My father, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, was among thousands who suffered under the Barisan Nasional party.
Last Wednesday, people power in Malaysia led to the destruction of the Barisan Nasional’s (National Front) 61-year hold on power and a peaceful democratic transition. Standing on the threshold of history, it felt like our own Berlin wall had finally come down. Ours is a country that has been ruled by only one dominant party since independence in 1957, with BN “winning” – and often stealing – 13 consecutive general elections.
Over the past three decades in particular, Malaysia’s human rights record has worsened, with crackdowns on Malaysian rights activists, cartoonists, journalists and opposition politicians becoming rife. Malaysia ranked among the most corrupt nations in the world, with the former prime minister Najib Razak at the forefront of the 1MDB corruption scandal, which the US Department of Justice described as the “largest kleptocracy case in history”. Our courts became kangaroo courts as the judiciary was stripped of its independence and the attorney general and chief of police became government mercenaries.
My own father (former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim) was sacked for his anti-corruption and reformist stand in 1998 and incarcerated on trumped-up charges following an extremely flawed trial, not once but twice – and has collectively spent 11 years of his life as a political prisoner. Following his sacking (by then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad) he went on to lead a mass movement calling for urgent reforms, which saw hundreds of thousands of Malaysians participating in peaceful rallies and demonstrations across the country.
He was kidnapped from our family home by security forces, held incommunicado for nine days and beaten unconscious on the night of his arrest by the then inspector general of police. I was 18 years old when these events unfolded and together with a group of close friends and young comrades, I joined the reform movement to fight against the abuse of power and tyranny that was besieging our nation. My father is still a political prisoner, and we are full of hope that he will be released and granted a royal pardon this week, so he can return to serve the people and work on the reform agenda. There is more hopeful news emerging: on Monday political cartoonist Zunar announced that his travel ban has been lifted.
However, the true victims of this turbulence have been the people of Malaysia. While our leaders made international headlines for abuse of power, ordinary Malaysians suffered from the rising cost of living compounded by a lack of employment opportunities. Racial and religious tensions caused by the BN government’s pandering to the more extreme elements of their support base contributed to an increasingly polarised society.
Ours was (and is) a global movement. Together we campaigned at home in Malaysia and abroad, calling for democratic reforms, human rights and the rule of law to be restored. Over the past 20 years, the worsening situation in Malaysia has led to mass migration abroad – and around the world there is an active and vibrant Malaysian diaspora, not least in London. These Malaysians in the UK, Europe, Australia, the US and south-east Asia came together to start a movement called Global Bersih, providing a stronger international platform for human rights advocacy, supporting protests globally and engaging with international governments and the United Nations to hold the Malaysian government to account.
Thousands of Malaysians abroad participated in the election process, with many flying home to campaign and vote and others rallying Malaysians based overseas to participate through postal voting.
Despite widespread electoral fraud and gerrymandering, the people of Malaysia delivered a political tsunami on 9 May through the ballot box. Pakatan Harapan (Coalition of Hope) won 113 of the 222 parliamentary seats and 46% of the popular vote to form the new government. A new politics of hope has been awakened, not just for Malaysians reclaiming their nation, but for people the world over. Truth, justice, human rights and the rule of law can be restored in place of darkness, and it can be done through peaceful democratic means.
The road ahead is still a long one and we will have to put in a lot of hard work collectively to undo six decades of corruption and tyranny. Many have asked me how it is that our reform movement has now joined forces with the very same former dictator, Mahathir Mohamad, who sacked my father in 1998 and saw him arrested, brutalised and incarcerated. My answer is simply that we must all firmly resolve to never let our nation sink to the depths it did again and prime minister Mohamad now has a rare second chance to put things right. The world is watching and now we must fulfil our election pact promises for comprehensive reforms.
Never again must the people be afraid of the government.
We want a strong, vibrant democracy where human rights are upheld with zero tolerance towards corruption. We want a government founded on principles and policies, not personalities. We need to reclaim the illicit billions of dollars that have been stolen by our former corrupt leaders and deposited in international bank accounts and used to buy fancy real estate, Picasso paintings, luxury yachts, designer handbags and pink diamonds.
We need to focus on reforming education and healthcare and ensuring that we build an open, vibrant, multicultural, tolerant society where truth, justice, human rights and the rule of law are upheld for all.
Nurul Izzah Anwar is a Malaysian politician and human rights activist
This article was originally published in The Guardian.