“Malaysia… has all the symptoms of an illiberal democracy, or a very soft authoritarian regime”, Nurul Izzar Anwar tells The Oslo Times
Ms. Izzar Anwar, you are a prominent Malaysian politician, as well as the daughter of the highly renown Anwar Ibrahim, who is the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, a democratic activist and is currently imprisoned for the fourth time under false pretenses for his political views and activities. Thank very much for joining us for this interview. It is a pleasure to speak with you and learn more about the political and human rights situation in you home country of Malaysia.
As far as Human Rights conferences are concerned, what was your impression of the Oslo Freedom Forum? The Oslo Freedom forum (OFF), of course, is a very famous grouping of human rights activists worldwide. Politicians, artists and authors who come together to foster ideas towards greater movements for democratization. So, it is very well known. My father was also very involved as one of its speakers previously. I would have been here earlier but I had to attend the Economic Davos gathering and I guess I couldn’t say no this time around as my father has been incarcerated and the team at OFF has kindly given me a slot to tell Malaysia‘s story.
Malaysia is a growing economy, and a well known tourist destination, but not many actually know much about this beautiful country, could summarize Malaysia’s story for us?
You see, when you are here you compete with other kleptocratic nations and it is always a challenge because people have certain views and pre-set impressions of Malaysia. It is a peaceful multiracial and tropical country with a “developing nation” status. Malaysia, even after 22 years since it was considered a Medium ranged country in terms of economic status. So, certainly it is not going to be easy to place Malaysia‘s’ struggle in the face of other adversities.
But I think that there is a contradiction in Malaysia because you have all the symptoms of an illiberal democracy, or a very soft authoritarian regime that has been in power for more than 50 years. Malaysia‘s story can be clearly seen, I guess from the plight of Anwar Ibrahim, who not only is my father but is also the opposition leader who has imposed strong challenges to the government and has been met with full imprisonment terms under the same government.
I think it is worth telling you this because it is story that showcases how the government in Malaysia suppresses sensible democratic leaders. Just before I came here, my colleagues and I, plus two hundred other protesters were arrested, charged, investigated and so forth.
You used the term; there is a totalitarian regime and you used the ”soft” totalitarian regime. What do you mean by that?
It is kind of a crucial point because sometimes there are clear symptoms that indicates what is a a true and practicing and thriving democracy, versus what is a soft authoritarian regime. If you look at Malaysia‘s description for money stocks, scholars and academics, they will tell us that Malaysia is a illiberal democracy. You have flaws in terms of the rule of law, you have no free media except, perhaps, online. So there is zero uncontrolled media. There is also a very strong executive, meaning, there is no separation of powers. So when you have all these indicators, yes, we are at the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to illiberal democracy, but, it still imperfect. That is what Malaysians are trying to fight; to make sure it is more democratic and fair. And is it causing us problems? It is! it is affecting our economic success, it is arresting our growth and our potential. And all of this has created tensions in the last general elections because it marks the first time the federal government lost its popular spot. Since its history it has never got less than 48% of the the popular support.
Let us get to the human rights issue. Your father has been influencing Islamic countries and many human rights organizations and activists know about him. In that light, what can you say about the current Human Rights situation in Malaysia?
My father of course was seen as an Islamic leader and unfortunately he was of course charged for sodomy, which was untrue. To endure that for 17 years as a family, with the slander and everything else, it was not something easy for us. We came from a very conservative setting and I think we talk about the question of. What was it again that you asked me about?
…About the Human Rights
So, basically, I think in Malaysia if you look at the rankings, we have not been at the forefronts of respecting human rights per se. Every single time the framework of Asian values comes in to play we can have acceptance of the conventions by the declarations of Human Rights because we are a different country. We have Islam as our official religion now which is always used as an excuse given by the executive when they want to crumple against the rights of their citizens and to silence dissent. So I think we have problems, huge problems. Not just the government not respecting the rights of their citizens, the government also does not respect the rights of refugees, of foreign workers, or anyone really.
What is the reason behind those things that you claim?
Well it has been many cases. For me, first if you look at refugees, we have problems because of the detention center. Is not in line with human rights standards, it is not in line with hygienic standards or acceptable working standards and living conditions. That is quite clear. If we go to workers, in terms of productivity, it has been about 20% in the manufacturing sector, but, wage growth have been relatively stagnant. Our wage growth is lower than that of Indonesia, so you have to understand how workers feel in Malaysia. We introduced minimum wage about two years ago but It has not been fully implemented. So a lot of people in Malaysia, for example, up to about 60% earn below 800 US dollars per month. So this is a huge problem, people do not make enough money to even eat meat. So, of course food is cheap in Malaysia, I am not saying people are starving to death, but I think you understand my point.
