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.