True social justice is still a long way off for much of Asia, says Anwar Ibrahim. It is time for leaders to wake up to the demands of their people

If you were walking out of prison after serving a lengthy term, you would more than likely experience the curious, eerie feeling of stepping into a different time zone, as if you had an internal clock that ran at a slower pace than real time. As a prisoner, I felt as if the world rolled to a dull, lethargic rhythm. It was a world in which death was more real and more certain, for among its inhabitants were convicted murderers and drug traffickers (Malaysian law makes the death sentence mandatory for those caught in possession of narcotics above a specified amount).

But it was also a world of wayward boys accused of some misdemeanour or other, languishing as they await trial. The wait would often last two years or more – longer than the prison terms they would have served had they pleaded guilty.

Prisons are built to isolate criminals from the rest of us. And society often forgets its prisoners and their existential situation. Among the forgotten are innocents who, because of a lapse or corruption in the system, are thrown in to share the life of the condemned.

Lapses in the administration of justice can happen anywhere, even in societies claiming the best system humanly possible. But in some societies the miscarriage of justice has become endemic and is sometimes used as a convenient political tool. My court trials and six-year incarceration, for example, had all the facade of legality and procedural justice, but only for the naive. In essence, the whole saga was just a more sophisticated version of the Moscow show trial.

Aside from political persecution masked by legal procedure, we also have variations of gulags (Soviet forced labour camps) and political prisons, especially in Asia and Africa. It is amazing how stubbornly these camps of shame survive. They certainly serve well the sinister political purposes of those in power.

When justice is miscarried

How many have suffered when justice is miscarried? Celebrated victims – the Mandelas and the Suu Kyis – may be remembered and given their place in history, but what happens to the rest? Must they remain faceless and simply disappear?

According to legend, Pandora’s box, which released plague, disease, sorrow and all manner of evil to the world, also contains the counterbalance called Hope. When pain inflicts, hope consoles.

Hope may be the most irrational of human instincts, but it is what makes us human. To the many who are unjustly incarcerated, it is hope that preserves their humanity. Some hope for justice beyond the grave, and some hope the world will become a better place so that others will not suffer as they have.

I too have such hopes, which I carried with me out of prison, along with my toothbrush and bundle of clothes.

When the Supreme Court announced my freedom, I felt a shot of euphoria surging through my veins. But it was a temporary high. As it began to wear off, I realized that although I was free from the cold stares of four grey walls, there were other walls, more insidious, surrounding me and my compatriots. I may be free to socialize with family and friends, but in my mind’s ear, I hear the rattle of chains that seek to shackle our thoughts and imagination.

In the world outside prison, time is an Olympian sprinter. The Asian currency crisis and economic meltdown – the backdrop to my incarceration – are now a distant memory. Thailand and South Korea, among the worst hit by the crisis, are again economic powerhouses. For Indonesia, the crisis was cataclysmic, but it terminated Suharto’s military rule, forced open the gate to genuine democracy, and unleashed a free press and a vibrant civil society.

As I write this, I am preparing for a trip to Jakarta. I have much to learn from old friends there. I want to hear them tell me what it is like to ride the wind of change. Indonesia, which for three decades was ruled by a military autocracy, is now the Muslim world’s biggest democracy. What a great thing this is at a time when Muslims are often branded as inherently anti-democratic. There is still a lot to be done, of course. Indonesia has to provide a decent living to some 220 million souls while combating destructive elements such as ethnic or religious bigots. Indonesian Muslims are known for their moderation and have embraced modernity with eagerness, but acts of terrorism have marred that image.

Dividends from crises

The economic crisis of the late 1990s was not without its dividends. It was the shock treatment that east Asians needed to make them see the need for reform. The countries that learnt their lessons and reformed their economies are now poised for greater heights. Before the crisis, the resistance was strong against calls for transparency in governance and business. That has changed somewhat. There is some consensus, at least in words if not yet in deeds, that opacity is bad for business, be it the business of governing or the business of making money.

This is not to say that forces resistant to reform and unfriendly to democracy have simply surrendered. On the contrary, they have tried to strengthen their positions. The recent decision by the Myanmar junta to extend the house arrest on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a case in point. Other countries pay lip service to democracy while their policies ensure that the playing field becomes increasingly uneven. The press remains submissive to the ruling clique and fundamental liberties are severely curtailed.

One of the dividends of the crisis is that the struggle for freedom has taken on a regional character. The civil society sector is forging regional solidarity for democracy and human rights. The governments of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – the 10-nation regional grouping – are fearful of this new development and cling stubbornly to their outmoded doctrine of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of member-states.

Democracy is contagious

ASEAN is replete with internal contradictions. Some of its members – Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand – have made giant leaps into mature democracy. But they have not made a serious effort to influence their less democratic partners, or to put democracy on the ASEAN agenda. The ASEAN leaders are proud of their tradition of consensual decision-making, but this is the very thing that keeps the group inert, that makes it unwilling to set a standard of democratic governance that it could impose on member-states.

But freedom has a demonstrative effect. ASEAN leaders must wake up to the reality that democracy is, more and more, asserting its presence in the region. The democratic mind is nurtured by social and political activism and by unlimited access to information. We are seeing the birth of an informed ASEANese community. It will be increasingly evident to ASEAN citizens that authoritarianism limits their choices and only democracy is capable of meeting their demand for greater choice.

The desire for freedom is universal, and the appetite for it is whetted when one sees others enjoying their liberties. Malaysians are more economically successful than Indonesians, but they envy their southern cousins for their political freedoms. They dream of the day when their television, radio and newspapers are as free as those found in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. This Malaysian dream is shared by other ASEANese living under tight autocratic regimes.

It was the Cold War that brought the original five ASEAN countries together as a purely political grouping subscribing to “peace, freedom and neutrality”. With the end of the Cold War, it was inevitable that economics would take precedence over politics. And as the economies of the region become more interlinked, so do the fates of the ASEAN peoples.

ASEAN is diverse, but there are fundamental cultural, economic and political meeting points. The desire for wealth is a common motivation, and it has resulted in high economic growth in the region, albeit uneven. But economic well-being has an effect unintended by some of the ASEAN policy-makers. It nourishes the desire for things higher than mere physical comfort. Such higher needs are associated with freedom.

Current ASEAN leaders want to set limits to their cooperation. They should know that they are daydreaming. Deepening economic integration will bring with it many unintended consequences. It is not only the ASEANese desire for democracy, openness and freedom that they will have to grapple with. It may not be too long before the peoples of the region begin to see themselves as members of a single community. When that happens, the seed of ASEAN greatness will have been sown.

Anwar Ibrahim
Anwar Ibrahim was deputy prime minister Malaysia when he was dismissed in September 1998 by prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. In April 1999 after a controversial trial Ibrahim was convicted of corruption and jailed for six years. He was freed in September 2004. Attempts to clear his name have failed and he is prevented from seeking public office until 2008, unless he wins a royal pardon.