Malaysia's Low Tide


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- East Asia's current distress over moral and economic choices is reminiscent of the crisis that gripped Europe and America about three-quarters of a century ago. In 1933, Germany and the United States took different paths out of the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated President and promised a New Deal. In Germany, Hitler and the Nazis became a legitimate force in Parliament.

There is much for Asians to learn from that chapter of Western history. The economic crisis that began in July 1997 has brought about our own Great Depression. And economic troubles have engendered a political crisis of confidence, pitting ancien régimes against a generation eager for change as it looks forward to a truly democratic Asia.

Some countries have already chosen their paths.

South Korea has decided to go with President Kim Dae Jung's Rooseveltian reforms. In Indonesia, an aged dictator has been forced out, and new leaders will be chosen in the first free elections in more than 30 years. Thailand too is reforming, and its democracy is strengthening. And President Joseph Estrada confounds his critics as he keeps the Philippines on track toward reform.

Oddly, it is in Malaysia, once the most stable of Southeast Asian nations, that a power-crazed Prime Minister is trying to block the tide. Mahathir Mohamad, 73, sees himself as the only person alive who can lead Malaysia out of the economic crisis. According to his reasoning, there was absolutely nothing wrong with his policies; things were perfect before "outside forces" -- George Soros, Jews, the International Monetary Fund, Washington, Wall Street -- jealous of Asian success and hungry for new colonies, came and spoiled it all. And those who disagreed and called for reform were denounced as traitors and lackeys of Western powers.

I became dangerous because as Finance Minister I would not do Dr. Mahathir's "business as usual" and as a politician I had widespread support for my work toward democracy and civil society. So I was accused of sex crimes, treason and corruption and expelled from government and party.

Instead of scorning me, as they were meant to, many Malaysians were outraged and began to see in Dr. Mahathir a has-been leader who had descended to cruelty in a desperate bid to cling to power.

Eventually, on Sept. 20, 1998, Dr. Mahathir ordered me arrested. That night, blindfolded and handcuffed, I suffered Gestapo-style violence at the hands of the Inspector General of Police, who aimed his punches and karate chops at lethal areas. I was then abandoned for nearly a week, part of it in a dungeon, without medical attention.

Six months after I appeared in public with my wounds, which Dr. Mahathir said could have been self-inflicted, the Inspector General confessed to his crime. That this criminal still walks free while I am jailed for "abuse of office" shows just how far Dr. Mahathir has taken Malaysia down the abyss of injustice. Our judiciary was once among the most independent in the developing world, but the farce that was my trial and the persecution of the opposition lawmaker Lim Guan Eng, among other cases, have confirmed suspicions that it has since become a mere adjunct of the executive arm of the Government.

I had to be demolished so that Dr. Mahathir's slide from power could be stopped. Falsely accusing me of sex crimes alone might not have worked, so he threw in "puppet of Washington" and "C.I.A. agent." The American Defense Secretary, William Cohen, unwittingly inspired this spy fiction by greeting me with a 19-gun salute when I went to Washington in the spring of 1998. The event is cited as proof that I am an American mole.

Given Malaysia's political culture, it was just a matter of time before ambitious politicians jumped onto the bandwagon of xenophobia. But so far nothing has matched the bizarre claims of two Cabinet members that the United States or some other foreign power waged biological warfare by introducing into Malaysia a deadly virus that is wreaking havoc in the country.

Such insults to the public's intelligence are a major reason for the increasing popularity of the "reformasi" movement, which emerged spontaneously upon my sacking and recently gave birth to a multiracial political organization that my wife heads.

We believe that the new party, in cooperation with other opposition groups, will help pull Malaysia out of the morass and pave the way toward civil society.

Anwar Ibrahim was Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia until September 1998, when he was arrested. Yesterday he was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to six years in prison. The United States Government has criticized the conviction, saying there were serious flaws in the judicial process. He wrote this article from his jail cell.