Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim spoke to the Nation's Group Editor-in-Chief Thepchai Yong in Kuala Lumpur last week prior to the visit of US President Barack Obama. He expressed his disappointment that Obama didn't see him, criticised the Najib government for what he sees as a cover-up in its handling of missing flight MH370, compared the ongoing political situation in Thailand and Malaysia, and urged a more "aggressive" approach by the Malaysian government in helping Thailand seek a peaceful solution to the southern insurgency. Here are excerpts of the interview:
THEPCHAI: ARE YOU DISAPPOINTED THAT US PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA IS NOT SEEING YOU DURING HIS VISIT TO KUALA LUMPUR?
ANWAR: Our request is that the US stays consistent and coherent. The US ambassador has explained that the [Obama's Asian visit] doesn't include meeting opposition leaders. I can't complain because the US has consistently been in support of the democratic process, rule of law, and has taken up my case. In that sense, I appreciate it. But I find it difficult to accept that the Malaysian government can use the trade agreement [TPP] and business to pressure the president of the United States. That doesn't go well for those fighting for freedom and reform.
SO YOU BELIEVE THE NAJIB GOVERNMENT WAS BEHIND THE DECISION OF THE US PRESIDENT NOT TO SEE YOU?
Yes, because their position has been clear. When I had programmes to see the president of Indonesia, Prime Minister Abhisit in Bangkok, or the visiting prime minister of Turkey, there were always problems and pressure. When they wanted to see me they were all stopped through diplomatic channels.
WHAT WOULD YOU WANT TO SAY TO PRESIDENT OBAMA IF YOU SEE HIM?
Be consistent with the American foreign policy in supporting reform agenda, transparent governments, democratic reforms. They have sent battalion after battalion of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq and also drones in the war on terrorism, and here they can't be muted when the UMNO regime is using the court to deny my basic rights and those [rights] of other political leaders.
IT HAS BEEN TWO MONTHS SINCE THE DIS-APPEARANCE OF MH370 AND THERE ARE NO |INDICATIONS THAT THE PLANE WILL BE |LOCATED ANY TIME SOON. YOU HAVE SPOKEN OUT STRONGLY ON WHAT YOU SEE AS THE INEFFICIENCY AND INCOMPETENCE OF THE NAJIB GOVERNMENT. AND YOU HAVE ACCUSED THE GOVERNMENT OF A COVER-UP. WHAT IS YOUR THEORY ON THIS?
It's a tragedy, not only for the crew members, the passengers and their families, but it also opens up some of the major flaws in our opaque system of governance. No transparency and accountability. It's very difficult to understand what happened when there was a huge cover-up. I know the government is angry when I say that but I know about the radar which was procured when I was minister of finance. The Marconi system is a very sophisticated system comparable to the Thai radar system. And up to today, the government has not even released the cargo manifest of the flight except to say it was four tonnes of mangosteens . The Thais and Malaysians laugh about it because we know this is not the mangosteen season and you cannot get four tonnes off-season easily. The passenger list and the cargo manifest are there on all flights. Why are we hiding them? And there was also Interpol's report of stolen passports and we overlook(ed) that.
SO YOU ARE SAYING THAT THERE ARE THINGS THAT THE GOVERNMENT KNOWS BUT IS NOT TELLING THE PUBLIC?
Sure. The radar issue is known to the government. The cargo manifest is also known to the government. These have happened in the past. We had a case some years back in which two jet engines went missing and no one was accountable. There was also the murder of a Mongolian model [which was linked to an aide of Prime Minister Najib] and there was no record when she came in, when she left. This tradition of an opaque |system of cover-up has happened many times in the past. But it was not of |interest to the international community until MH370.
WITH THE SOPHISTICATED RADAR SYSTEM YOU DON'T THINK THE PLANE COULD JUST DISAPPEAR INTO NOWHERE?
It was not possible. It is a very sophisticated radar at Gong Kedah [the air force facility in northern Malaysia]. It can read from the border of Thailand to central Malaya, South China Sea and Indian Ocean. If the objects were just kites I would understand. But if they are huge planes, even small planes like Cessna, flying low or high they can be easily detected. The Marconi replaced the old radar system which also could read but this one is much better. The air force staff might be asleep but … the beeps would be so loud that they must have been alerted and there would [be the] recording of the radar. The plane crossed five provinces, Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Perak, Penang our heartland. We have major security problems if the government says it cannot detect.
DO YOU HAVE YOUR OWN THEORY AS TO WHAT HAPPENED?
