KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Last month, a young opposition member of Malaysia's Parliament, Nurul Izzah Anwar, was scheduled to speak at a university forum on the country's impending general election. You'd think that that wouldn't have been a problem: Malaysia's rulers, after all, routinely portray their country as a thriving democracy.
In this case, though, the guardians of democracy weren't having any of it. Anonymous officials quickly intervened, pressuring the university to pull the panel and replace its members with speakers less inclined to criticize the government. But Nurul Izzah refused to leave it at that. She attended the event as a member of the audience, and then used the question-and-answer period to speak her mind.
Nurul Izzah is used to fighting the odds. At the age of 32, she's spent a lifetime battling the powers-that-be. And now, as Malaysia embarks on a watershed national vote on May 5, she finds herself at the center of a vicious battle to defend her seat. The ruling party is pulling out all the stops to defeat her. But the question remains: Why would this mother of two pose such a threat?
Nurul Izzah became an opposition member of Malaysia's parliament in 2008 after winning in a multi-ethnic, mixed-income Kuala Lumpur suburb where she plans to run again. How she fares in the coming election will mirror Malaysia's political journey from a one-party system, sustained by sectarian politics and ethnic patronage, to a competitive, multiethnic, and egalitarian polity. The People's Pact, an opposition coalition led by Nurul's father, the 64-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, is up against the National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN), which has ruled Malaysia for the past 56 years. BN is dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a party that serves as a political vehicle for the ethnic Malays who make up over half of the country's population. (Malaysia also boasts strong Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities, both groups that are represented especially heavily in Anwar's coalition.)
Cracking the dominance of BN won't be easy. During his four years in office, the current prime minister and BN leader, Najib Razak, has presided over strong economic growth (5.6 percent last year) and has attempted to placate discontent by implementing a few modest liberalizing reforms. But the biggest challenge facing the opposition is BN's deeply-rooted control over Malaysia's most important institutions, from the mainstream media to the national election commission. In the run-up to the national election, indeed, Nurul has seen fit to file a claim with the commission alleging tampering with the voter lists for her constituency. One of her party workers was also recently beaten up by unknown assailants.
Despite these obstacles, however, she does have some powerful advantages on her side. An articulate and charismatic speaker, the U.S.-educated (and confessed Radiohead fan) Nurul Izzah has considerable appeal among the educated and globalized elements within her country's remarkably diverse society. (After getting her undergraduate degree at a leading private university in Malaysia, she earned an MA at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.) As a headscarf-wearing Muslim, she combines her cosmopolitan credentials with both a sense of religious propriety and decorum that has put her in good stead with the staunchly conservative ethnic Malay society.
She also enjoys excellent name recognition, thanks to the long political saga of her father. Anwar Ibrahim lost his position as deputy prime minister in September 1998 in a showdown against Malaysia's long-entrenched prime minister and political strongman, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Placed under arrest, Anwar was beaten while in police custody, and then charged with sodomy (a crime in Malaysia) and corruption. He spent the next six years in prison, and in 2004 was acquitted on the charge of sodomy and released. But the "sodomite" label stuck. Mahathir used it to justify Anwar's inability to be a leader, and today supporters of the BN government still use it to demonize the People's Pact.