Friday, January 20, 2012

Ambassador Malott on recent Political Developments in Malaysia

Chronicle: 1. Firstly, the hottest Question in town still remains, why did Najib pull back from a conviction (of Anwar Ibrahim) ? Most Malaysians believe in a conspiracy but not an independent judiciary as BN has claimed. The story around town is that the Judge had already written a conviction judgment and had to make do with a verbal acquittal that lasted all of 60 seconds. Do you see internal UMNO power play in this, was Najib fearful for his own legacy and how he will be remembered if he were to adopt a 'hardline' approach on this issue?

Malott: I don’t have a clue why the Judge ruled the way he did. It really was surprising. There are so many well-documented reports of political interference and misuse of the judicial system. For example, not just Anwar but also the case of Ramli Yusoff and the failure to seriously investigate and prosecute the deaths that occurred at MACC. Earlier in the trial, this Judge reversed his own decision on whether the DNA taken from the comb and towel that Anwar used in jail was admissible, and it seems clear there was pressure on him to do so. Otherwise, why would he reverse himself? But now he ruled in Anwar’s favor. It was a shock. As I said in my op-ed, the government might have decided that Anwar was a bigger threat to them in jail because he would be a rallying point for the opposition. We can all speculate, but only the judge knows why he did what he did.

Chronicle: 2. Perhaps the answer to (1) will have a bearing on this second Question. Do you think that the Najib administration will push for an appeal? If it does, what will it do to Najib's and the Malaysian government's reputation, the country's image to investors? Will the repercussions be deep and long-lasting given global corporate captains such as Richard Branson have already expressed exasperation and obvious disgust over the Anwar prosecution?

Malott: I think there will be a lot of pressure on Najib to appeal, coming from the hardliners in UMNO, who are afraid of what will happen if the opposition comes to power. Gani Patail and the prosecutors also have lost face, so they might be inclined to want to appeal. Some people might think that they can find a more compliant Judge the next time. But the reaction not just from inside Malaysia but also from overseas will be strong if the (Malaysian) government appeals and puts Anwar and his family through this again.

Chronicle: 3. Given your familiarity with the Malaysian political scene and its players, after decades of monitoring the situation, what do you personally think Najib will do? Will he push for an appeal and why?

Malott: Personally, I think that Najib does not want to appeal. But Najib has always been a very weak leader. He talks a good game, but as the saying goes, he doesn’t walk the talk. He is under a lot of pressure. So he might just remain silent and let it happen, saying that the decision is up to the prosecution. There have been other times like this, like when he said “it is up to the Police” whether a demonstration can go forward. Are you in charge of your own government or not?

Chronicle: 4. If so, will it mean it's back to square One for Malaysia and Pakatan Rakyat? Also, what about Malaysian voters? Will it make them more inclined to boot out the BN? Or will it make them doubt Anwar again?

Malott: Somebody joked, never make predictions about the future. I don’t know what will happen. But I do think that 2012 will be the most important and also the most interesting time in Malaysia’s political history. That’s good for Malaysia Chronicle. You will have lots to write about !!

Chronicle: 5. From an outsider's view, what do you see happening inside UMNO? It is famous for intrigue and infighting. Have trends or scenarios evolved that even outsiders can see clearly the divisions forming, with distinct groups or factions emerging? If yes, who do you reckon are the main players in UMNO and what is their respective purpose?

Malott: I think it is clear that BN as a whole is no longer a strong political force. It is all about UMNO now. MCA and MIC have been emasculated and lost credibility with the Chinese and Indian communities. So the focus will turn to UMNO. In some ways, the struggle inside UMNO will be more important than the struggle between UMNO and PR. The hardliners, the right wing inside UMNO will become more vocal and anti-Najib. Mahathir, Muhyiddin, Hisham, Ibrahim Ali will all cause Najib even more trouble. Depending on how the political winds blow, some of the more moderates inside UMNO might decide to cross over, or be lukewarm in their support of UMNO, sit the election out and see what happens.

Look at Sakmongol (Dato Ariff Sabri). He kept trying to get UMNO back on track, and now he has joined DAP. It will be interesting to watch what Ku Li says and does and whether he finally concludes that there is no hope for reform inside UMNO.

Chronicle: 6. GE-13 date is also another factor that may be affected by the acquittal. Some say the aquittal pushes GE-13 forward but others including DAP's Lim Kit Siang thinks it is no longer March but June 2012. There are others who even think it may be after the UMNO internal polls later this year - perhaps in early 2013? What do you think and why?

Malott: I think that elections are more likely sooner rather than later. The longer UMNO waits, the more problems will come out, the longer the opposition will have to organize and campaign.

Chronicle: 7. In your article 'Testing Malaysia's Promises', you mentioned electoral reforms and the dirtiest GE-13 ever with the possibility of a return to the strong-arm tactics of Dr Mahathir. Since the July 9 Bersih rally and the formation of a Parliamentary Select Committee on reforms, as someone who has been watching the Malaysian situation, do you think enough is being done to ensure clean elections and swiftly enough too?

Malott: I don’t think anything has been done yet. All talk, no action. The point is, these reforms need to be put in place before the general elections are held, or the results will not be credible.

Chronicle: 8. So far, the proposed use of indelible ink has been approved, but are there many other hurdles? Would you be satisfied with current achievements of the PSC and the electoral reforms it has agreed to implement? And why?

Malott: I think the most important reform of all is to make sure that RTM and Bernama, which are owned by all the people of Malaysia, are fair and balanced in their reporting. Right now they act like they belong to UMNO and not the Government. The restrictions on distribution of the opposition’s newspapers also should be removed. The ruling parties and the opposition should be treated the same. That is the only fair way.

Chronicle: 9. Anwar has long been a friend of yours. This acquittal has been a tremendous boost for him - personally, for his family and for his legitimacy as a leader of the country. If the Najib administration pursues an appeal, do you think public sentiment will desert Anwar?

Or do you think Anwar has already navigated a tricky corner and is now able to fully push the Pakatan Rakyat towards victory in GE-13.

What are some of the benefits Anwar and Pakatan will reap from the acquittal and what will an appeal do to these?

Malott: It is true that my wife and I have become good friends with Anwar and Azizah, and I came to know all of his children so well during the time that they lived here in Washington DC. They are a wonderful family. But when I analyze Malaysian politics, I still wear my old diplomat’s hat and try to be observant and not let my personal feelings get in the way.

If the Government pursues an appeal against Anwar, it will strengthen the opposition in terms of public sentiment. It will tie up Anwar’s time in court, however, and make it harder for him to deal with issues inside the opposition and campaign, simply because he would have to deal with legal issues and sit in court all day.

I said that I do not like to make predictions, but I do believe that if electoral reforms are put in place, and the elections are fair, then the opposition most likely will come to power. They almost did it in 2008, with one hand tied behind their back. I say this as an analyst of Malaysian politics, and not because of any personal feelings.

Malaysia Chronicle

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