*NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
Three-and-a-half years ago, in line with the fad of reviving old TV drama serials such as “90210” and “Hawaii-5-O”, Malaysians were treated to a remake of a soap opera that began its first run in 1998. Though the original had been universally panned by industry critics and foreign audiences, it nevertheless enjoyed somewhat limited domestic success. Of course, it also helped that the producers of the drama also controlled every media outlet in the country.
As is the case with unimaginative remakes, the same formula is once again rehashed. And while a coterie of new characters including a young, tall and handsome antagonist was thrown into the fray in an attempt to inject some semblance of freshness, the same actor, now visibly aged, was re-casted as the reluctant protagonist.
In staying true to the spirit of the original version, Malaysians were once again treated to a roller coaster of absurd plot twists, logic-defying scenarios and draggy story arcs involving numerous sub-plots detailing tales of sordid sex, DNA manipulation and — in keeping with the times — leaked video tapes.
Now, 3½ years on, we have come to the cliff-hanger that customarily punctuates the series finale. Thus, with less than a week to go, the question on everyone’s lips is: come 109, will Anwar Ibrahim go in or stay out?
There are a few ways it could end. In the first and most widely expected scenario, our protagonist will be found guilty. In all likelihood this will also entail a prison sentence long enough not only to strip him of his parliamentary seat, but also to ensure that he cannot contest for five years following his eventual release. In other words, it will be the death knell to his political career.
The basis for such an action would be to precipitate a leadership crisis within the opposition coalition. Rendered headless, Pakatan Rakyat will be left flapping around directionless. On the flip side, however, a renewed campaign for Anwar’s freedom will almost certainly provide a populist election theme.
In a second and more unlikely scenario, Anwar will be acquitted. By some miraculous occurrence, the absurdities of the trial will be admitted for what it is and justice will be seen to be served. Or more realistically, some technical flaw will deem the case invalid thus providing no recourse other than to release him.
Such an event will then set the stage for an all-out contest between the prime minister and the opposition leader in the coming general election. Unbound by his legal chains, Anwar will finally have the freedom to lead his motley coalition against the might of the government. Until he is re-arrested on a third round of sodomy charges of course.
There is a third scenario that may occur. In this instance, Anwar will be convicted and sentenced. Except he will also be granted a stay of execution pending an appeal that will last even longer than the original trial. This will have the effect of branding him guilty, yet at the same time avoiding any unnecessary martyrdom. Though Anwar will be “free”, he will remain severely handicapped and distracted.
Whichever way the outcome goes would depend very much on who the puppet masters behind the scenes are. If the first scenario occurs and Anwar is sent to jail, then it will mean that his former mentor still remains as relevant as ever. Jailing him would be the ultimate coup de grâce taken directly out of the Machiavellian handbook of power — crush your enemy totally. After all, if the job had been done right the first time around, we wouldn’t be here today.
The second scenario would be too risky a move. It is one that could end up being a masterstroke, or potentially a regime-ending mistake. In other words, it is not a move that would be made either by a risk-averse prime minister or those who have invested so much — and stand to lose much more — in Anwar’s downfall. Therefore, given the players involved, an acquittal is highly unlikely.
Unlike the surgical strike of the first scenario and the heavy risk involved in the second, the third, and in my mind likelier outcome, would be one that bears all the trademarks of the current administration. It will be a decision that brings neither any benefit to the incumbent regime nor any significant disadvantage to the opposition. There will be no clear winner or loser. In other words, it will be status quo. A wishy-washy solution befitting a wishy-washy regime.
In my mind, whatever happens, whether Anwar Ibrahim turns out to be the prime minister who will usher us into a new era of democratic reform and good governance, or whether he will become the sacrificial lamb that will pave the way for a peaceful revolution, the bottom line is that Malaysia is already on an irreversible path towards change. And while there is no doubt that Anwar has been pivotal in catalysing change in our country, there should also not be any doubt that change will happen, with or without him.
And so, whether the verdict results in a killing blow or a surprise twist or just more of the same, 109 must be the day that Malaysia moves on. Or be doomed to suffer another remake.
Addendum: “109” is also commonly referred to as “901”.