3 Apr 2014

Missing plane MH370, Tennyson, and facing jail in Malaysia

Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia‘s opposition leader, is sipping tea in a London hotel and quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, at me.

“Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them,” he recites, promising he will tweet about the poem to the almost half a million followers of his @anwaribrahim Twitter account so they can learn it too.

The man who won over 52 per cent of the vote in Malaysia’s election last year is relaxing among friends, taking time out from the pressure cooker atmosphere back home. For Tennyson’s words seem all too accurate a description of the predicament he finds himself in.

Last month Mr Ibrahim was convicted to five years in jail on a charge of sodomy – homosexuality being illegal in Malaysia. It is widely regarded as a trumped up charge meant to stop him from becoming the first opposition leader to become prime minister since independence from Britain in 1957.

“My passport was not impounded,” he explains, noting how the terms of his bail have not precluded overseas travel. Friends here in London and Turkey have suggested he seek political asylum, but he refuses to contemplate the idea, however corrupt the web he finds himself in.

“I believe in democratic transition,” he says. “This is the battle, and we have to pursue it.”

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The violence of the Arab Spring seems to have reaffirmed Ibrahim’s belief that the birth of true democracy in Malaysia should do all it can to remain peaceful. It is possible that his wife Azizah, elected to the state assembly last month, has a more successful political career than he does, but resignation is apparently not in his dictionary.

He’s been to jail before and is prepared to go back. I suggest to him that the Commonwealth could take a more active role in championing his liberty, but he doesn’t seem convinced: friends including Gordon Brown and Al Gore have proved more steadfast than institutions.

He hasn’t called Number 10 Downing Street to tell them he’s visiting Britain – but David Cameron, having already championed human rights in Sri Lanka, could do worse than consider placing the UK’s substantial commercial ties with its Commonwealth ally Malaysia within the context of political repression there and the hounding of Anwar Ibrahim.

We first met in Kuala Lumpur last month, where he equated incompetence and the lack of transparency over the missing passenger jet with flaws throughout Malaysia’s political system.

He loves walking anonymously around London, visiting the theatre, talking of the delights of Oxford and escaping Malaysia’s intense heat. And bizarrely, it is the disappearance of Malaysian Airways flight MH370 which has brought foreign correspondents like me seeking his opinions and knocking at his door – giving him and the dire state of Malaysian politics the spotlight they rarely receive.

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