by Din Merican
When I worked in Bank Negara in the mid-1960s, I came under the tutelage of its first Malaysian Governor, Tun Ismail bin Mohamed Ali. Nobody who served the Bank under this outstanding Malaysian could be impervious to his influence. His integrity and intellect simply permeated the place.
I believe an integral aspect of a good leader’s influence is the way he not only encourages his wards to read the books he does but he also reads the stuff they may, on occasion, commend to him and to stimulate discussion on these works. The ensuing combustion is one of the delights of a relationship based on intellect, rather than sycophancy.
Among the many books the Tun, an avid reader, commended to me was Arnold Toynbee’s magnum opus “Study of History”, a twelve-volume analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations. I appreciate Toynbee for his emphasis on culture and religion as driving forces in civilisation. You could not imbibe Toynbee and not be sceptical of Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man” which postulated about the end of history with the advent of liberal democracy following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A reading of Toynbee would leave you convinced that cultural and religious conflicts are perenials in history and so like Plato on war, only the dead have seen its end.
But I value Toynbee more for his view that the responses of a society’s elite to the pattern of challenges posed by civilization determine whether it would survive or vanish. In other words, the way the best and the brightest respond to challenges thrown up by society is crucial to its longevity.
I am reminded of this Toynbeean insight by the arguments deployed in a column in the New Sunday Times (July 27, 2008 ) by Tunku Abdul Aziz, my friend from Bank Negara and Sime Darby days. I do not think I am flattering him if I hold the view that the Tunku belongs to society’s elite; his cultural background and lineage, education and career, particularly in their latter manifestations in Transparency International (Malaysian Chapter) and Special Advisor on Ethics to Mr. Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations, all place him in the upper crust of Malaysian society.
So what he wrote on July 27 in the New Sunday Times comes as a fantastic and shocking surprise in its abandonment of the norms of democratic discourse you would think a man of Tunku Aziz’s credentials would find little difficulty in abiding.
Few would contest the view that Malaysian society is displaying acute symptoms of political and social pathology that indicate it has arrived at a critical pass: either we check and reverse the evident rot in the institutions of civil society or we not just slither but careen down the road to perdition. The personal and political predicament of Anwar Ibrahim is emblematic of this juncture in our nation’s history.
One may tax me for seeing this situation in apocalyptic terms: If Anwar goes down, the country follows suit; if Anwar goes up, our country has a chance to escape the political and social cul de sac the last ten years of our history have conduced. More than any other leader, the recent odyssey of Anwar Ibrahim has come to embody the potential for disaster or deliverance for Malaysia from its present malaise.
The prologue to this point is that the UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional has been oozing the moral and political legitimacy to govern our country. The haemorrhaging of its moral legitimacy, derived from right conduct and deportment of the governing elite, started in 1988 when Lord President Tun Salleh Abas was judicially extirpated. The political legitimacy to govern began deserting the government from the day Anwar Ibrahim was sacked and then gaoled for moral and political misconduct on trumped up charges.
When in September 2007, an already freed and partly exonerated Anwar exposed a video clip that retrospectively cast doubt on the validity of the two charges against him in court cases in 1998 and 1999, the steady erosion in the moral and political legitimacy to govern accelerated to the point where on March 8, 2008, Malaysian voters, excepting those in Sabah and Sarawak, endorsed the view that the rot was beyond the capacity of UMNO-Barisan Nasional to stop. The loss of two thirds majority by UMNO-Barisan Nasional meant that a psychologicl threshold had been breached. It was a political tsunami that left Badawi and his cohort reeling in disbelief. Ipso facto a politicl crisis obtained.
Tunku Aziz in his column contends that Anwar has been playing this crisis with self-serving threatrics that constitute an infernal distraction to the legitimate duty of governance that behooves Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.
This is a more fallacious argument that if one were to ay that the maneuvers of the UMNO-dominated Federal Government in early 1994 were a deliberate undermining of the legitimacy of Parti Bersatu Sabah, which had won a tenuous majority in the state election, to govern. The PBS government fell through crossovers brazenly engineered by Datuk Seri Mahathir bin Mohamad.
