A Mongolian woman, an aspiring model, is blown to bits with C-4 explosives.
Allegations are made of an illicit affair, of bribery in a defense deal, of a dinner in Paris.
A private investigator points his finger at the deputy prime minister who strongly denies any involvement. The detective retracts his statement and then, well, disappears.
An opposition politician releases grainy videotapes of a top lawyer purportedly trying to fix judicial appointments.
Charges of sodomy surface against the politician.
Masked policemen arrest him.
That, in a nutshell, is Malaysian politics.
Investors don’t stand a chance predicting what will happen next: This pulp fiction may even be beyond Quentin Tarantino’s capacity to piece something together.
The sordid saga took a dangerous turn yesterday after the police in Kuala Lumpur apprehended opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has said he will have enough lawmakers on his side by Sept. 16 to bring down the government.
Malaysian stocks fell to a 16-month low; the country’s currency, the ringgit, slumped the most in two weeks.
Malaysia ought to serve as a statutory warning to fast- growing Asian nations about the pointlessness of chasing the dream of Western-style prosperity while failing to build strong democratic institutions. It’s wishful thinking that the latter would miraculously appear when a threshold level of per-capita income is crossed.
Laws that curb free speech and assembly and allow people to be put in jail indefinitely without trial create an illusion of stability, which can last a long time.
However, the moment cracks appear in the leadership, the government panics, and so does the challenger.
Both are driven to take extreme steps because each knows how tough it is to wrest power — or to regain it — in a game where the incumbent sets all the rules.
Anwar’s arrest came after allegations by a former aide that the 60-year-old politician sodomized him on eight occasions.
Anwar denies the charge and says it’s a conspiracy by leaders of the ruling coalition — which has governed Malaysia uninterrupted for 51 years — to hold on to power. Anwar has filed a defamation suit against his 23-year-old accuser.
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak denies he ever met — let alone had an affair with — Altantuya Shaariibuu, a 28-year-old Mongolian woman murdered in Malaysia two years ago; Abdul Razak Baginda, a political analyst who was once employed by Najib, is currently on trial for abetting the slaying.
Anwar says the sodomy allegation against him was instigated by Najib, who, in turn, says Anwar is framing him to divert attention from his own homosexuality.
This isn’t Anwar’s first brush with the sodomy law.
A similar charge had been brought against him in 1998 when he was becoming a threat to then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad; the allegation became the basis for Anwar’s dismissal as finance minister. The Federal Court overturned the sodomy conviction in 2004 and released Anwar from prison.
In national elections held in March this year, Anwar staged an upset. The ruling Barisan Nasional, which means National Front, fell short of a two-thirds supermajority in parliament; it lost power in five states, including Selangor, Penang and Perak, three of the most economically developed.
This led Mahathir to demand, with increasing stridency, the ouster of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the current prime minister. In May, Mahathir even quit the party he led for 22 years to protest against Abdullah’s continuation.
Abdullah this month said he will hand over power to Najib in 2010. That may be too late for Barisan Nasional and a section of the Malaysian elite. Anwar last year produced a videotape showing that top judicial appointments in Malaysia during Mahathir’s rule were influenced by businessmen with vested interests.
A government-appointed commission has found the video clip authentic and called for further investigations.
No one really believes that Anwar’s arrest will end the power struggle in Malaysia. The country in 2008 is different from what it was in 1998 in several key respects.
Blogs and other Internet-based news sources now inform public discourse, even as the mainstream media continue to be dominated by parties in the ruling coalition.
The other difference is that in 1998 Anwar was challenging Mahathir, who had no intention of losing the fight. One can’t be so sure about Abdullah’s tenacity. Wittingly or otherwise, Abdullah has positioned himself as a transition figure, with the Economist magazine comparing him to Mikhail Gorbachev in an article this month.
Race-based quotas that discriminate against ethnic Chinese and Indians in jobs and education, too much government involvement in the economy and the attendant cronyism all need to change in Malaysia.
But above all, the politics need to be cleaned up.