Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Big Picture Time: What Sodomy 2.0 Means for Malaysia

Well, if there's a reason to emerge from a year-long haitus, this would be it.

Predictably, the airwaves and the blogosphere were on fire with the surprise verdict of Anwar's acquittal in what has become known as Sodomy 2.0. The opposition parties are making as much as they can on the political significance of having their standard bearer fully on at the helm, while the ruling coalition is claiming this as proof of an independent judiciary. Statements by the big guns on both sides occupy the headlines, hiding in their highlights some more thoughtful considerations on the impact not only of the verdict, but on the case. The most intelligent views were arguably - but unsurprisingly - by those on the Bar Council, as reported in the sidelined article 'Court decision part of natural justice'.

The article noted the views of Bar Council president Lim Chee Wee:
Saying Anwar’s prosecution was based on an archaic provision of the Penal Code that criminalises consensual sexual relations between adults, he said the case had “unnecessarily taken up judicial time and public funds”.
In addition, it noted the following:
Human Rights Watch welcomed the acquittal and urged for Malaysia to “revoke its colonial-era law criminalising consensual same-sex relations”.

“Anwar was acquitted on a charge that should have never been brought in the first place,” said its deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.
Perhaps even more so than whether the ruling coalition uses the judiciary in selective prosecution, the larger picture is that we have laws that do not make any sense in this day and age - and some which never made sense at all. And the continual reticence of the final arm of government receiving no media attention at the moment is probably the largest long-term threat: a legislature content to sit on a pile of old school legal weapons.

At least we have some progress with the Internal Security Act, intended for the era of militant communism. But a core issue is that the state of emergency declared in 1947, while effectively over in 1960 to this writer's understanding has yet to be officially lifted, providing the legal cover for draconian measures against activist members of the public.

Following the verdict, Anwar was interviewed by Al-Jazeera and asked whether the verdict showed that there was no conspiracy after all, to which he replied in the negative, citing that it was wrong for unfounded charges to be levied in the first place. This paints the Barisan Nasional's claims of judicial independence along the lines of a bully punching someone, and then saying, "But I didn't kick him!"

And it is an understandable position not only for Anwar but his family, for whom this has been a two-year battle that they had expected would end up one way or another with him losing his freedom. And he was behind those same bars for six years before the original sodomy conviction was overturned. That's not even adding in getting punched by the Inspector General of Police while blindfolded and handcuffed.

But the application of these particular charges served more than simply victimising a political opponent; they allowed a draconian law to remain as a firm weed in Malaysian society by pushing Anwar to not only deny the charges, but describing such behaviour as immoral. It was a political move, countering what was quite possibly an attempt to discredit the Opposition Leader in the eyes of Malaysian Muslims. In that sense, perhaps we might understand his actions.

But Anwar's answer was more along the lines of John McCain responding to a supporter at a rally saying that she would not vote for Obama because he was a Muslim. And while McCain clarified that Obama was not a Muslim, he missed the main point, which was articulated clearly by Colin Powell on Meet the Press, even though he politely placed McCain out of the line of fire:
"I am troubled by - not what Senator McCain says but what members of the party say and it is permitted to be said. Such things as 'Well, you know that Mr Obama is a Moslem.' Well the correct answer is, 'He is not a Moslem; he's a Christian, he's always been a Christian.' But the really right answer is, "What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Moslem in this country?"
It would seem that Malaysia may be a step ahead by having a judiciary that people can at least start to believe in, but it remains far away in providing the really right answers for disenfranchised segments of society.