September 26, 2012
Anwar Ibrahim at Royal Selangor Club Luncheon
by Terence Netto@http://www.malaysiakini.com
COMMENT: It was vintage Anwar Ibrahim as the opposition leader took on blunt if not brusque questions at the Royal Selangor Club’s Fifth Presidential Luncheon Talk yesterday.
The series, inaugurated last January by Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak as the first speaker, has become a focal point of interest to the prestigious club’s 6,000-plus members who like to think of themselves as the Klang Valley’s movers and shakers.
The view was given pith and moment by Anwar’s performance before a full house that was apt to temper admiration for his courage with scepticism about his capacity for the office of Prime Minister and/or his ability to weld a cohesive coalition from ideologically divergent partners.
As anticipated, question time – after Anwar had delivered a speech that departed little from his standard litany of UMNO-BN’s malfeasance – was fraught with lingering anxiety that the former No 2 in party and government and now its arch foe had not fully purged himself of “UMNO DNA,” as one questioner put it, laughter rippling through the crowd that packed the ballroom of the RSC at the use of explosive nomenclature drawn from the speaker’s legal travails.
More than anything else, the 350 diners – another hundred were purportedly on a waiting list – wanted to gauge for their selves if the popular appeal of this vaunted Piped Piper of political reform in Malaysia owed more to alternative media-generated shimmer than to actual substance. His answers blew their qualms away.
“I cannot absolve myself of all that happened when I was part of UMNO and the government,” parried Anwar, who between 1982 and 1998 rose from ordinary member to the party’s No 2 position, and from Deputy Minister to Deputy Prime Minister, before being sacked and jailed on dubious charges of corruption, abuse of power and sodomy.
“I have paid the price,” he asserted, in obvious reference to the travails he has had to endure since his expulsion from UMNO in 1998.
Billions of ringgit in bailouts
Anwar implied that the sufferings he has since endured, which included a six-year spell in gaol, were expiation for partial complicity in the long catalogue of UMNO-BN transgressions.
Alluding to major policy differences between him and his former boss, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar said his book, ‘Asian Renaissance‘, published in 1996, had semaphored the message that a gap had opened up between him and an “obsolete” Mahathir on such issues as the applicability of Asian values, privatisation, independent power producers, and bailouts for cronies and relatives of those in power.
The strains from the differences, accentuated by the regional currency and stock market crisis in mid-1997, made the break with Mahathir unavoidable by late August 1998.
Anwar revealed that the chasm became unbridgeable when the issue of a RM2 billion bailout for Mahathir’s son, Mirzan, came up over the latter’s holdings in Malaysian International Shipping Corporation (MISC), in the wake of the regional crisis that sent stocks and currencies plummeting in East Asia.
“I have suffered,” said Anwar, referencing his continuing subjection to obloquy as an emblem of his compensation for past complicity in UMNO-BN’s misdeeds.
Hudud a part of Syariah
Another questioner pressed the PKR leader on his party’s stand was on hudud law on which its Pakatan partners, PAS and DAP, are divergently positioned, the former theologically obliged to support the imposition of syariah, the latter’s secularism resolute against it.
Anwar, viewed in some quarters as hazy and in a devious straddle on a vital issue, yesterday met that perception head-on. “Our stand on hudud law is that it is part of syariah which can only be introduced when the higher objectives of the maqasid syariah have been achieved,” he explained.
“These objectives are the protection of life and property, the maintenance of peace and justice, poverty reduction. The conditions for syariah imposition must obtain before it is implemented,” he elaborated.
“We must allow those who want syariah to persuade others about their view, just as we must allow those who are opposed to articulate their stand.
“Let them articulate and if there is a consensus, we will implement. If there is no consensus, obviously there will be no implementation.On major issues, there must be consensus among Pakatan’s partners before we implement. What is important is that people are allowed to articulate,” said this exponent of democratic freedoms as an unalloyed good.
In recent years, in both domestic and international councils, Anwar had espoused the maqasid syariah in the accents of the Jeffersonian rendition of what is supposed to be the desires of a free people, which are the protection of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” to employ the incandescent phrase from the US Declaration of Independence.
Ballooning fiscal deficits
Anwar was also pressed on Pakatan’s “free spending” proposals that one questioner said would exacerbate the annual fiscal deficits, a danger akin to the insolvency now threatening the western social democracies.
“We are concerned about the deficit. In Penang and Selangor, Pakatan governments have shown that we can govern without corruption, increase income, clear debt, save on expenditure, and show a surplus of income over expenditure,” said Anwar.
“We can save several billion on government expenditure because of clean governance and competitive bidding for contracts, and by renegotiation of contracts favouring crony interests and monopolies.
“We will reduce the deficit by boosting income through competitive bidding for APs (approved permits) for luxury cars. Our zero tolerance for corruption would mean we will attract investors who can run their business on lower comparative costs. We are going to make higher education free, but we are going to push our universities to train students better than they have done in the recent past.For that we have to institute meritocracy in the selection of people to teach and administer our universities. Race is not going to be the only criterion for selection,” he said.
When Anwar had finished reeling off the agenda for political and social change in Malaysia, it was clear that what he envisaged for the continent in his Asian Renaissance treatise 16 years ago he intends to achieve for his country when the coalition he leads wins the “comfortable majority” which he, these days, confidently predicts will be its lot at the 13th general election.
At the end of his talk yesterday, the standing ovation Anwar received may have been perfunctory, but the perception that spectral doubts about the mettle of his leadership had been erased, or, at least, elided, was palpable. One attendee summed up the affair: “A vintage performance by the man.”