No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me… I am involved in mankind

-John Donne

The charge is “unlawful carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” That’s legalese in Malaysia for sodomy, a crime in that country.

Arrested last Wednesday on that charge, former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim had been accused of corruption and the same — uh — crime in 1998. In 1999 he was convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to a six-year prison term. The charge of sodomy earned him an additional nine years in prison in 2000. But the Malaysian Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2004, and Anwar was released.

The charges were blatantly politically-motivated. Although once part of government, and heir apparent to then Prime Minister Muhammad Mahathir, Anwar’s disagreement with government policies, especially on those related to free expression and the economy, led to his dismissal in 1998, and to his imprisonment. Banned from political participation until April 2008, Anwar remains the de facto leader of the groups that comprise the Malaysian political opposition.

Long dismissed as no real threat to the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (National Front), of which the United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO, Malaysia’s largest political party, is the leading member, the opposition groups managed to cut down Barisan’s two-thirds majority in parliament during the 12th General Elections last March.

So unprecedented was the Barisan debacle that an opposition take-over of government did not only seem possible but even imminent. As the ban on his participation in political affairs ended, Anwar himself announced that the opposition would “hand over the title of opposition” to the Barisan Nasional, and even specified the date: September 16, before which Anwar said he intended to run in a by-election he expected to win.

No one can accuse the Malaysian opposition of being secretive. In addition to announcing its political plans, a group of MPs identified with Anwar also managed in April to create a Parliamentary Caucus on Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Information. It’s unprecedented in Malaysia, where a host of laws, many of them from the British colonial period, has kept a tight lid on criticism of government.

Among the most draconian of those laws is the Internal Security Act. Enacted in 1960 to address a communist rebellion, the ISA allows arrest and detention without trial for an indefinite period if one is suspected “likely” to commit an act contrary to national security. An ISA detainee is not only presumed guilty without trial. The Act also allows solitary confinement for 60 days without the benefit of legal counsel.

According to Human Rights Watch (, the law also restricts freedom of assembly, association and expression, freedom of movement, residence and employment. It even permits the closing of schools if these have been or are being used by “unlawful organizations” for meetings.

“Over the years,” says Human Rights Watch, “the Malaysian government has consistently used the Act for its own political purposes to detain thousands of citizens, including political opposition leaders, academicians, trade unionists, religious, social, environmental, and women’s rights activists. The ISA was used to arrest political opponents of Mahathir in a major crackdown in 1987-88, as well as politicians in Sabah, east Malaysia, in 1990, whose party was considered a major rival to the ruling party, UMNO. In November 1997, ten people were arrested under the ISA for allegedly spreading Shiite teachings deemed detrimental to national security; Muslims in Malaysia are Sunnis.”

Further more, “Former ISA detainees have testified to being subjected to severe physical and psychological torture, including allegations of physical assault, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, around-the-clock interrogation, death threats, threats of bodily harm to family members, including threats of rape and bodily harm to their children. Detainees are often kept in solitary confinement in tiny, dark cells. Prolonged torture and deprivation have led to some to sign state-manufactured ‘confessions’ under severe duress. During the first trial of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, police admitted to the courts that the process of ‘extracting confessions’ under duress was standard practice.”

Despite his former status in the Malaysian government and international attention, Anwar was in fact beaten while in detention under ISA provisons. The Act’s being used against political dissidents has made it a prime opposition target for repeal, as are such laws contrary to free expression as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (provides for the licensing of printing presses), the Sedition Act (punishes criticism of government), and the Official Secrets Act (prohibits the dissemination of information officially designated as secret).

These laws are at odds with Malaysia’s image as a modern society. Legacies of colonial times, they are as archaic as they are contrary to international standards, among them those that recognize free expression as a basic human right, and even the immunity of lawyers from prosecution for statements made in court in good faith (Anwar’s lawyer was arrested in 2000 for saying during his trial that Anwar may have been poisoned in detention).

What have all these to do with Filipinos? Apparently nothing, if the current behavior of the Philippine mass media and their audiences is to be any gauge. The arrest of Anwar was reported by the TV news programs as it happened last Wednesday, but was soon dropped. No major broadsheet gave it much attention, and even those supposedly most global of the new media, the online news sites, hardly gave it a glance, focused as they were on Filipino choirs’ winning in this or that competition, and on Lea Salonga’s latest triumph in the Western world.

What’s that again about being part of the whole that’s called humanity? Or even that myth about “the global Filipino”?


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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