And today, there is strong reason to suspect that the state election of 1994 in Sabah was tainted by the participation of hastily imported labour from the Philippines and Indonesia who were dubiously given the right to vote. In fact, the effect of this electoral larceny — the disproportionate enlargment of the population of Sabah — is top on the agenda of grand rectification sought by BN-Sabah legislators elected in Malaysia’s 12th General Elections.
The lapse in Tunku Aziz’s ability to recall recent past history borders on amnesia in the saga of the alleged report of sodomy against Anwar Ibrahim. I say “alleged report” because till today the supposed accused has not been shown the alleged victim’s police report. Is it not imperative of the Police to show the alleged perpetrator the complaint made against him by his supposed victim? Is the no-show indicative that the said report is a work-in-progress, a contrivance built around gerrymandered evidence?
Instead Tunku Aziz sheds an aria of persiflage by attacking Anwar’s refusal to give a DNA sample to the Police. He has not only forgotten the saga of the purloined DNA sample of Anwar’s in the episode of the “semen-stained” mattress threatrically paraded in the 1998 case, he is obviously amnesic about his role in the Royal Commission on the management of the Malaysian Police Force (December 2003-March 2005). What caused this Royal Commission to recommend the creation of an independent Public Complaints and Misconduct Commission for the Police Force, for which no action has been initiated? What would Tunku Aziz, a key member of the said commission, surmise as the reasons for the failure to implement this recommendation — surely not, a sudden surge in the probity of the Force!
Tunku Aziz describes as “preposterous” Anwar’s claim that the latest allegations of sodomy is “part of a diabolically clever plot” to stop him from becoming Prime Minister. How conveniently he forgot that at a public forum in Corus Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, in late September 2007, in the presence of Anwar Ibrahim and others, he commented on the Lingam video clip that the whole episode was reflective of the ethos that the end justifies the means. If that is the case, then today Anwar has every reason to be circumspect.
Furthermore, it is presumptuous of him to think that the public support for Anwar is beginning to “wear thin”. The evidence is that, even in the UMNO-BN bastions of Johor and Melaka, the crowds at Anwar’s recent ceramah are waxing rather than waning. Tunku Aziz’s speculation that Anwar is losing ground is akin to his patron’s (Abdullah Badawi’s) pre-election dismissal of Anwar’s threat as “nothing”.
It is clear to me at least that Tunku Aziz’s article is in response to international criticisms by the United States, Europe and Japan and prominent personalities, academics and scholars on the latest treatment of Anwar. This is not a proxy war, but an outrage against actions taken by the government to persecute an internationally respected and admired leader of the movement for democratic change and good governance in Malaysia.
Our legal process is vulnerable to political interference and manipulation. We have enough grounds to suspect that the phenomenon has not ended. The recent Royal Commission headed by former Chief Judge of Malaya, Tan Sri Haidar Noor, confirmed the need to undertake serious judicial reforms to restore the badly battered image of our criminal justice system. For Tunku Aziz to suggest otherwise is indicative of the powers that can be brought to bear upon scribes like him who are trying to work within the system and perhaps change it.
Which bring us back to Arnold Toynbee on how civilizations endure. The leadership elite’s ability to respond creatively to challenges determines a civilization’s destiny. Tunku Aziz belongs to that elite in Malaysia. On the basis of the arguments he has adduced in his article, can Tunku Aziz say that he is responding creatively to our crisis. The answer is an unqualified NO.
The sycophancy he displays undermines his reputation and credibility as an exponent of transparent governance and ethics. He does not belong in Toynbee’s creative elite because he has enlisted as a chorus boy for a corrupt and dysfunctional regime. In the end, what he writes now demeans his former selves in Transparency International and at the United Nations. He has become no less and no more than a poseur, the sort that can, at the drop of coin, switch sides with no compunction.
In Dante’s gradations of hell, Tunku Aziz has become the kind who in times of great moral and political crisis do not just abandon a politic neutrality — those that Dante in “Divine Comedy” consigns to the hottest places — but he takes sides, the wrong one at that. And that is the tragedy of my erstwhile friend.