Asia

At long last, Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim fulfills prime ministerial ambition

It took more than two decades and a few stints in prison but Malaysia’s perpetual prime-minister-in-waiting, Anwar Ibrahim, finally occupies his country’s highest political office after the king appointed him on Thursday to head the new government.

Just when many political observers had written off the 75-year-old as a has-been, Anwar ran an election campaign with the energy of a person half his age and came out on top.

If his Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) bloc had failed in this general election, Anwar likely wouldn’t get another chance to become prime minister because the coalition would look for younger and fresher leadership the next time around, observers had said.

It appears that Anwar made an impact with his campaign against corruption and for radical economic change, although he now finds himself heading a ruling coalition that includes UMNO, the very party he had helped unseat in the 2018 general election on an anti-graft platform.

What’s more, his coalition won 82 out of 221 parliamentary seats – more than any other coalition – showing that he persuaded more than a few people from the ethnic Malay majority that his push for institutional reform was not anti-Malay or pro-Chinese, just anti-patronage.

‘A prime minister for everyone’

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In the run-up to the Nov. 19 election, Anwar campaigned vigorously, and among people of all communities and faiths to deliver his message for a tolerant and multicultural Malaysia.

In that respect, Anwar’s message has not changed since his “Reformasi” street protests movement of the late 1990s, which called for institutional reform and racial tolerance in a multiethnic and multireligious country.

Ethnic Malays are a majority in the country, comprising 70 percent of Malaysia’s 33 million people. Yet they enjoy many privileges when it comes to issues like housing, loans, and education, because successive governments have tried to raise the Malay community to the level of the country’s more affluent ethnic Chinese minority.

Anwar, a Malay himself, leads the Pakatan bloc that includes the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a largely Chinese party. He has gone on the record to say he opposes race-based affirmative action and supports need-based aid.

“People say ‘Long live the Malays’ but [a] majority [of the] Malays are poor and face hardship. Only those at the top enjoy a good life,” Anwar said at a recent campaign rally, according to the Associated Press.

“I want to be a prime minister for everyone … let us work as a family. Let us build this country together.”

Anwar Ibrahim (center), leader of the opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the Pakatan Harapan bloc, arrives at the candidate nomination center for the parliamentary seat in Tambun, Perak state, Malaysia, Nov. 5, 2022. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Anwar is also said to be a devout Muslim, but not of the fundamentalist school. His is a democratic Islam, he has said in various lectures around the world. Anwar doesn’t believe in Malay or Islamic supremacy.

He is secular, and prefers multiculturalism and inclusiveness.

This is why, as he told the Reuters news agency, he was not prepared to work with either of the other two main coalitions that Pakatan was going up against in the 15th general election, Perikatan Nasional or Barisan Nasional, anchored by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

“Any form of coalition will be a major setback because you are having a coalition with essentially racist or Muslim fanatics,” Anwar said.

The reformist also stated that the 60-year reign of UMNO and Barisan Nasional had led to corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

“Please! For goodness sake, for the sake of our children and our future, stop this rot. Stop this nonsense,” AP quoted Anwar as saying at a rally before Election Day.

Former Mahathir protégé

Anwar was born in 1947 colonial Malaysia in Penang, to parents who were both active in the country’s oldest political party, UMNO – his father was an MP in the early 1960s.

A graduate of the University of Malaya, Anwar began his political career as a student leader in the late 1960s. He co-founded the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia in 1971. He and the group were fiercely critical of UMNO and the coalition it led, Barisan Nasional, which had been ruling the country since independence.

Anwar led student protests blaming Barisan and UMNO for Malaysia’s poverty and hunger, and was arrested in 1974 under the draconian – and now defunct – Internal Security Act and detained for 20 months.

In 1982 his large number of supporters were shocked, to say the least, when Anwar decided to join the enemy, UMNO, upon the invitation of a man who would end up playing a big role in his life and who had become prime minister the year before: Mahathir Mohamad.

Analysts have observed that anyone looking to rise in national politics had little choice but to join UMNO – there was hardly any opposition to speak of – and Anwar probably saw the writing on the wall.

Najib-Anwar-Mahathir.JPG
Education Minister Najib Razak (left), Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (center) and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad laugh at a joke by one of the delegates during the United Malays National Organization's (UMNO) annual general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, June 20, 1998. [Reuters]

As Mahathir’s protégé, Anwar rose rapidly up the UMNO ranks. He was appointed finance minister in 1991, and additionally became deputy prime minister in 1993. Mahathir even made Anwar acting prime minister for two months in May 1997.

The protégé’s reputation grew at home and abroad. Almost everyone agreed Anwar would one day succeed Mahathir as prime minister – until Mahathir fired him and expelled him from UMNO in 1998, for, well, talking back.

Amid the Asian financial crisis, Anwar criticized his self-appointed mentor by saying that his administration promoted corruption and nepotism. Anwar then led nationwide protests under the Reformasi movement, which called for institutional reform.

He was duly arrested, he said, on the orders of the Mahathir government, on sodomy and corruption charges.

Then began nearly two decades in and out of courts and prison, interspersed by electoral comebacks.

In 2004, the sodomy conviction was overturned but his corruption conviction stood. In 2014, he was again convicted and imprisoned for sodomy.

By 2016, Mahathir had all but retired from politics while another of his protégés, Najib Razak was prime minister. After Najib was later implicated in the 1MDB financial scandal, Mahathir wanted him out.

Defying all expectations, bitter foes Anwar and Mahathir joined forces to battle Barisan.

Mahathir promised and delivered Anwar a royal pardon.

Anwar and Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan won a historic election in 2018. The two agreed that Mahathir would be PM for two years and then hand over the post to Anwar.

Instead, Mahathir quit less than two years later and Anwar again lost his chance to become prime minister when the Pakatan government collapsed over infighting.

This time around, Mahathir again made overtures to Anwar and his Pakatan to band together. Anwar said a firm “no.”

Turns out, it was a smart move.

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