culprits behind capital volatility were distorted by the foreign media as the insane rantings of a leader who did not want to come to terms with the weaknesses in his own economy.

The foreign media, on the other hand, potrayed Anwar who was also Finance Minister as a sober and sensible chap who understood global financial markets. Their lavish praise for him created the impression that he was 'their man'. Some of them even suggested that Anwar and not Mahathir should be running the country. In fact, in June 1998 a number of regional and international newspapers and magazines openly called for Mahathir's resignation. Their stance created a serious schism between the two men.


The foreign media, in a sense, brought to the surface certain differences in approach between Mahathir and Anwar in their handling of the economic crisis. Right from the outset, Mahathir preferred a credit expansionary policy aimed at stimulating the economy and preventing it from sinking into recession. Anwar took the more conventional route and sought to cut back on expenditure and impose a credit squeeze. For Mahathir lowering interest rates was important so that businesses could get back on their feet; for Anwar maintaining a reasonably high interest rate was one way of checking capital flight.

These differences which generated some uneasiness in the market did not, however, cause the split between the Prime Minister and his Deputy-cum-Finance Minister. What exacerbated their relationship was Anwar's initial reluctance to endorse some of the rescue operations of big local corporations hit by the financial crisis. One of these corporations which had accumulated huge debts was Konsortium Perkapalan -- a shipping firm associated with Mirzan Mahathir, the Prime Minister's son. There were a couple of other bail-outs too, allegedly linked to corporate figures close to the Prime Minister which Anwar was not enthusiastic about.


As the rift between Mahathir and Anwar widened, yet another factor began to impact upon their relationship. This was the explosive situation in Indonesia which came to a head in May 1998. Suharto was becoming the principal target of massive street demonstrations that zeroed in upon his long tenure -- 32 years in power -- and the enormous wealth that his family had accumulated during his rule. In the end, popular fury over his 'nepotism, cronyism and collusion' forced Suharto to quit. Opposition political parties, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and youth and student groups in Malaysia, already critical of the growing involvement of Mahathir's sons in big business, and somewhat unhappy about the Prime Minister's own long stay in power (17 years by July 1998) began to draw parallels between Suharto and Mahathir. Some of them felt that the time had come for Mahathir to retire. This explains why Mahathir became paranoid about the Indonesian situation.

It should be emphasised at this point however that there are significant differences between the Suharto and Mahathir leaderships and between Indonesia and Malaysia which some of Mahathir's critics fail to appreciate. Unlike Suharto, Mahathir is a popularly elected leader who derives his mandate from a democratically constituted electoral process. Unlike the Suharto family, Mahathir's children have not established monopolies over entire sectors of the economy. Neither corruption, nor poverty nor authoritarianism in Malaysia today bears any semblance to the situation in Indonesia under Suharto.

Be that as it may, the question of corruption, cronyism and nepotism was raised by some UMNO Youth leaders close to Anwar at the party's annual assembly in June 1998. Dr. Mahathir saw it as a naked attack upon his leadership. Though he managed to blunt the attack by revealing that others, including Anwar's family and friends have also benefitted from the allocation of shares and the government's privatisation programme, the raising of the 'corruption, cronyism and nepotism' issue at the assembly, worsened the deteriorating ties between Mahathir and his heir-apparent.


Mahathir was now convinced that the UMNO Youth criticism, seen against the backdrop of attempts to draw parallels between him and Suharto; Anwar's lukewarm attitude to certain bail-outs; differences in approach towards the economic crisis between him and Anwar; the foreign media's antagonism towards him in contrast to the accolades showered upon Anwar; and the general erosion of support for his leadership, were clear indications that there was an organised, systematic endeavour to force him out of office. The man behind this endeavour, Mahathir reasoned, was Anwar Ibrahim. He therefore decided to move against his protege.

It is revealing that it was around this time, in June 1998, that the sex allegations that Mahathir had dismissed in August 1997, re-surfaced through a thick book entitled 50 Reasons why Anwar cannot become Prime Minister which included a whole host of other slanderous charges against the Deputy Prime Minister. The book, inter alia, alleged that Anwar was not only a womaniser and sodomist but also a murderer, who was corrupt, had abused power and was, at the same time, a CIA agent and a traitor to the nation. At the UMNO General Assembly, the book was distributed free to party delegates. In spite of a court injunction restraining the distributor from circulating the book or its contents, 50 Reasons is easily available and has appeared in different forms. Incidentally, the High Court judge in granting the injunction described the book as 'one long poison-pen letter.'

That this poison-pen book designed to smear and vilify Anwar should appear at about the same time as when Mahathir had lost confidence in his Deputy is no coincidence. The book, it is obvious, was written at the behest of Anwar's adversaries (some of whom were responsible for the earlier document) in order to character assassinate him. It appears that Mahathir who was angered and incensed by what he regarded as his heir-apparent's betrayal and disloyalty, was not averse to the production and distribution of the poison-pen book. He knew it would serve his purpose of slandering and shaming someone who had the audacity to go against him. Thus, Anwar's enemies succeeded finally in merging their goal with Mahathir's motive.


Mahathir's insistence on loyalty to him is not in itself an unusual feature of politics. In most political systems, ancient or modern, a deputy or the number two man is expected to be loyal to his chief. Within UMNO -- given its feudal history and culture -- unquestioning loyalty to the paramount leader is one of the most cherished traits of membership. It is because Mahathir was absolutely certain that Anwar had betrayed him that he has marshalled all his resources to annihilate him. The virulence and viciousness of the annihilation can perhaps be best explained by the fact that Anwar was, all said and done, Mahathir's protege.

There is perhaps another explanation too for the harsh and cruel treatment of Anwar. Mahathir may be personally convinced that Anwar is a sodomist. One detects in Mahathir a strong revulsion for what is legally and morally described as 'unnatural sex'.


But Anwar and his supporters would argue that the bit about sodomy is nothing more than a cheap camouflage. The real reason why Mahathir has gone all out to destroy and denigrate Anwar is because he fears that the latter will not protect his family's business interests after his time. By questioning the bail-out for Mahathir's son, Anwar was telling his boss that he was not prepared to salvage the Mahathir family. For an ageing leader who has witnessed what had happened in South Korea and what is now happening in Indonesia, Anwar's attitude was the antithesis of the iron-clad guarantee he was looking for in a post-Mahathir era.


Our analysis has shown that at the root of the expulsion of Anwar from the government and the party is the question of power. Mahathir sensed an attempt to ease him out of power. He responded to the perceived challenge with vigour and without scruples. Anwar felt that Mahathir's power base was weakening. He sought to send a message -- and was repulsed. How this power struggle camouflaged by issues of morality and justice will play itself out in the next few weeks is anybody's guess.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World. He is also Professor cum Director of the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue at the University of Malaya, Malaysia.