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Over Two Decades After His Downfall, Malaysia’s Man-in-a-Hurry Finally Arrives

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Journalist Salil Tripathi reflects on Anwar Ibrahim, the firebrand turned reformist politician, and his long and arduous journey to become prime minister of Malaysia.

Over Two Decades After His Downfall, Malaysia’s Man-in-a-Hurry Finally Arrives

The thrill of victory and vindication after over two decades of struggle: Anwar Ibrahim following his swearing-in as prime minister on November 24 at the Istana Negara, Kuala Lumpur (Credit: Alif Omar / Shutterstock.com)

A quarter century is a long time to wait for any reward, and for Anwar Ibrahim, who was sworn in as Malaysia’s 10th prime minister (ninth, if Mahathir Mohamad is counted only once) on November 24, the wait has been particularly poignant. He endured two decades of trials that would have worn down all but the most persistent of politicians – after his summary dismissal as deputy prime minister and finance minister in 1998 by his mentor Mahathir, he was arrested, beaten up, prosecuted repeatedly, convicted, jailed again after gaining his freedom, and then finally released and pardoned just four years ago. Leading a disparate coalition that cobbled together enough seats to form a government after the November 19 general election, he now wears the crown he has sought since his man-in-a-hurry activist days.

Being ambitious is part of being a politician, and Anwar cannot be faulted for his drive. His role has been unique in Malaysian politics, for he carries with him a raft of expectations that are almost impossible for anyone to fulfil. That he becomes the leader of a Muslim-majority country of 34 million people (63 percent Malay, 21 percent Chinese, and 6 percent Indian) recovering from the pandemic (but among the fastest growing in Southeast Asia and with a youth bulge) and in an uncertain era of international relations will test his political and diplomatic skills to the fullest.

Anwar was a firebrand youth leader acutely conscious of his faith. In 1971, he founded Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, the Muslim Youth Movement, before he joined the mainstream political party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). He was tested by imprisonment early: He was arrested under the dreaded Internal Security Act (ISA) in the mid-1970s for protesting against poverty and hunger after reports emerged of deaths in a family from starvation. Once released, he joined and rose quickly through the ranks of UMNO, and by the mid-1990s was considered a potential successor to Mahathir, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, who was in office for nearly 24 years, from 1981 to 2003 and again (in his 90s) from 2018 to 2020.

Mahathir had the habit of grooming a successor but then keeping him under a tight leash and leaving other pretenders and rivals guessing. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 complicated matters for Dr M, a physician by training. As the Indonesian, Thai and Korean currencies collapsed, speculators attacked Malaysia’s ringgit, too, assuming that it would be the next victim of the contagion, what with the country’s grandiose infrastructure projects underway such as the construction of what was then the world’s tallest skyscraper (the twin Petronas Towers) and a potential property overhang. They assumed that over-extended Malaysian tycoons who were allied with Mahathir would collapse under the weight of their debt.

But unlike the tycoons in Indonesia and Thailand in particular, while Malaysian businesses had large borrowings, their debt was primarily domestic and not susceptible to wild surges in the international markets, as the ringgit was on stronger footing. Besides, in Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir had a finance minister who enjoyed solid credibility in international markets. While the bankers worried that Mahathir might be tempted to bail out crony capitalists, Anwar would steady the ship.

Seeing Anwar’s popularity and ambition as a potential threat, the boss had him arrested and a bewildering range of charges were brought against the heir presumptive, including homosexuality. In jail he was beaten up (when he was brought before the court, his face was bruised and Mahathir claimed it was “a self-inflicted injury” to gain public sympathy). International support for him grew: At an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Kuala Lumpur, US Vice President Al Gore praised Anwar’s Reformasi movement. But at home, he remained persona non grata. Anwar would then be tried and convicted on sodomy charges, receiving a royal pardon just four years ago, which allowed him to return to politics and run in the 2018 general election.

During those long years of his detention and after, for Malaysian liberals, Anwar personified the last great hope. The political unrest during that period was driven by frustration over crony capitalism, corruption, inequality and stagnation, and Anwar, with his speeches for social justice and the moderate stance he projected in his book, The Asian Renaissance, was widely seen as the liberal face of the future, even as he aged (he is now 75 years old).

