Anwar’s long journey begins…

After a meteoric rise, and tragic incarceration, Malaysia’s new, and 10th prime minister Anwar, is poised to lead. But his path is strewn with hidden pitfalls and ripples with hissing vipers. Difficult days lie ahead.

[1].  A nation, waiting, waiting…

Few Malaysian politicians can match Anwar’s charisma, tenacity or stamina, despite him enduring so much suffering.

Anwar Ibrahim’s journey to the office of prime minister has been full of obstacles and drama, not only for his family but also for a generation of Malaysians, who have been watching his rise – and his fall – for over a quarter of a century.

And now, like a phoenix, he has risen.

Once again there is a sense of hope and relief.

But that hope is tinged with anxiety. 

[2].  How long will this last?

To answer that question, one must peer into the mists of history.

One man and his organisation have been the source of Anwar’s pain, sorrow – and oddly – Anwar’s ultimate victory.

Before we proceed further, let me say that this is my perspective.  

[3].  A young man atop a Volkswagen van

In the late 1970s, Anwar emerged as a charismatic firebrand Islamist. Burning with religious fervour, he established a youth organisation called ‘Angkatan Belia Islam’ (ABIM).

So great was his oratorical skill, in both Bahasa Malaysia and English, that Anwar could take on any opponent. 

ABIM became a formidable force to be reckoned with by any politician.

(Photo: Council of Foreign Relations)

I remember those days well.

Anwar would often be seen standing on the roof of an old Volkswagen van, speaking to an awe-struck audience.

He was, and is, undeniably, one of the greatest orators in Malaysia.

[4].  Anwar grabs Mahathir’s attention

In July 1981, Dr. Mahathir, after rising steadily through the ranks, had become the President of the United Malays National Organisation (‘UMNO’): thereby he became the prime minister of Malaysia.  

UMNO was and is, the head of a permanent multi-party coalition, called ‘Barisan Nasional’ (BN). 

Barisan Nasional has ruled Malaysia, in one form or another, since Malaysia’s Independence in 1957.

Barisan Nasional had begun to lose crucial Malay votes in the northern states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and parts of Pahang. Terengganu has vast fields of offshore oil.  

(Photo: Malaysiakini)

These votes were going to a hardline Islamist party, PAS.

PAS was headed by Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, a religious scholar of outstanding integrity, who led a spartan life. He practised what he preached. His style of leadership and the purity of his motives swayed even the non-Muslim votes.

The rise of PAS worried the ruling coalition. Earlier, PAS had been invited to join the ruling coalition. PAS had accepted. 

But Malaysia’s constitution is secular. PAS wished to establish an entirely Islamic nation.

A clash was inevitable. In 1977, BN expelled PAS.

And PAS continued to grow from strength to strength. 

Mahathir was worried.

[5].  Mahathir invites Anwar to join UMNO

In 1982, Mahathir invited Anwar and his Islamic cadre into UMNO to burnish its Islamic credentials.

Mahathir then fast-tracked his protégé’s rise through UMNO’s ranks.

He gave Anwar significant positions and ministership, until, in 1993, Anwar rose to the position of Deputy Prime Minister.

(Photo: Time)

[7].  It was Anwar’s job to enhance UMNO’s Islamic image.  

As he was part of the government, it was easy to set up Islamic institutions and allocate generous funds to these institutions.

The rise and rise of Islamisation in Malaysia can be directly attributed to the policies of Mahathir and Anwar in their bid to retain and expand Malay Muslim votes.

In a space of 11 years, Anwar became Deputy Prime Minister and heir apparent. 

[8].  The great fall out

Anwar had become alarmingly popular, locally and overseas. His rise and popularity did not sit well with Mahathir.

Mahathir had an established habit of removing his potential successors. DPM Musa Hitam had left because of his ‘growing rift’ with the PM. Abdul Ghafar Baba had resigned because of ‘irreconcilable differences’ with Mahathir.

So, in December 1993, when Anwar succeeded both, he was actually holding a poisoned chalice.

[9].  Bells of destiny toll

Things came to a head when Malaysia was hit by the 1997 Asian currency crisis.

The ringgit fell to the floor. Anwar wished to follow the IMF recommendations of tightening the belt.

Mahathir, however, overrode his Finance Minister’s recommendations, imposing capital controls to stem the fall of the ringgit. Mahathir was subsequently proven right.

However, his distrust of Anwar ballooned. Suspecting yet another threat from his successor, he struck at Anwar.

[10].  On 02 September 1998, Mahathir sacked Anwar

Mahathir accused Anwar of sodomy (a crime in Malaysia). 

Balaclava-clad police commandoes crashed into his home and took Anwar into custody.

[11].  The famous black eye

Anwar was held in detention until he was hauled into court. 

The nation gasped when they saw him with a black eye. While in detention, the then Inspector General of Police, Abdul Rahim Noor, had punched Anwar in the eye. 

Rahim Noor subsequently resigned, pleaded guilty to assault charges, and was imprisoned for two months.

“If it [the black eye] can happen to a Deputy Prime Minister, then it can happen to you”, said Anwar. 

It was a chilling remark about police power in the hands of the Executive. 

The black eye incensed his supporters and became a rallying cry for ‘Reformasi!’.

[12].  International approbation

While Mahathir’s international reputation took a hit, Anwar’s international stature soared. 

Suddenly, this die-hard Islamist was seen as a torchbearer for democracy and reformation.

(Photo: AP News) 

Inadvertently, Mahathir handed Anwar the key to international stardom.

[13].  In jail

Anwar was charged for allegedly having sex with men. Concurrently, he was also charged with corruption. 

A highly-publicized sodomy trial, by a media under the government’s thumb, shocked and scandalised the nation. 

Meanwhile, the sodomy trial dragged on.  

