by Marc Lourdes
The importance of the Malaysian elections to Southeast Asia – and some would argue, to global politics – cannot be overstated. In the immediate region, the likes of Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia are all struggling with authoritarian regimes or leaders who are less than concerned with human rights.
China has seen a constitutional amendment that further solidifies Xi Jinping as lord and master of all he sees. And in the US, the election and subsequent administration of Donald Trump causes new horror every day.
It could have very well have been the same in Malaysia. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak enforced draconian laws, enacted new ones, gerrymandered, hamstrung opposition politicians and used all the powerful tools of state in an attempt to win the 14th General Elections in May.
Malaysia could have gone down as just another rotten and broken Asian nation. Instead, the country has become something of a political Cinderella story. It proves that when the voters’ will is strong enough – or the rot at the top is bad enough – change can and will happen.
It is against this backdrop that Australian criminal lawyer Mark Trowell has released his third book on Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was released from imprisonment, by virtue of a royal pardon, shortly after the Dr Mahathir Mohamad-helmed coalition stormed to power in Malaysia.
Trowell’s book is essentially an update to his two previous works – Sodomy II: The Trials of Anwar Ibrahim and The Prosecution of Anwar Ibrahim: The Final Play, published in 2012 and 2015, respectively.
Anwar’s comeback into national politics is just a small part of Anwar Returns, tacked on at the beginning. What it does do – and does pretty well – is to look at a remarkable two-decade period in this young nation’s history.
Trowell, who attended Anwar’s sodomy trials as an international observer, faithfully chronicles not just the events that took place inside courtrooms over the course of the many trials that began in the late 1990s and only ended in 2015, but also weaves in the other noteworthy socio-political events of the period that collectively helped bring the nation to the momentous election upset of 2018.
These include the street protests, previous national elections, the sedition prosecution and death of opposition politician and Anwar’s lawyer Karpal Singh, the persecution of the government critics and political shenanigans, to name but a few.
The benefit of books like Trowell’s when compared to the blow-by-blow nature of daily news coverage is that the former enjoys the benefit of context and analysis, especially when written by a subject matter expert like Queen’s Counsel Trowell, that is usually hard to find in the breathless nature of news coverage.
The book explains not just the whats but the whys of the events that took place in Malaysia over the past 20 years. And if Trowell’s prose can get dry and academic at times, there is plenty of drama in the events themselves – the salacious nature of the accusations against Anwar, the bombing outside the courthouse during his trial and as a fitting climax, Anwar’s brilliant and accusatory speech at the end of his final trial, which prompted the panel of judges to walk out of court.
Trowell’s recording of Anwar’s court case and the events around it, the weaknesses in the judicial process, the allegations of political involvement and meddling, etc should be remembered and studied as a cautionary tale of how individual rights and freedoms can and have been so easily butchered in Malaysia.
My issue with this book is that it suffers from slack and lazy editing, with grammatical and factual errors scattered throughout the book. For example, Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition that has now been renamed Pakatan Harapan, is referred to as PKR, which is actually the name of Anwar’s party. “Cessation” is also used, when the author clearly means “secession”.
At one point, Trowell states that “student activism is a new phenomenon in Malaysian politics”. This is clearly inaccurate – Anwar himself was a well-known student activist before his forays into national politics.
It all adds up to the impression that the release of this book was rushed to capitalise on the momentum of the election outcome. There are several other facts in the main body of the book that have not been updated either, adding to this impression.
Overall, if you read this book in its previous incarnations, it’s not worth getting it again – there’s essentially a couple added elements in the form of interviews with Anwar and a new introduction. The interviews don’t tell you a lot more, though there are a few poignant bits where you get the sense of just what a toll the many years of incarceration took on Anwar, his recollections of Karpal Singh, and his version of his relationship with Mahathir in the 90s, to name a few.
However, if you’re looking for a definitive account of what took place during the Anwar Ibrahim sodomy trials, then you’d be hard pressed to find a more authoritative work than this one.
One suspects that Trowell jumps the gun a little in calling this book The Final Twist – there are yet more bends and turns in this story, with Mahathir back in Putrajaya’s hot seat and Anwar champing at the bit to finally get his hands on the leadership of the country.
One suspects that there is too much history between these two men to expect things to be smooth sailing from here on. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see a “Final, Final Twist” emerging a few years from now.staff write.
Marc Lourdes is the former Asia head of CNN Digital, and the previous editor-in-chief of Yahoo Malaysia and Singapore. The views expressed are solely his own. Follow him on Twitter at @marclourdes.
Anwar Returns: The Final Twist. The Prosecution and Release of Anwar Ibrahim ($28.00 before GST) is on sale in major bookstores now.