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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 15, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 41

Much Ado About Nothing?
A medical report concludes that Anwar was not poisoned - and boosts the chance of early elections
By ARJUNA RANAWANA Kuala Lumpur

The heir to the throne is deposed and then thrown into jail. There in his cell he is slowly poisoned by unseen hands. That is the medieval imagery that has clouded Malaysia's political scene for the past month after the family of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim claimed dangerous levels of arsenic had been detected in his urine. The revelation rocked the country. Thousands of Anwar supporters took to the streets, accusing the government of attempted murder and calling for an independent probe. Some of the demonstrations turned violent and dozens were arrested. Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail spoke of her fears for her husband's life. Then on Oct. 5, the result of a court-ordered medical investigation came out: Anwar did not have arsenic in him. Malaysians found themselves asking: Was this all much ado about nothing?

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Malaysia's Anwar not poisoned, doctors say
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Anwar was taken to hospital on Sept. 10, after his lawyers told the court that his urine sample was found to have high levels of arsenic. The sample, obtained secretly on Aug. 18 by Anwar's family when he came to court, had been sent to a laboratory in Australia under a false name after Wan Azizah noticed that Anwar was losing weight and hair. The judge in the current sodomy trial, Arifin Jaka, ordered that Anwar be examined and a report lodged in court. Anwar chose the hospital of the National University of Malaysia.

Exhaustive tests were conducted on samples of Anwar's hair, nails and urine in two Malaysian institutes, as well as in Britain and Australia. Opinions on the test results were also obtained from America. In their report, the doctors concluded that Anwar "showed no clinical signs of acute or chronic arsenic poisoning. Urine, hair and nail specimens showed an arsenic level which does not exceed the permissible level." But the medical team also noted that when admitted to hospital, Anwar was "thin and gaunt" and that his hair "came away easily when tugged." He had also complained of dizziness and numbness at the end of his fingers. It was recommended that Anwar be placed under further observation by the hospital.

In court, Anwar's lead lawyer Karpal Singh asked that the head of the medical team be summoned to clarify some of the statements in the report. But Attorney-General Mohtar Abdullah objected, promising a full investigation into the poisoning allegation. "We will investigate thoroughly even though there is no threat at present," he told the court. "There is evidence that Anwar is not being poisoned."

In a press statement on Oct. 6, Wan Azizah countered that "the results of the tests have not yet ruled out the possibility that Anwar has been exposed to arsenic poisoning in small intermittent doses. Nor do the results negate the existence of certain symptoms which Anwar has been experiencing and for which up till now no explanations have been found." Still, Chandra Muzaffar, deputy president of Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party), which is headed by Wan Azizah, admits that the report has put the pro-Anwar opposition on the defensive. "More people are likely to be critical of Anwar and Wan Azizah after this," he says.

Members of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition certainly wasted no time striking back at Anwar. "Anwar owes Malaysians an explanation," says Ng Yen Yen, head of the Malaysian Chinese Association's women's wing. The MCA is a component of Barisan. "We should stop chasing shadows and ask Anwar why he made these accusations in the first place. He has damaged the country's reputation."

The news boosts Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad - and the chance of early general elections. "The truth has prevailed and our party workers and supporters are greatly encouraged in their tasks," says Zulkifli Alwi, secretary of the youth wing of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the leading party in Barisan. On Oct. 9, Mahathir is due to preside over a UMNO Supreme Council meeting. Election-readiness reports from UMNO branches across the country are due to be submitted in the meeting, and the findings could determine the election date. Another factor is the economy, whose growth has shown signs of exceeding earlier predictions of 1%.

The latest turn of events is in contrast to just weeks ago, when Mahathir was feeling the heat from poisoning allegations and pro-Anwar protests. Now, with the opposition wrong-footed by the report, Mahathir can take satisfaction in the fact that he is firmly in the driver's seat.

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