It's concealing and cover-up.
FOR A PERIOD THE INCIDENT APPEARED TO BE POLITICISED WHEN THE FACT THAT THE FLIGHT CAPTAIN ZAHARIE AHMAD SHAH, WHO WAS A CARD-CARRYING MEMBER OF YOUR PARTY AND A DISTANT RELATIVE OF YOURS, WAS HIGHLIGHTED.
Seven hours after the decision of the court of appeals to convict me, Zaharie took off with the flight. I do not deny he is a card-carrying and active member of the party. He was known to have expressed his views against frauds in the elections and corruption in this country and supporting reforms. He supports democratic transition, free elections, which means he is against any form of extremist, fanatical or terrorist activities. They tried [to politicise the incident] for a few days but when the international media went after them to see how absurd, insane [it was ] of them to cast a suspicion like that they all backed off, saying they were not linking it to any political activities and Anwar was exploiting it. All UMNO blogs and Malaysian media made reference that Zaharie was a fanatical supporter of Anwar.
WHY DO FOREIGN MEDIA COME TO YOU, THE OPPOSITION LEADER, INSTEAD OF GOVERNMENT AUTHORITIES TO GET INFORMATION AND COMMENTS ON THE MH370 INCIDENT?
They came to me because the government was trying to link Zaharie to me. But more important it was because there was a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the government. The prime minister came for a press conference and refused to take questions. This is because they are familiar only with the UMNO-controlled and government-controlled compliant media which would not ask questions. But in this case, they had to face international media, not only The Nation, but CNN, BBC, Chinese and Indian media. They knew there were questions they could not answer. So because of the failure of Prime Minister Najib and the government's flip-flopping they came to me. And fortunately, I happen to know about the radar. I know the system. I know the place. And I don't deny that I know Zaharie, who is related to my daughter-in-law. But only because they are my relatives they cannot all be hijackers.
BUT CAN THE GOVERNMENT ALSO ACCUSE YOU OF TRYING TO POLITICISE THE INCIDENT?
They did because they thought I was getting the media attention. But I didn't say anything beyond the facts. There are questions about the radar, the cargo manifest, the passports and the flip-flop answers. Nothing beyond that. The government has to address these questions but until today there are no answers to the questions of the radar, the cargo manifest and the passports. When they government is asked about the cargo, the answer is mangosteens. That's why people resort to asking opposition leaders and asked me how I would handle the situation. My answer was that in one second I would decide to be transparent and tell them our problems and our weaknesses and what we would do. They twisted it and quoted me as saying that in one second I would solve all the problem.
THE MH370 INCIDENT HAS PUT MALAYSIA UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT THE WAY IT HAS NEVER SEEN BEFORE. BUT THERE ARE SUGGESTIONS THAT SUCH GLOBAL SCRUTINY MIGHT FORCE THE GOVERNMENT TO HAVE A SECOND THOUGHT ABOUT THROWING YOU BACK INTO JAIL. DO YOU SEE THAT POSSIBILITY?
I would be happy if that is a case. But we are not dealing with a democratic regime that is sensitive to the sentiments of the public and international community. We are dealing with a corrupt and opaque authoritarian regime that knows only brute force and power. They feel that if I am the threat, they will deal with the threat. The international media now are monitoring what is happening in Malaysia. So I think it would be immensely helpful because now people are looking at the court proceedings. I recently had lunch with the EU ambassadors and I had no need to brief them because they all followed the case [Anwar's trial] quite well, not from our media, of course, but from court proceedings. That is very much welcome because it creates awareness and it helps us.
WOULD YOU SAY THAT THE MAJORITY OF MALAYSIANS ARE NOT GETTING THE INFORMATION THEY WANT ABOUT MH370 FROM THE LOCAL MEDIA?
You are right. The local media always report information given them by the government. The UNMO says this is the best way we can handle the situation and we are being praised all over the world. But according to the latest survey, 54 per cent of Malaysian say their handling of MH370 crisis was very poor. They blame the government for that.
SO WHAT YOU SAY TO INTERNATIONAL MEDIA DOES NOT GET REPORTED BY THE LOCAL MEDIA?
Never. Even during the election. My role as the opposition leader was completely erased and I didn't even have one minute of airtime on our national television.
SINCE PRIME MINISTER NAJIB CAME TO POWER, MALAYSIA HAS SLIDED DOWN THE MEDIA FREEDOM INDEX. ACCORDING TO THE LATEST INDEX COMPILED BY INTERNATIONAL MEDIA ORGANISATION REPORTERS WITHOUT FRONTIERS, MALAYSIA IS DOING WORSE THAN MYANMAR. CAN IT BE THAT BAD?