Anwar criticized the New Economic Policy, which sets quotas for bumiputras, or “sons of soil”, a form of affirmative action that favors Malays over other Malaysian ethnic groups. But Anwar simply did not have the numbers to come to power on his own. He formed parties and created alliances, but was unable to stop the machine of the Barisan Nasional (the longstanding ruling coalition that included UMNO), even though he continued to increase his strength in parliament.

Back together: Mahathir, prime minister once again, and the sucessor-in-waiting that he had sacked two decades earlier, Petaling Jaya, June 2018 (Credit: Bernama)

Back together: Mahathir, prime minister once again, and the sucessor-in-waiting that he had sacked two decades earlier, Petaling Jaya, June 2018 (Credit: Bernama)

In a remarkable turn of events, Anwar allied with Mahathir in 2018, who had left UMNO after criticizing the corrupt rule of his successors, and their combined skills brought Mahathir back into the prime minister’s seat, with Anwar again his successor-in-waiting. Anwar said that they had moved on from the past, and it was expected that Anwar would eventually take over from the nonagenarian yet still sprightly leader. But that was not to be. Disgruntled parliamentarians defected and Mahathir’s government collapsed. It seemed that Anwar would never realize his ambition.

Then came this year’s general election. Like many political parties that lead the freedom movement and dominate the political scene for a long time before they get atrophied (think of India’s Congress Party), UMNO was now a spent force, and Anwar secured 82 of the 222 seats in parliament, getting the largest number of seats, but short of majority. While his rival Muhyiddin Yassin, who had served as prime minister after Mahathir’s second turn, insists he has more support, Anwar had put together a rag-tag coalition on the basis of which the king invited him to form the government. He will face a vote of confidence in December.

Analysts believe Anwar’s administration may not last long partly because he does not have many friends among other leaders, and partly because he does not have the numbers on his side. With the disintegration of UMNO, Malaysian politicians have become fickle, and alliances get formed and collapse with a frequency that is reminiscent of Italy. The main constituency that admires him – Malaysian liberals – are in a chastened mood: They do not expect him to repeal laws that criminalize same-sex relationships or criminal defamation, or to revamp or replace the NEP which continues to prompt the emigration of Indian and Chinese Malaysians who can afford to leave.

The last time I saw Anwar was at the George Town Literature Festival in Penang in 2018. He was questioned sharply about the liberal agenda – and was on the defensive, arguing that reforms take time. The coalition of middle-class Malaysians of all ethnicities, who were upwardly mobile and wanted a more pluralistic society, whose aspirations were at their peak in 1997-98, are far more circumspect, more realistic, now.

Redemption for a beaten man: Anwar, with wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, after his conviction on sodomy and corruption charges was overturned in 2004 (Credit: Twitter)

Redemption for a beaten man: Anwar, with wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, after his conviction on sodomy and corruption charges was overturned in 2004 (Credit: Twitter)

Anwar is not perfect, no politician is. But he is a thoughtful man who has been patient. He and his family have suffered. At a time when he might well have already retired, he has persisted. He has shown ingenuity in cobbling together alliances and set personal animosity aside by working together again with Mahathir in 2018. He is widely respected internationally (having taught at Oxford and at Georgetown University) and international financial institutions regard him as credible.

But he is no longer the young bright spark. His personal story is stirring and inspiring; his victory would seem to be his redemption. Whether his story will follow the path of Nelson Mandela – who spent years in jail and then took power and created a non-racial, new South Africa – or that of Aung San Suu Kyi – who spent years under house arrest, became a beacon of hope, only to founder and land back in jail – is beside the point. No political trajectories are alike. But Malaysia needs stability, and Anwar is more likely than any of his rivals to be the safe pair of hands that are required, provided he is able to get down to business and complete his term.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

Author

Salil Tripathi

Salil Tripathi

Journalist and author

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. He is the immediate past chair of PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee. He has written for publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times, and many others, and was a correspondent in Singapore for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is a regular contributor to Mint and Caravan in India. His books include The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy (2015), Detours: Songs of the Open Road (2016), and earlier, Offence: The Hindu Case (2009). Mumbai-born Salil is an award-winning journalist. His next book is about the Gujaratis.


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