By Ali Cordoba
It was in September 1998 that the “reformasi” movement started in Malaysia. Since then, the reform movement has grown from a “group” of people pressing for change to that of a formidable opposition coalition.
With this great leap forward, the “reform” movement in Malaysia is bound to make history again in the next general election with massive gains and a potential total defeat of the ruling Barisan National coalition.
A great push forward for the Pakatan Rakyat in the 13th general election will have untold consequences for Umno, in power since independence in 1957. It will also mean that Malaysia has finally made headway in choosing a “reform” movement that was thought to have run out of steam in the 2004 BN’s historic victory.
In 1998, a majority of the “reformasi” supporters had to hide behind the cloak of the “Internet” to promote the movement or propose ideas on how to rein in the masses against the BN and Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the then prime minister.
Since then, the country has made serious gains in “Internet” freedom to the extent that the government of Najib Tun Razak is facing a daily uphill battle against “pro-reform” and “pro-opposition” elements.
With Anwar Ibrahim’s release from jail in 2004, the reform movement made an incredible revival. To many, the release of Anwar, promised by the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi regime in case of a big victory in the election, was an act of divine intervention.
However, to a few observers, it is the intense pressure from some members of the International Islamic Ulema (Muslim religious figures) and the Arab World that led to the release of the most popular political figure in the country.
In 2003, the Abdullah regime was in the midst of wooing the Saudi Arabian, Qatari and UAE regimes to win their favours and gain in respect and investment projects. Attempts by the Abdullah regime to win the Arab world on its side failed as the need to release Anwar became a pressing element in the negotiations.
These were the behind-the-scenes event that were not reported by the local or international media as they were kept under wraps by the Abdullah government.
Nonetheless, after the big win by the BN against an ailing opposition that had decided not to campaign on the “Anwar Ibrahim” issue (particularly by PAS), the Abdullah government decided to free Anwar.
The release of the former deputy prime minister and finance minister was also the culmination of the long and strong campaign led by people like Raja Petra Kamarudin, the Malaysia Today editor in chief and maestro of “citizen journalism” in Malaysia.
It was his hard work, tough writings on the freeanwaribrahim.com blog and his campaigns in the country that helped in Abdullah regime’s considerations.
During the time of Mahathir, negotiations to free Anwar and allow him to have an operation in Germany backfired when the former prime minister angrily uttered the now infamous “muktamad”.
Mahathir was being pressed by the local and international media on rumours that Anwar would be freed and that negotiations between the Anwar group and Mahathir’s government were ongoing on the issue.
The fact remains that the Mahathir regime was not prepared to let go of Anwar from its claws as his release and subsequent presence in Germany would have been negative for the regime.
Not only Anwar would be free to campaign against the Mahathir regime from Germany while receiving treatment for his growing back pain, there was also the possibility that Anwar would raise funds through his friends in Germany.
That would have meant a triumphant return of Anwar at the KLIA, a return that would have probably caused tremors within the Mahathir regime at that particular fragile era.
In Germany, Anwar would have been aided by his close “friend” and ally, the former president of Indonesia, Burhanuddin J Habibie. The latter established himself in Germany after his downfall as the “replacement” president following the removal of General Suharto from power in the aftermath of the Indonesian “reformasi”.
This would have meant a lot of support not only for Anwar but also for the “reform” movement in Malaysia.
At that particular time what remained of the movement launched by Anwar in 1998, at least in the eyes of the public, were merely echoes of “reformasi” and “memories” of the police beating and tear gas in the streets of Kuala Lumpur.
His flight to Germany would have been an unexpected boost to the Malaysian reform movement. It was, however, just a question of delaying the “tsunami” that would almost wipe out the BN in 2008.
Bigger reform movement today
Are the delays in the 2013 polls in Malaysia yet another ploy by the ruling coalition to simply put off the potential takeover of Putrajaya by the same “reform” movement?
The signs are already written on the walls of Kuala Lumpur, the city that had seen the people – mostly of Malay origin – battling the police and the Federal Riot Units (FRU) in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman or in Kampung Baru and elsewhere in the city.
Today, the “reform” movement is a larger group, composed of Malaysians of all origins and expecting a turn of events in the 13th general election.
Will their wish come true?
Anwar and the Malaysian reform movement seem to have a touch of “gold” that cannot be denied.
The former strongman of Mahathir has created history not once but multiple times. He was freed almost unconditionally from jail, and he won his seat back in a massive defeat to the BN in Permatang Pauh – the constituency that became historical thanks to the “Permatang Pauh” declaration.
He became the opposition head in Parliament and his movement in coalition with PAS and DAP won five states in 2008, bagging 82 parliamentary seats. All these feats were never achieved by any other “deposed” leader within the Umno-BN hierarchy.
History is littered with men of valour who lost their battle with the Umno-BN and became victim of a terrible system of denial of justice. But Anwar braved the waves against him and rode the “tsunami” he helped create to become a hero of Malaysia.
These are historical facts that cannot be denied and more seems on the way for the making of the modern history in Malaysia.
Ali Cordoba writes extensively on local politics.