It's true. At least Aung San Suu Kyi was given half an hour of airtime to speak on national television prior to the election. The [Myanmar] media can report bits about opposition parties from time to time. But here it's zero. Not only that, they [Malaysia media] demonise you. In newspapers, you are [a] one-time Chinese agent, and then Al-Quaeda, [a] Jewish agent or a sex pervert, or [an] Indonesian agent. But they have not called me a Thai agent yet.
FORMER PRIME MINISTER MAHATHIR MOHAMMED, WHO WAS MOST INSTRUMENTAL FOR YOUR POLITICAL MISFORTUNE, HAS ALSO COMPLAINED ABOUT THE LACK OF MEDIA FREEDOM IN MALAYSIA. ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT THE SAME TIME?
Of course. He is talking about the prominence he should get but he forgets the fact that he is no longer the prime minister and thinks what he says should get reported on national television. But no criticisms of Mahathir get reported in the media, either about corruption or the fact that his son controls Petronas contracts and is a multi-billionaire. These things are never covered by the media. But the fact that he criticises it [the lack of media freedom] is something positive. In a direct hit today against Najib he said "absolute power corrupts absolutely". I think this is timely advice.
DO YOU THINK MAHATHIR STILL WIELDS ANY INFLUENCE IN UMNO THESE DAYS?
He has [a] small influence. Combined with former finance minister Tun Daim and others who are billionaires, they can fund a lot of civil society operations and can get a lot of people to attend activities. But I don't believe they wield a lot of influence, even within the ruling party. One evidence is [that] when he contested to be a delegate to a UMNO meeting he lost. And his son also lost his bid for vice presidency of the party. Of course, that made him very angry.
IN HIS MEMOIRS, MAHATHIR MADE IT CLEAR HE STILL HOLDS GRUDGES AGAINST YOU. WHAT ABOUT YOU?
I am a forward-looking person. I was bitter and was in prison for eight years. But I have to move on. Mahathir has done something positive for the country too but has destroyed institutions in the process - the media, the judiciary, the corruption. His children are billionaires and there are cronies. Unfortunately, he still has this mindset of the past. His bitterness is clear. I don't think I want to be like that. You have to overcome not only fear but also anger. If your intention is to be in power like Mahathir, full of hatred and venom, I don't think you would have time to lead the country.
HE HAS HAD HIS DAYS BUT WHY WOULD HE STILL WANT TO BE BITTER AND VENGEFUL?
I think most retired dictators have the same problem. They still want to dictate. For 20 years you are the authoritarian leader, you want people to listen and obey, not to question. So even after retirement, he cannot accept the fact that people oppose him and … Anwar criticises him in public. Things like these are still eating into him. I feel sorry for him. He should have peace and tranquillity and move [on], be a statesman. But he has his strengths too. I don't deny the hard work, the vision and other things he has done, including the latitude given to me to function as [a] minister of many portfolios. was [the] worst. But because you continue to persevere on the path of freedom and, of course, you have to battle against the corrupted and the unjust. I have overcome fear. I was in London a fortnight ago for a conference with former Vice President Al Gore, former Irish President Mary Robinson and other personalities. All of them advised me to stay back in London because there is no point going to jail.
STAYING BACK MEANS SEEKING EXILE?
Yes, seeking exile. Going back means you are not going to get a fair trial. They know I will be condemned to jail. But I, without hesitation, decided to come back. This is my country.
BUT THIS IS PROBABLY WHAT THE NAJIB GOVERNMENT WANTS TOO.
Yes, they prefer to see me out of the country. But I, all my life, I am here fighting for reforms. We are lacking behind in many ways. We used to be better economically but we have lost out. Despite all the political commotion, the battles between the red and yellow shirts, the Thai economy is still moving, albeit at a slower pace. But we are behind because of the issues of governance and endemic corruption. So I believe people like me have a small role to play. But I have to overcome fear. And overcome fear to me is a great achievement.
AND WHAT ABOUT YOUR SUPPORTERS. DO THEY WANT YOU TO STAY TO LEAD THE FIGHT FROM WITHIN THE COUNTRY?
