Recently acquitted in a controversial sodomy trial, Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim is again in hot water, this time over remarks supportive of Israel, a no-no for many of his Muslim voters. Both his allies and enemies have demanded that he retract his comments to the Wall Street Journal. This is yet another distraction ahead of possible elections later this year. As a former deputy prime minister, Anwar knows a thing or two about campaigning. He knows that the vote could make or break his multiracial opposition coalition, which won five out of 13 states in 2008 but faces a tough climb to pull off a federal parliamentary majority. Speaking Tuesday night at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, Anwar said his coalition was anticipating a snap election in May or June. But his personal view was that it could come sooner. “I assume an election is just around the corner,” he said. He joked that he could read the mind of the ruling coalition. “I used to be one of them.”
Indeed, Anwar was a go-to guy for Western investors in the 1990s, before Malaysia’s miracle economy ran aground and bankers moved onto greener pastures. Ambitious Anwar was turfed out in 1998 by vengeful premier Mahathir Mohamad, who has used the latest controversy to smear Anwar as a trojan horse for Jewish and American interests. This is standard fare in Malaysia’s right-wing media, which hews closely to the government line and is either state-run or controlled by political parties. This is the same media in which the election campaign will be waged, though online news channels have replaced the mainstream media among wired youth. Yet television and radio remain popular in rural areas where key seats will be fought and won. “We’re talking about an election without any access to media,” Anwar complained.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, who took power in 2009 and has struggled to revive Malaysia’s economic potential, has taken his own potshots at Anwar. Asked Tuesday about his policy on Malaysia’s lack of diplomatic relations with Israel, Anwar refused to answer directly, instead talking up reconciliation between Palestinian factions. “The legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people must be respected. To my mind, this has not happened.” Last month he told the WSJ, “I support all efforts to support the security of the state of Israel.” Yes, that was the line that got him in trouble. Now the spiritual leader of the conservative Muslim party in Anwar’s coalition has demanded that he either retract his statement or sue the WSJ. Anwar joked repeatedly during his talk about being a ‘Jewish agent’, raising his eyebrows at the apparent absurdity.
However, he omitted to mention that he had used the same smear against Najib in 2010 over the hiring of public relations firm APCO, which Anwar called an Israeli front. He was censured by a parliamentary committee for remarks made at a press conference concerning APCO’s work for Najib. To critics, this is classic Anwar: serving up one message for an international audience and another for his Malay-Muslim base. Yet the notion of Anwar as a Jewish agent is risible. As he pointed out, he flew to Bangkok after spending three days in Qatar where he met representatives of Hamas and Fatah, amongst others. As a former Muslim youth leader inspired by Islamic revolution in Iran, Anwar has his ‘brotherhood’ bona fides.
Coincidentally he spoke in Bangkok on the day when a group of Iranians detonated explosives in what Israel has called a failed terrorist plot against its diplomats. Southeast Asia may seem remote from the sectarian and geopolitical tensions of the Middle East, but its politics and security can’t be separated from the wider world. Should Israel bring the fight to Iran, more ripples can be expected. And more Malaysian politicking.