Anwar’s generation

Watching Malaysia’s Mahathir dismiss and jail Anwar Ibrahim, his intended successor until a few weeks ago, brings me back to 1983. Anwar’s ouster is the equivalent of Ninoy’s assassination.  It took three years after Ninoy’s death for the middle class in the Philippines to realize what was happening and to decide what they were capable of doing.  It will take about the same time for the Malaysian middle class to crystallize into a political force and to transform Anwar’s personal misfortune into an opportunity to get rid of a dictator.

The most threatening thing to Marcos as he lay in his sickbed after a failed kidney transplant was Ninoy, younger and charismatic.  In like manner, whether in jail or in power, Anwar at 51, confident and magnetic, will always be the single biggest threat to Malaysia’s aging prime minister.   Ninoy was murdered but his legacy outlived the dictator.  Anwar has been arrested, but the movement he has catalyzed will outlive Mahathir.  In both, we see the revolt of a successor generation.

It is a generation that became political with the explosion of student activism in the late Sixties.  Many of its leaders spent some years in jail, like Anwar.  Some went underground.  Others joined academe or became the pioneers of social movements and non-government organizations.  Wherever they went, they carried an unmistakable air of being alternative in every way.  They immediately recognized one another  at international conferences because they raised the same concerns and spoke the same vocabulary.  There was nothing dogmatic or doctrinaire in their language.

They were modern, but they questioned the purpose of development. Many were educated in the West, but they remained deeply Asian in outlook.  They were radical but cared little for the communist party. They cared for the future of the environment and worried about growing disparities in wealth and opportunity within nations and among nations.  They were cosmopolitan but profoundly critical of the distorting values of consumerism and globalization.  They were secular in their politics, but also philosophically mindful of the relevance of the old religions as sources of oppositional discourse. They would not be contained by the formal boundaries of their academic disciplines, just as they would not be bound by the terms of past struggles.

I first became aware of the existence of a Southeast Asian successor generation when I became part of a small study group of intellectuals in the mid-seventies who met once a year as long as they could find a sponsor.  The founders of the group were brought together by anti-war sentiments and by a shared vision of a modern Asia governed by democratic values.   They came from a slightly older generation than mine, but they started to bring in younger people like myself.  I met Anwar Ibrahim in one of these meetings, but did not get to know him because he had become busy organizing an Islamic youth movement in his country.

The Malaysians in the group came mostly from the same Penang circle as Anwar.  In a society ruled by the Internal Security Act, they found the base for their activism in the work of the Consumers Association of Penang or CAP.  Here I met the political economist Martin Khor and the economic historian Lim Teck Ghee who have remained my friends to this day.  Through them I met one of the most articulate of Malaysia’s intellectuals, Chandra Muzaffar, an Indian sociologist who had converted to Islam and founded Aliran, a social movement.  In Kuala Lumpur, only one name was referred to me – that of Syed Husin Ali, a social anthropologist from the University of Malaya who had been in jail with Anwar Ibrahim.  He rejoined academe upon his release and became the leader of the PSRM or People’s Socialist Party of Malaysia.  He was not part of the group but he became among my closest Malaysian friends.

There were Thais as well in this pioneering group, and they were led by the witty and enigmatic Buddhist socialist, Sulak Sivaraksa. Though himself not a Marxist, Sulak became the guru of Thailand’s leading radical student activists.  Twice imprisoned for lese majeste for remarks thought to be insulting to the monarchy, Sulak was a pioneer in the appropriation of religious themes for the struggle for human liberation and development.  Sulak brought into our group activists like Gothom Arya, Paul Chamniern, and academics like Suthy Prasartset and Surichai Wun’gaeo.

The informal leader of this mixed group of Asians was Soedjatmoko, former Indonesian ambassador to the US and, in Sukarno’s time, former leader of the Indonesian Socialist Party or PSI.   Articulate, urbane, and well-connected internationally, he became Rector of the United Nations University.  The younger Indonesians he brought into the group – people like Adnan Buyung Nasution, Mulya Lubis, Abdurrachman Wahid, and Dorojatun Kuntjoro-Jakti – became my friends.  It was through them that my education about Indonesia began. Today, these individuals and many others I met through their network, though far from sharing a single persuasion, are shaping the future of Indonesia.

This is the generation of Anwar.  By no means is it organized as an international movement, although from time to time the paranoid leaders of Singapore like to conjure the specter of a regional conspiracy. The isolation of Southeast Asians from one another from the colonial days continues.  Today I may not share a culture with Anwar, but I am conscious that he is my brother in time.  His continuing persecution distresses me as if he were a Filipino activist. For his struggle is the struggle of my generation.


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