How is it possible that your father, who has very good relationships with the western countries, human rights organizations and a lot of other nations and organizations, actually be prosecuted and punished to such a degree?
It is quite shocking because when he was convicted he had support from the United states department, the NSC (National Security Council) as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. So I think that was a very significant showcase of the person he is and the leader he was. He was very much involved with the World Assembly for Muslim Youth(WAMY). He set up Malaysia‘s first Islamic youth movement which had the most number of memberships until today – that was him! But at the very same time, he had engagements, I mean, he always brought the issue, his ideas – that strengths can come from all over the World. The issue is, that the principles and the moral compass must me made the same. I remember when he was released from prison in the year 2004, Paul Wolfowitz, which is not a very popular name, but he came to visit and they knew each other of course. So you could understand part of his linkage to networkings also as a member of Malaysian government. Malaysia has always maintained the neutral nuclear free zone so far. That was our policy in the 60’s when the whole Russian versus America Cold War scene came about. Malaysia was picking up a neutral status so I think he is also part of that history, right? And this represents the soul of the Malaysian people; we are people who are independent. We can se the benefits and the lessons from the East as well as from the West and that is how the World should be! Why does it have to be completely western oriented or completely Islamic oriented? We have to take the best of both worlds.
Let us talk about you. How can you see yourself in Malaysian politics today?
I started out in 1999, just campaigning, because I was a student and I chose engineering even though people kept saying it was useless to be an engineer when you are involved in a reform movement. But I wanted to be an engineer and I want to finish my degree. So upon finishing, in my free time I attended human rights commissions and the conference in Geneva, I worked alongside human rights groups both Islamic and Liberal. I think you have to engage everyone. You get a sense of what the real World is about. I mean, the real World is not working in a Mosque. The real World includes your involvement in the Mosque community and of course people of other faiths. I guess when I contested in 2008, it was not an easy decision, but I feel that I am making a difference in my small way. Of course it is not goal to be successful, I am not a dreamer. It is going to be really difficult, the opposition is facing a really difficult time. We might even break up as a coalition but someone has got to do it. If everyone thinks it is better for you to just stay at home and spend your valuable time with your family, find yourself a little richer, nothing is going to happen. I think it is every single day you take a step forward (but the entire process can be very difficult). I was very, very forlorn and I was heartbroken when my father was detained for the forth time. I think after 17 years, again, having to face it is a very difficult position. But we rise above.
You mentioned earlier that the Malaysian federal government has never received less that 48% of the popular vote until your last election. What drove this result?
Ok, The national government front, the popular support they had in western Malaysia was 47%, and ours was 52%, and that is why in that setting it was severe. They had about 60% of the parliamentary seats and we lost out. But our coalition, the opposition, is not facing a challenge because the Islamic party has decided to proceed with a bill, to approve an Islamic law, or the Shariah in Kelantan, a northern state in Malaysia. So of course it is creating fear among Malay’s because as a coalition we agree in governing based on the federal constitution of Malaysia. So I am not worried because I know this is right, but my point being, these are flash points, that does not help the coalition to stay stronger together when clearly we have so much at stake. So I think, in the best we are trying to do, we are trying to encourage and give some understanding to the oppositions movement. We have waited for so long. I mean, every single time, we came together with Anwar Ibrahim, it was very difficult to unify the opposition, honestly, before with the Islamic Party on one hand, the Democratic Action Party on the other, and of course our Multiracial Party. So it was Anwar Ibrahim that helped galvanize the momentum to bring these three disparate parties together. I am not going to waste that, right? He is now in prison and it is like a wasteful effort if you do not work hard in trying to bring them together. Bring us together. We were elected for three years. Three years we have been waiting to be registered as a coalition. The Registry of Societies has not registered us and have ignored our request. These are few things, but there are more. They have not killed anyone yet, but they are standing in the way of a viable opposition.
One question, The Oslo Times asks every interview guest – what does Human Rights mean to you?
I think this is a broad question. For me we start with the basis of what are human rights ensuring, and promised to us under the rubric of the federal constitution. So, Malaysia’s federal constitution has clear safeguards and I think we cannot be at odds with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but at the same time, there is also an Islamic version of The Universal Declaration of Human rights. So, I have gotten in trouble for this before when I spoke at a church when they asked me if Malays have the right and freedom of religion. It is quite clear in the Koran that before you chose your faith you have the freedom of choice. So, for me, as long as you are clear on the definition (of human rights) and their parameters, then you can start doing your work. A
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