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Malaysia and the Muslim Spring

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President Obama's recent address to the UN (September 25, 2012) referred to change in the Middle East and North Africa saying that "the path to democracy does not end with the casting of a ballot".

The President went on to deplore the convulsion of violence in the last two weeks in Muslim countries, in reaction to the "crude and disgusting video" denigrating Islam. He said that recent events speak to "the need for all of us to honestly address the tensions between the West and the Arab world that is moving towards democracy".

His remarks brought a welcome balance to recent overreaction by international media to the unrest and violence around the world, by acknowledging that the global movement towards liberty and democracy would not be denied.

The movement behind the Arab Spring -- or rather the Muslim Spring -- has a different connotation in Southeast Asian countries where Burma for example, is slowly transitioning into democracy and Thailand and Pakistan are emerging from periods of military rule. Popular protests and elections have helped bring about change in these countries -- some peaceful, some violent -- but have been more evolutionary than revolutionary in recent years.

Malaysia too, is undergoing change, but its struggle for democracy has also taken a different route from the sudden change of the Arab Spring; it achieved its independence from British colonial rule in 1957 and has since become an example to the world of what an independent multi-racial federation can achieve.

One of the Asia Tigers in economic transformation due to its continued political stability, Malaysia has been governed since 1970 by a coalition headed by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which has presided over a period of dramatic economic growth and increased living standards. Rapid growth, the embrace of technology and industrialization have been accompanied by generous government investment in education, with the result that Malaysia has had one of the best economic records in Asia, with GDP growing at an average of 6.5% for almost 50 years.

Today however, the electorate is restless - the young, educated and relatively well-off population is demanding change. They see the government as representing a past that has been overtaken by modernity. Laws remain on the books that should be repealed in the name of democracy and freedom of speech. At the same time, there is ongoing debate over whether the laws and society of Malaysia, a majority Muslim country, should reflect secular or Islamic principles. Conservative elements in the ruling UMNO coalition are resisting change or want the state to reflect more fundamental Islamic principles and Prime Minister Najib Razak is trying to appease his base while offering reforms to the center, described by some as offering "just enough to alienate his own party and not enough to convince the center ground." (Economist, Feb 4, 2012)

There is one man however, who seems to have a better understanding of the wave of change overtaking Muslim nations right now. Anwar Ibrahim sees his role in the Muslim Spring as reflecting the mood for change from an autocratic and out-of-touch government whose numerous corruption scandals and police brutality prove that government reform is necessary and democracy needs to be up-dated.

Anwar is described as "vibrant, compelling, persuasive" in his public appearances and rallies and has long been a politician of note in Malaysia, being named Newsweek's Asian of the Year in 1998. A personally pious Muslim, he is also a modernizer, a universalist and believer in democracy and economic openness. His defence of civil society, justice and freedom led to a dramatic falling out with then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar was imprisoned for six years on politically motivated, trumped-up corruption and sexual misconduct charges.

His years of imprisonment have served to increase his popularity and his opposition coalition now consists of his own People's Justice party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party and the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action party. The alliance made unprecedented gains in the 2008 election in spite of widespread tampering with electoral rolls. Recent further attempts to blacken Anwar's name are only backfiring on the ruling party and causing cynicism and anger within the wider Malaysian community.

Anwar is aware of the challenges involved in holding together a disparate alliance and dealing with pressures from extremists on the edges. He calls for "active and vibrant intellectual discourse" to resolve differences, with more liberal tolerance of dissent and an end to violence. He has brought Malays and non-Malays together in opposition to the cronyism and patronage of the past and pledges to introduce social justice, openness, transparency, and anticorruption measures.

Malaysia has a number of organizations which stand for reform and an end to corruption in high places, notably Bersih, a coalition of civil society groups whose name means "Clean" in Malay, and who have recently organized rallies to support clean elections. There is also Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), which in spite of government harassment has brought into public light the corruption scandal surrounding the Scorpene submarines deal.

These and other movements represent Malaysia's maturing as the hard lessons are learned about the paradoxes and hypocrisies of democracy. A ruling party is not legitimate if the electoral process is flawed, "national interest" and "realpolitik" are not a legitimate excuse for corruption and police brutality. Re-definitions of democracy are emerging from the lessons of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement in the U.S. with affirmation that democracy needs more than the ballot box, but also a free media, an independent judiciary, along with an open economy and incorruptible leadership.

If Anwar Ibrahim manages to hold the center in the next election, to be called before June next year, then Malaysia will make an important leap forward into continuing peace and prosperity, a powerful example of a Muslim country making a successful transition from tradition to modernity, embracing the best of both worlds. This will give Southeast Asia an important example of stability and progressive vision as surrounding countries attempt the same balancing act of race, religion, tradition and progress in a rapidly changing global environment.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute and a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is a supporter of Dr. Anwar Ibrahim who has aided Dr. Ibrahim during his travels abroad. He is not paid for these services, nor is he officially affiliated with Dr. Ibrahim's campaign or any other political activities in Malaysia.