Michael Danby, Federal Member for Melbourne Ports and Chair of the Australian Parliamentary sub-committee on Foreign Affairs
Tonight, I want to speak out on behalf of fellow democrats around Asia, who areflabbergasted at events unfolding in Kuala Lumpur. I refer to the trial which began today of the Malaysian Opposition Leader, Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim. For the second time, the Malaysian leader of the Opposition, Anwar Ibrahim is on trial for what they call in ancient grating English, ‘Sodomy’. For the second time, the Malaysian legal system is being manipulated by supporters of the incumbent government to drive Malaysia’s best known leader Anwar Ibrahim out of national politics. For the second time, documents are being forged, witnesses are being coerced, evidence is being fabricated.
This trial, like the first trial of Anwar Ibrahim, is a disgrace to Malaysia, a country that aspires to democratic norms, where parties change power peacefully and political opponents are not persecuted by organs of the state. Perverting the legal system for political ends by charging Anwar with sexual offences is an affront to human rights. In the first place, the offences with which Anwar has been charged that should not be on the statute book. Australia abolished its laws punishing consenting adult homosexual acts decades ago, as did most advanced countries. It’s long past time that Malaysia also repealed these laws, which it inherited from British colonial times. If these laws did not exist, they could not be used for political purposes as we are currently seeing.
In the second place, everyone in Malaysia, and everyone in the international legal community, knows that Anwar is innocent of these charges. This week the Wall Street Journal published a first-hand account of how the Malaysian Special Branch police fabricated the charges that led to Anwar’s first trial in 1998. Munawar Anees recalled how he had been starved and beaten into signing a false confession which implicated Anwar. Now it’s happening again. These are the lengths to which the corrupt elements within the Malaysian ruling party are willing to go to frame Anwar and remove his threat to their power.
Malaysia is a long-time friend and ally of Australia. Over the past 40 years Malaysia has become an increasingly prosperous and successful multi-cultural society. We continue our friendly and mutually beneficial relationship with Malaysia, which is a deep economic, strategic and cultural relationship.
But Malaysia is also a country of 28 million people who have lived ever since independence more than 50 years ago under the rule of the same party, the United Malay National Organisation or UMNO. UMNO has stayed in power by playing on the Malay fears of the Chinese and Indian minorities. So long as Malaysian politics were polarised even subtlety along racial lines, so long as the Malays voted loyally for UMNO, then the self-perpetuating UMNO oligarchy, who have grown rich through long years of power and through their cozy links to business, would be safe.
That’s why Anwar Ibrahim is such a threat. For the first time Malaysia has a charismatic Malay opposition politician able to appeal to Malay voters and pose a real threat to UMNO’s hold on power. At the 2008 elections Anwar’s People’s Justice Party and its allies won 60 seats away from UMNO and its allies, creating a viable two-party system for the first time. As a result, Abdullah Badawi was deposed as Prime Minister and replaced by Najib Razak, but the threat from Anwar’s coalition continues to grow. So even though the first attempt to frame Anwar on these spurious charged had failed, the corrupt forces within UMNO have decided to try again.
I recently had the privilege of meeting Anwar Ibrahim when he was in Melbourne for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in December. He is an intelligent and articulate and passionate democrat. He is committed to a thorough reform of Malaysian government, to rid it of the cronyism, corruption and authoritarian tendencies that have gained ground since Mahathir Mohammed became Prime Minister in 1981. He is a great, although not uncritical, friend and admirer of Australia. If he were to become Malaysia’s Prime Minister our relationship with Malaysia would become even stronger.
I am pleased that in the last few hours the judge has suspended the case against Anwar for a day. I hope Prime Minister Najib and his ministers are not involved. The best way for them to prove that they are not is to intervene and have these charges withdrawn, and those responsible for fabricating them punished. Malaysia is a great country, and an emerging power in our region. It can do without the embarrassment that these disgraceful proceedings are undermining its newly won democratic credibility.