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Trashing the ASEAN Brand

CANBERRA – Having a reputation for integrity and decency matters as much in international relations as in professional and personal life. States that are so regarded consistently punch above their weight – witness the Scandinavians. By contrast, those that never earn – or fritter away – such a reputation can seriously endanger their own interests, jeopardizing trade, tourism, foreign investment, political support in international forums and negotiations, and the security of their own nationals abroad.

Three of Southeast Asia's most important states – Malaysia, Thailand, and now Indonesia – have brought trouble on themselves in this respect in recent months. All three are raising serious doubts, in different ways, about their commitment to the rule of law, the integrity of their judicial systems, and the quality of mercy in the administration of justice.

In Malaysia, the country's highest court last month rejected opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's appeal against a five-year prison sentence and a ban against running for public office for a further five years – a shocking and indefensible decision. Prime Minister Najib Razak's government was transparently vindictive in pursuing allegations of sodomy (a crime rarely prosecuted in Malaysia) against Anwar. The evidence against him was obviously inconclusive; and the court's acceptance of it was manifestly craven.

If the fiction is maintained that the court was merely doing its judicial duty as it saw it, decency could still prevail: Anwar could be granted executive clemency. But there is no sign that Najib's government will advise such action. Anwar's real crime was that his opposition coalition of conservative Muslim, secular, and Chinese parties was seriously challenging the six-decade supremacy of Najib's United Malays National Organization (UMNO), losing the 2013 election only because of a transparent gerrymander.