Anwar Ibrahim on freedom, democracy and the rule of law

Anwar Ibrahim
Journal of Democracy [Issue: Oct 2007]
08 Nov 07

Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister recently wrote an inspiring piece (below) which was published in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy. Although he was talking about Malaysia, note how similar the situation is with Singapore.

On reading the historic address of President Ronald Reagan before the British Parliament 25 years ago, I was struck by the president’s account of his conversation with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in which she said that most Englishmen today would agree with Thomas Jefferson that “a little rebellion now and then is a very good thing.”

John Locke basically said the same thing back in the seventeenth century. According to Locke, all men have the right to resist the ruler, even of a legitimate political society, if he manifestly abuses his power. When oppressed people resist tyranny, it is not they who disturb government.

Locke wrote that rebellion is an opposition not to persons but to authority, and that it is tyrants who are the true rebels.

Yet given the gap between Locke’s theory and the practice of the preceding centuries, such observations may sound like little more than pious platitudes.

Even in today’s world, bold statements about freedom and democracy that are detached from real-life experience may be viewed as pompous moral pronouncements.

Today I intend to relate my own experiences regarding freedom and democracy. So let me begin by saying that mine is a real-life story about what it is like not to have freedom and democracy.

It is about being on the wrong end of the political stick, about unjust decrees administered by unjust politicians, and about the collapse of the rule of law.

The story begins more than thirty years ago when, as a student leader, I was arrested by the Special Branch – Malaysia’s shadowy internal security and policing agency – under a farcical law called the Internal Security Act, which arbitrarily rescinds the civil liberties enshrined in the Malaysian constitution.

At the time, I had no need for an attorney because I was afforded no opportunity to defend myself in court (habeas corpus has enemies in the strangest of places). What was my transgression? Organizing a nationwide student protests against the administration for its failure to make good on promises to assist the poor.

The government’s modus operandi was predictable: Evidence of my anti-government activities was sufficient to paint me as a traitor, and so either I would own up to the crime and issue a public confession, or else take a two-year holiday in federal prison. That was it. No trial. No due process. No jury. With the stroke of the pen held by the minister of internal security, my civil rights were confined to the cold walls of imprisonment for the next twenty months.

Fast-forward to 20 September 1998, barely two weeks after I was dismissed as Malaysia’s deputy prime minister and minister of finance. Although the atmosphere in Kuala Lumpur had become tense, not even the egregious injustice that I had suffered a quarter of a century earlier prepared me for the disastrous events that were about to lead my country into political turmoil and even greater depth of unfreedom.

I had returned home after addressing a public gathering at Freedom Square, where hundreds of thousands has assembled to make the call for Reformasi. While I was holding a press conference in my home in front of a large audience of supporters, a SWAT team stormed my property and within minutes I was snatched away in an unmarked car on the way to Federal Police headquarters.

Some time after midnight, blindfolded and with my hands tied behind my back, I was assaulted – repeatedly – until I finally passed out. Who was my assailant? Not some low-level thug just taking orders. I fell to the fists of the country’s chief of police himself.

This interplay of law and politics was acted out with frightening precision – a combination of brute force and unlimited political power. Yet what strikes me now as much as it did back then is that we were not living in some tin-pot dictatorship. We were in a country claiming to be a democracy that protected the fundamental liberties of its citizens.

Yet in one fell swoop, the might of the law knocked me out cold, and it banished me from the halls of power into solitary confinement for another extended “vacation”.

Throughout these ordeals my passion for freedom and justice has grown in intensity, which is why the implications of our conversation today are so grave.

First, we must recognize the global impact of decisions, taken in places where the rule of law is considered sacrosanct, that undermine freedom and democracy. We can beat around the bush or we can call it what it is: a double standard on part of the United States in its foreign and domestic policy.

Tyrants and dictators around the world readily gloat over the so-called wisdom of such transgressions – from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, to suspension of habeas corpus, to the euphemistically phrased practice of rendition.

These policies do a profound disservice to the thousands of people struggling to reform societies trapped in the throes of authoritarianism. Thus the war on terror, with all its bluster and bravado, has paved the way in many U.S.-allied countries for brutal and unchecked repression, which is some places threatens to nullify the reform efforts of an entire generation.

Can we sacrifice freedom and democracy on the altar of fighting terrorism, or is this not fundamentally at odds with the basic creeds of freedom and democracy themselves?

We must also dispense with the preposterous notion that Muslims are incapable of accepting democracy because of something hardwired into Islam itself.

Jefferson taught us of our inalienable rights as human beings, and Muslim scholars have also expounded on the sanctity of life, property, and conscience, noted that the Prophet of Islam exemplified the traits of an accountable leader.

If we are truly believers in democracy, then we must fully support that spirit of dissent with courage and conviction, and recognize that it is only with democratic institutions firmly in place – an independent judiciary, free media, a vibrant civil society – that we can accommodate a broad spectrum if political perspectives, whether modern or traditional, liberal or Islamist, and guard against the excesses of tyranny in all its forms and varieties.

As for those autocrats masquerading as leaders, who (along with their cronies and henchman) advance the self-serving notion that a half-century after independence their people still lack the maturity to handle the responsibility of democracy, what can we say other than to reject them wholeheartedly and without reservation?

In countries with such leaders, elections are largely a facade and the media is complicit in this act of deception. Governments that come to power through such a flawed process cling to it like leeches, and the vicious cycle is perpetuated. This problem must be tackled at its root.

We must also consider a broad spectrum of socioeconomic issues that cannot be divorced from the discourse on freedom and democracy. In India, politics has always taken precedence over economics.

But in Southeast Asia, there remain diehard systems which insist that freedom and democracy can be deferred until economic development is achieved. There may be some common-sense truth in the argument that when a person is starving he does not care about freedom or the right to vote.

But the lesson drawn from this proposition is false. Democracy is not about the choice between starvation and freedom. It is about the freedom to overcome poverty and tyranny without compromising in the success against either.

This approach is highlighted by the democratic success of Turkey and Indonesia. To be sure, Turkey is still grappling with threats from the military, while Indonesia remains saddled with serious socioeconomic issues. these difficulties notwithstanding, their march toward freedom must not be derailed.

I am here to offer tribute to those friends who remain steadfast in their commitment to freedom and justice. I wish to honor President Ronald Reagan’s enormous contribution to the cause of freedom and democracy, and to say that I am proud to be associated with the work of the National Endowment for Democracy (

Freedom and democracy are not merely theoretical constructs or abstract moral doctrines to be dissected and debated in academic halls or intellectual forums. On the contrary, they are part and parcel of the self-evident truths that distinguish man-kind from the rest of God’s creatures, and they are as dear to us as the ruddy drops that visits our hearts and keep us alive.

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