Even many of my supporters who are passionate about reforms feel that they can accept if I chose to stay overseas because they would be disheartened if I have to endure [a] prison sentence again. But I told them I am here, committed.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT? YOU LOST A CHANCE TO CONTEST IN THE BY-ELECTION IN SELANGOR THAT WOULD HAVE PROVIDED YOU WITH A SPRINGBOARD FOR A BIGGER POLITICAL [MOVE] AND YOU ARE NOW FACING A PROSPECT OF GOING BACK TO JAIL.
Que sera sera. What will be will be. But we shouldn't believe that authoritarian and corrupt leaders have the final say. I will continue to persevere inside or outside prison. We trust [the] wisdom of the people. Without the media, without the resources and with electoral frauds we still won 52 per cent of the popular vote. Can you imagine if the election was free, if I had an hour of airtime on television. We would easily have garnered 60 per cent. Everybody says that and some observers say we would have got a minimum of 58 per cent, which would be seen as a resounding victory. But it did not happen because everybody knows there were electoral frauds. Can you call it a democratic election when we didn't have even one minute of airtime?
IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE ELECTION LAST YEAR, YOU WERE ABLE TO BRING HUGE CROWDS TO STREET PROTESTS AND RALLIES. BUT THEY EVENTUALLY FIZZLED OUT. DOES THAT MEAN YOU HAVE ACCEPTED THE ELECTION RESULT AS A FAIT ACCOMPLI?
Our decision was to have rallies, not street demonstrations. Rallies mean we assembled and departed at eleven. Some rallies were huge, something unprecedented. Though we registered for the rallies we were taken to court and were penalised and had to pay millions. Like in Ukraine and Bangkok, those were the only options we had then. At that point we thought they had sent powerful enough a message and decided to back off a bit, hoping that Najib would respond to a dialogue. Unlike the Thai situation, we the opposition are calling for a dialogue and conciliation. There was no response. I have been opposition leader since 2008 and cannot get an appointment to see the prime minister even once.
BUT AREN'T THERE VOICES OF REASON WITHIN THE GOVERNMENT OR THE RULING PARTY THAT SEE THE NEED FOR DIALOGUE THAT WILL HELP MOVE THE COUNTRY FORWARD?
I believe there are elements within UMNO, probably [a] small minority, that share some of these concerns. But we are talking about a system that is autocratic and authoritarian, which does not allow dissidence within the establishment. Being seen talking to the opposition is considered a sign of weakness. When you have a prime minister who gave a press conference but not taking questions, how do you expect him to meet me? It is difficult to imagine that will happen.
FOR A WHILE PRIME MINISTER NAJIB WAS SEEN AS A MORE LIBERAL LEADER WITHIN UMNO, SIGNALLING A WILLINGNESS TO SCALE BACK SOME OF THE RACE-BASED ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL POLICIES AND LAWS THAT ARE SEEN AS AUTHORITARIAN.
He did talk about transformation programmes, well-crafted policies to show that he understands some issues, the need for economic competition and to end some of the race-based policies. But they were crafted by international consultants that he employed and paid 17 million ringgits (Bt170 million baht). They were the same group that advised Nigeria and Kazakhstan. So good luck. But beyond that he did not make any efforts.
BUT SHOULDN'T THE RESULT OF LAST YEAR'S ELECTION HAVE COME AS A RUDE AWAKENING FOR THE RULING COALITION?
Based on the essence of their policy, clearly there is no change. As you said, any reasonable persons looking at the election result, with the cheating and the media control, you still managed to get only 47 per cent of the votes. You should shift so that you will be popular, more transparent. In fact, when the ethnic Chinese and Indian chose to support the opposition, the first reaction from Najib was "what more do the Chinese want?" And following that he strengthened the pro-Malay policy. The Malay policy is designed to benefit their family members and cronies, not the poor marginalised Malays.
YOU HAVE BEEN TALKING CONSISTENTLY ABOUT PROBLEMS OF CORRUPTION AND CRONYISM BUT NOTHING SEEMS TO HAVE CHANGED.
No. But there is a better understanding of the issue. Corruption was not a major issue in our culture or elections but now it's one of the top issues. People see that once you are in the political leadership or prime minister you automatically become billionaires. The contracts are opaque, no tender bids. Privatisation means to prioritise to your families and your cronies. In that sense, we are successful because the awareness has shot up.
YOU WERE INSTRUMENTAL IN UNITING THE OPPOSITION PARTIES BUT AS YOU SAID YOU ARE NOT GETTING ANY YOUNGER AND FACING A PROSPECT OF BEING JAILED. HOW DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE OF THE OPPOSITION WHEN YOU WILL BE NOT PLAYING AN ACTIVE POLITICAL ROLE FOR WHATEVER REASONS?