On 8 August 2000, Anwar was jailed for 9 years for sodomy.  

The trials attracted international criticism.

In September 2004, the Federal Court threw out the sodomy conviction.

Anwar was freed in 2004.

These events had a traumatic effect on the national psyche.

[14].  The beginning of the end for Mahathir, and BN

Meanwhile, Barisan Nasional’s showing at national elections began to falter; and Mahathir’s hold on power became increasingly tenuous.

The rumbling within the BN ranks grew louder.

UMNO quietly blamed Mahathir for its election failures and its growing unpopularity.

In October 2003, Mahathir stepped down. 

[15].  Badawi succeeds Mahathir

The gentlemanly Abdulah Ahmad Badawi succeeded Mahathir. Immediately he stopped the anti-Anwar rhetoric.

Under Badawi, BN re-surged into power.

However, Mahathir, on the sidelines, began to undermine Badawi, with the aim of putting Najib in power.

Mahathir succeeded.

[16].  In April 2009, Najib replaced Badawi as PM

Pakatan Harapan had grown in popularity.

Perceiving him as a threat, Najib renewed Mahathir’s attacks on Anwar.

Whereas any prudent statesman would have negotiated with Anwar, Najib persecuted Anwar at the slightest pretext.

BN’s relentless pursuit of Anwar only increased:

Anwar was blamed for everything.

Asked about it, Anwar once remarked:-

“If it does not rain for three days, it is all my fault!”

[17].  Imprisoned again

Najib resurrected sodomy charges against Anwar, this time with new alleged victims. The details of the sodomy charges are mind-boggling. 

For a second time, the trial court dismissed these new sodomy charges.

Yet, on appeal, in 2015, Anwar was convicted, and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

In 2018, after PH formed the government, Anwar received a royal pardon.

[18].  Anwar topples Barisan Nasional from prison

While in prison, Anwar directed and sustained the Pakatan Harapan coalition in the 2018 election.

Barisan Nasional was toppled. At last, the Opposition came to power.

[19].  Burying the hatchet

In a peculiar turn of events, Anwar buried the hatchet with Mahathir and persuaded him to become the prime minister of the Pakatan Harapan government.

(Photo: Berita Harian)

This was with a clear understanding that Anwar would take over as prime minister in two years.

Mahathir agreed. He was appointed prime minister.

[20].  Anwar receives the royal pardon

Meanwhile, Anwar received a royal pardon. 

[21].  But leopards do not change their spots

When the time came to hand over power to Anwar, Mahathir dragged his feet. 

In another stunning move, the parties which had been voted out in the election began maneouvering quietly. 

[22].  The ‘Sheraton Move’

On the morning of 23 February 2020, 11 members of PKR decided to ‘hop’ over to a new coalition called ‘Perikatan Nasional’. 

Several politicians and their parties had pulled out of the Pakatan Harapan coalition. Amphibian deserters left PKR, and joined with Bersatu, PAS, SAPP and STAR.

A new coalition called ‘Perikatan Nasional’(PN) came into being. 

PN and its followers claimed they had a ‘greater number of MPs than the Pakatan Harapan’ and ‘sufficient to form a government’.

No such proof has ever been seen of that. 

They asked the King for a mandate to rule.

[23].  Defying all that the nation had voted for, a backdoor government took rule

During its rule, the backdoor government sidelined democratic institutions. Parliament sittings were unaccountably postponed.

The backdoor government manipulated the Covid-19 pandemic to declare a Constitutional Emergency.

Under such a false Emergency, all physical movement was limited.

The cabinet passed laws. It expended huge sums of monies – all without parliamentary approval.

Soon, the component parties of the backdoor government fell into dispute.

That caused a premature election during the monsoon.

[24]. Hung parliament

Although the number of voters had increased to 21.17 million, how the voters were distributed is an unexplained mystery.

Anwar remained the leading contender of a hung parliament. His coalition had 82 seats. The rest of the losers began Sheraton Move No.2.

They claimed to have the majority to form the government. They failed.

The King’s request to form a ‘Unity Government’ was rejected by Muhyiddin.

BN, PAS, GPS and GRS, which had gleefully rushed in to support PN on the avowed basis of ‘national interest’, backpedaled for several reasons.

PN demanded that Muhyiddin be appointed the PM. That failed.

Then they attacked UMNO leader Zahid Hamidi. That failed.

GPS and GRS declared they supported the losing coalition in the election, PN. An East Malaysian backlash against GPS and GRS quickly cooled their sudden amphibian ardour.

[25].  The nation held its breath, again

Through all this, Anwar remained stoic, but hopeful.

The King, having exhausted all other possibilities, expressed his desire to appoint Anwar into office.

Those who had flatly refused the ‘Unity Government’ suddenly found their voice.

They now expressed a ‘longing’ to work ‘within’ the Government, ‘in the interest of national unity’.

In political doublespeak, it meant that they wanted Anwar to give them ministerial posts.

[26].  Tenth Prime Minister of Malaysia

At 5.00 pm on 24th November 2022, the longest ‘Prime-Minister-in-Waiting’, finally took the oath of office.

Our congratulations to Anwar Ibrahim and his soon-to-be Cabinet colleagues.

[27].  The coming days will be long, hard, and treacherous

This fragile coalition has challenging days ahead.

When parliament reconvenes, Anwar has to prove his majority. 

Anwar has to ensure that the coalition partners will stay within the coalition. This is especially so of the internally torn UMNO, which, in a matter of weeks, has a looming annual general meeting.

If Anwar can rein in his political horses, and deal with the triple challenges of inflation, corruption, and inequality, Malaysians may see a time of some stability.


[The author expresses his gratitude to KN Geetha, GS Saran, JD Prabh, RJ Nevina and JG Jeffrey]

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