Bad news worth noticing in Malaysia

The Malaysian government's arrest yesterday of a politician named Anwar Ibrahim is important and really discouraging news.

When my family lived in Malaysia twenty years ago, Anwar was the bright-eyed, somewhat fiery-tongued young Malay leader on the rise. Malaysia, then as now a prosperous, diverse, and overall very modern country, then as now had a nascent fundamentalist-Islamist movement to deal with. Anwar in his youth stood for a kind of Islamic reassertion, but of a very suave and modern kind. I was at a conference in Singapore in the late 1980s where he appeared along with Lee Kuan Yew. The arrogant mandarin and the confident young aspirant made an impressive complementary pair.

Then in the 1990s he seemed to pose too direct a challenge to his one-time patron, the overly-long-staying Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir, and he was imprisoned on sodomy charges that most outsiders considered politically motivated. He has recently become eligible to run for office again and has attracted wide support. And now, incredibly, the government has come up with a new 23-year-old male witness to make the same old shocking allegations against him.

I am not aware of anyone outside the Malaysian ruling party who doesn't think this is a politically-engineered charge. To be precise: I know nothing about Anwar's personal life, and perhaps it is conceivable that at two crucial moments in the country's political history he has committed an offense guaranteed to humiliate him in most Malaysians' eyes. But it seems unlikely. The timing and nature of the accusation, this time as before, are too convenient to be easily believable.

Malaysia is a better country than this -- that is, its ruling practices and its judiciary have often been above this kind of opportunism. I hope it shows that it's a better country. Meanwhile, outsiders should remind Malaysia's regime that this is wrong.