Political leaders tend to think they are invincible and irreplaceable. But you can be successful only when you are able to give exposure and train new leaders. In our party, across all ethnic groups, we have a growing number of young team members in their 40s and 30s who show the capacity to be effective and articulate leaders with a clear vision for reform, freedom and justice. I am, therefore, very much encouraged by this trend. I don't think this is just an Anwar's role. Yes, given the circumstances, I did my part. The coalition parties are quite cemented and strong. It will be difficult to break them.
THAI PEOPLE HAVE TAKEN A LEAF FROM THE BOOK OF YOUR REFORMASI. THEY ARE TAKING TO THE STREETS ON A REFORM AND CHANGE PLATFORM - SOMETHING YOU STARTED MANY YEARS BACK. BUT THE RULING PARTY INSISTS ON ELECTORAL. DO YOU SEE ANY SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE SITUATIONS IN THAILAND AND MALAYSIA?
Lots of similarities, because the demands for change and reform are more comprehensive. It's not just elections. In Iraq, the fault of US policy was its obsession with elections. The institutional governance was not in place, there was no free media or independent judiciary and strong emphasis on education. When you talk about free and fair elections in Malaysia, which are neither free nor fair, you also talk about free media, independent judiciary and the level of understanding of politics and policies so that people can judge the political leadership.
THERE ARE PEOPLE IN THAILAND WHO BELIEVE THEY CAN BRING ABOUT CHANGES THROUGH STREET PROTESTS AND THERE ARE THOSE WHO BELIEVE CHANGES SHOULD BE MADE THROUGH BALLOT BOXES. HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE WHAT HAPPENS IN THAILAND WITH THE SITUATION IN MALAYSIA?
You are going through what I have gone through. I understand the Thai phenomenon and the reformasi in Jakarta. At least in Thailand the media does give some latitude to both sides but in Malaysia we don't have that. In elections as they are, if I have one billion dollars in my constituency I am going to win. So you must start by making sure that the electoral process is clean, there is public education, there are strong electoral laws against electoral frauds, laws against abuse of power and corrupt practices. I think all these must be in place, otherwise you will have one or two big conglomerates funding and winning elections.
SO ELECTIONS ARE NOT THE ONLY ANSWER TO PROBLEMS THAT COUNTRIES LIKE THAILAND AND MALAYSIA ARE FACING?
Election is one of the fundamental pillars but not the only answer. We would require public education, access to the media, and independent judiciary. So it's a whole paraphernalia that would be required in establishing a democratic system of governance.
MALAYSIA HAS HELPED FACILITATE PEACE DIALOGUE IN SOUTHERN THAILAND BUT THE TALKS HAVE STALLED, LARGELY BECAUSE OF THE ONGOING POLITICAL CONFLICT IN THAILAND. WHAT ROLE DO YOU THINK MALAYSIA SHOULD PLAY IN HELPING TO BRING ABOUT PEACE IN SOUTHERN THAILAND?
I have always called for rapprochement, dialogue between the two parties with the involvement of Bangkok directly. Malaysia must be more aggressive in sending out a clear message that we want a peaceful resolution. There seems to be contradictory and conflicting messages from Malaysia. I know many of the people in Pattani and various groups on the border. A number of times I mentioned to my colleagues in Bangkok the issues of poverty and marginalisation. But we should not compromise on the need for a peaceful resolution. They are all Thais and violence is not the answer. I am not saying the problems are perpetrated by the Thais or because of excesses by the military in the past. But sometimes they are criminal acts using the facade of insurgency by the Pattani movement. I must say that Bangkok's initiative must be supported clearly and aggressively by the Malaysian government. The Malaysian government must also utilise people that are credible. They cannot have people that even some people in Pattani would question. They must have people who are credible and committed to a peaceful resolution. They must be prepared to surrender arms. And there must be concession in terms of their rights, their language, culture and religion, which I believe are clearly defined in the Thai constitution and supported by most who believe in democracy and freedom in Thailand. What I want to say is that Malaysia must be more aggressive in supporting Thai initiative.
BUT HOW AGGRESSIVE CAN MALAYSIA BE?
Those groups that we have some influence in, we can help convey their legitimate demands to our friends in Thailand. But we must also be firm in suggesting [to] them that in no way will we condone armed insurrection or violence.
(The full interview will be aired on Nation TV (Channel 22) on a later date).