Anwar Ibrahim, for so long the virtuoso political actor, had his Nelson Mandela-Mahatma Gandhi moment in court on Monday.
By refusing to testify in his own defence in his trial for sodomy, and choosing to make an 8,000 word long statement from the dock on which he cannot be cross-examined, Anwar put on a grand piece of political theatre.
It wasn’t the first in his political career and certainly not the last; again it is calculated to impress the intelligentsia and intellectual circles, and calculated to draw the required references, particularly to Mandela.
And as a calculated act, drawing upon great moments in world history, it cheapens both Anwar and the very real heroes in the struggle for liberty that he professes to respect.
On 18 March 1922, Mahatma Gandhi cheerfully submitted himself to judgment on a charge of sedition, with a statement from the dock that was a defence of his great invention, peaceful non-cooperation, in which he said:
…non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is co-operation with good… I am here, therefore, to invite and submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only course open to you, the Judge, is either to resign your post and thus dissociate yourself from evil … or to inflict on me the severest penalty…
And the judge entered political history for his response: “Mr Gandhi…it will be impossible to ignore the fact that you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to have to try… if the course of events in India should make it possible for the Government to reduce the period [of his sentence] and release you, no one will be better pleased than I.”
Four decades later Nelson Mandela stood in the dock in Pretoria on April 20 1964 and delivered a defiant, blistering attack on apartheid and the South African system and paid homage to the timeless ideals of Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and American democratic institutions.
An ideal for which I am prepared to die
He took four hours to read his statement, and his act of defiance is firmly a part of world political history. He put South Africa on trial. The world listened. (» Full text at Wikisource)
Mandela’s speech is now considered one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century. It ended with these words:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
And, of course, on Monday, Anwar Ibrahim dutifully quoted Mandela’s words.
He plainly sought to emulate both Gandhi and Mandela, inviting the courts to do their worst. It is not the first time he (and his handlers) sought to place himself on the same pedestal as the world’s greatest heroes of liberty.
The “Asian Renaissance man” of the 1990s… the would-be aspirant to the Nobel Peace Prize on the same level as Aung Sang Suu Kyi… the now-forgotten “Permatang Pauh Declaration” on the lines of the Bandung Declaration… the would-be bridge across civilisations…
Anwar Ibrahim’s political career is littered with such echoes of great moments in the struggle for liberty. But they are merely echoes, deliberately crafted, moments of grandiose theatre, of someone aspiring to greatness.
There is merit in Anwar’s review of the rot in the Malaysian system. It is, unfortunately, all too familiar to all who have followed events of the past decade.
And thus Anwar’s statement from the dock is not the defining moment in the Malaysian struggle for liberty that his publicists and admirers will seek to declare. No matter how eagerly they strive to draw the parallels to Mandela (they seem to have forgotten about Gandhi).
Gandhi and Mandela’s struggles were of, and by, the oppressed seeking to tear down a repressive system.
Anwar’s struggle and those of his political fellow-travellers is of one power elite against another, contending for political supremacy.
We the oppressed are merely fodder in that struggle.
Therein lies the difference, between Gandhi and Mandela on the one hand and Anwar and Co on the other, the difference between the truly great and the merely want-to-be-great, the ones who only think they are great.