Australia/Israel Review

Asia Watch: “Out, Damned Spot!”

Apr 24, 2008 | Michael Shannon

It’s a sad commentary on much of the Islamic world that anyone seen to have a connection, however tenuous, with Israel or Jews is tainted and obliged to furiously deny any such link.

So it was when Anwar Ibrahim, de facto leader of Malaysia’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), felt compelled to refute a statement by former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad that only Israelis would vote for him if he were to compete for the prime minister’s post.

“This is defamatory. I have never met any Israeli leader and neither have I paid for the services of any Jewish lobbyist,” Anwar indignantly told reporters on April 12.

Dr. Mahathir had been asked whether Anwar had the credibility to become prime minister in the near future. He said that Israel’s Haaretz was the only paper in the world which thought that Anwar was going to be the prime minister and that Anwar was the prime minister that Israelis would vote for. The former PM was no doubt irked by a positive profile of Anwar in Haaretz on March 23 entitled, “Anwar Ibrahim: Malaysia’s Future Prime Minister?”

Anwar explained that normally he refrained from responding to the barbs of his one-time nemesis, but that this time it had “gone too far”.

So while political passions and prejudices against Israel and Jews run high at times in South East Asia, it has to compete with the Asia-wide mania for the English Premier League. The Football Association of Malaysia has posed a delicate logistical problem for the government in its enthusiasm to host Premier League giants Chelsea for an exhibition match as part of their mini-Asian tour scheduled for July.

The catch is that Chelsea’s coach, Avram Grant, and a midfielder, Tal Ben Haim, are Israeli citizens and must obtain special permission to enter Malaysia, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel.

Chelsea Chief Executive Peter Kenyon indicated the London glamour side could be forced to ditch the Malaysian visit if Grant and Ben Haim were banned from entering the country, but was confident approval would be secured. “We think it can be solved,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said on March 31 that the government would review the ban in the case of the Chelsea pair. “It would be a pity (if) politics get into the way of sports,” Najib said. “I will have to study the situation first, but I would like to see Chelsea, even though it’s not my team, to play here… it’s good for local football.”

The scenario reminded some of the visit of the Israeli cricket team in 1997, which was granted a special dispensation to compete in the 22-nation ICC Trophy cricket tournament in Kuala Lumpur amid wild street protests.

However, it’s doubtful that Chelsea’s appearance in Malaysia, even with Israeli nationals included, would register a blip of protest among quality-starved local football fans, who pay scant interest in their 164th-ranked national team. Deputy PM Najib’s comments suggest they will likely be granted their wish.

Najib himself has now been gonged as a likely successor to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in the wake of the crippling setbacks suffered by his National Front ruling coalition in the March 8 elections. Abdullah identified Najib on April 6 as his probable successor in line with the ruling party’s tradition of political succession – the first time Abdullah has clearly identified a successor – despite insisting that he has no plans to resign.

PM Abdullah is certainly feeling the heat from within his own United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party after it lost its two-thirds majority in parliament as well as control of five state legislatures.

After dominating Malaysian politics for some 50 years, the ruling UMNO-led coalition has never looked more vulnerable. The threat to its power now lies in a three-party opposition alliance, called Pakatan Rakyat, or People’s Front (PF), which now holds 82 of the 222 seats in parliament.

Formed in the wake of the elections, the new PF alliance brings together three disparate opposition parties – the multiracial People’s Justice Party (PKR), the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party or PAS. Alliances between these parties have been attempted before with limited effect, the main stumbling block being PAS’s Islam-oriented agenda being at odds with the secularist DAP.

But the difference now is leadership – namely, the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim, whose PKR is now the strongest of the three. He alone has the capacity to unite the opposition under a common agenda of human rights, justice, corruption-free government and democracy.

Ibrahim argues that the PAS’s professed goal of an Islamic state would not sink the new alliance. “It is not an issue as far as we are concerned. Nobody mentioned it, talked about or campaigned on it,” he said last month.

All that awaits this new alliance is Anwar himself, whose disqualification from electoral politics expired in April. Locals expect he will easily win a by-election after his wife Wan Azizah vacates her seat, and resume a parliamentary role.

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