The Big Read in short: Road ahead for Anwar Ibrahim’s topsy-turvy political ride
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we examine what is next for Mr Anwar Ibrahim, whose bid to take over as Malaysia’s prime minister crumbled last month with the fall of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. This is a shortened version of the feature.
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we examine what is next for Mr Anwar Ibrahim, whose bid to take over as Malaysia’s prime minister crumbled last month with the fall of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. This is a shortened version of the feature, which can be found here.
PERMATANG PAUH — Mr Anwar Ibrahim, 72, is familiar with adversity, having been jailed for nearly a decade on corruption and sodomy charges that he maintains were politically motivated.
Released from jail on a royal pardon almost two years ago, the former deputy prime minister appeared to have turned the corner: Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 94, was to hand over Malaysia’s top job to him this year.
But in a surprising turn of events last month, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government — which Dr Mahathir led to power in 2018 — collapsed after one of its four parties withdrew. Eleven members from Mr Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the largest party in the coalition, also defected.
Dr Mahathir quit as prime minister and was replaced by former home affairs minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who is part of a new governing coalition called Perikatan Nasional.
Ms Nurul Nuha Anwar, 36, the second of Mr Anwar’s six children, told TODAY on the phone from the capital Kuala Lumpur this week: “Obviously, we were all very upset. But he (Mr Anwar) and my mum were just so zen. I could not imagine what they were going through, but they were so serene as well as very calm.”
Ms Nurul Nuha, a social entrepreneur, referring to what Mr Anwar’s camp viewed as betrayal by some PKR members, said: “It is painful to see what has been committed.”
Mr Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said her husband had weathered worse events than the latest setback.
“I am sure he will emerge stronger after this,” the former deputy prime minister in the PH government told TODAY. “I am sure that justice will prevail. This way also, the party is cleansed of unwanted elements.”
Several Malaysians in Permatang Pauh — Mr Anwar’s former stronghold in the north-western state of Penang — said they were dismayed by the collapse of the government they had voted in and the disarray that ensued.
“I'm very disappointed. At this point, I don't know who to trust anymore,” said retired fisherman Mohd Shariff Yahya, 68.
A ROLLER-COASTER POLITICAL JOURNEY
Mr Anwar founded the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia in 1971.
An Islamic student leader, Mr Anwar was, in his own words, “very Malay and Islam-oriented” in his youth — a position he later recalibrated as he coalesced around a brand of multiracial politics that saw to the needs of marginalised Malaysians of all races.
Mr Anwar joined the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the linchpin party of the Malay-dominated Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, in 1982 at the invitation of Dr Mahathir, who was then serving his first stint as prime minister.
Mr Anwar’s rise was meteoric: He held key ministerial positions, including education minister, where he played a key role in the Islamisation of Malaysia’s education system. He was named deputy prime minister in 1993 and was widely expected to succeed Dr Mahathir. Rifts, however, appeared between the two men and Mr Anwar was fired in 1998.
That year, he started the Reformasi movement, which mobilised protests calling for Dr Mahathir’s resignation, and social reforms demanding accountability and the eradication of corruption.
In 1999, he was jailed for corruption and later sodomy, charges he denied, and was released in 2004 after a court overturned his sodomy conviction.
In 2008, a three-party opposition coalition called Pakatan Rakyat, which he led, disrupted the BN’s two-thirds majority in parliament.
But in 2015, Mr Anwar was back behind bars, convicted of fresh sodomy charges.
He was released in May 2018 after receiving a pardon from Malaysia’s King.
Mr Anwar did not respond to TODAY’s request for comment.
A FIGHTER WITH RESOLVE — AND AN ACHILLES HEEL
His years in prison hardened his resolve to fight for political change, and the self-professed “incorrigible optimist” remains upbeat despite the latest setback, based on TODAY’s interviews with four of Mr Anwar’s family members and half a dozen colleagues.
Mr Anwar’s cousin Zulkiefly Saad, 63, said: “If you look at his history since he started his involvement in politics… he’s a fighter. He struggled very hard.”
Mr Fahmi Fadzil, PKR’s MP for Lembah Pantai in Kuala Lumpur, said Mr Anwar remained positive on March 1, when Mr Muhyiddin was sworn in as prime minister, even though many of his colleagues were “morose, feeling down, depressed, tired, beaten”.
Despite his calmness and resilience, Mr Anwar needs to learn lessons from the latest political crisis, said colleagues and family.
Chiefly, he needs to improve his leadership style, they said. While Mr Anwar’s aides described him as an engaging and accommodative leader, he has to better enforce party discipline if he is to get the house in order.
Mr Wong Chen, 51, PKR’s MP for Subang in Selangor state, noted that Mr Anwar has all the leadership qualities such as charisma and conviction.
But he pointed out: “Organisationally, he needs to improve in the sense that he needs to take stronger disciplinary actions. He needs to not just lead the party, but to take decisive disciplinary actions when things go bad before they become worse, to nip problems in the bud.”
He added: “In this case, the group of defectors caused so much suffering for everybody. Anwar should have been much more decisive. It is highly unusual to allow a disciplinary problem to fester for years, allowing these defectors to grow their power base by virtue of the ministerial positions they held, and finally resulting in this catastrophic political crisis.”
Mr Fahmi noted that Mr Anwar had always urged party members to focus on “more important matters”, such as the economy, as well as structural and institutional reforms needed in Malaysia.
He said: “As a result, sometimes people feel that he is not as strong a leader as they hoped he would be, particularly in terms of administration of the party.”
In spite of the latest setback, Mr Anwar’s colleagues are sanguine about his prospects of becoming prime minister eventually.
They pointed to a possible window of opportunity on May 18, when parliament sits next. PH has said that it intends to seek a no-confidence vote against Mr Muhyiddin.
The next general election, which must be held by 2023, is another opening — one that could offer Mr Anwar the last shot at the prime ministership, said analysts.
Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute Tasmania in Australia, said Mr Anwar would have another shot at the prime ministership in 2023, when he would be 76. “After that, he will be regarded as too old,” Prof Chin said, as a new generation of leaders will come to the fore.
Dr Francis Hutchinson of research centre Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute believed that Mr Anwar still has a chance, but it is increasingly unlikely. He said that this hinges on Dr Mahathir retaining control over PH, as well as the coalition winning a no-confidence motion in parliament and forming a parliamentary majority. Once back in power, Dr Mahathir must then agree to cede power to Mr Anwar.
Ms Ariel Tan, from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Mr Anwar would appear to have a harder time forming a majority government in the next few months than Mr Muhyiddin. She said: “If Mr Muhyiddin can keep his party and allies with him in Perikatan Nasional going into the next election, and win over those currently aligned with Dr Mahathir Mohamad, he would have a greater chance of forming the next government.”
CAN HE SUCCEED?
Mr Anwar has long made multiracial politics and the eradication of corruption his political priorities.
But analysts and his colleagues acknowledged that this vision could be both a strength and weakness, as many voters — particularly in the Malay heartlands — do not subscribe to this view of a multicultural Malaysia.
Dr Hutchinson said racial politics is so pronounced in Malaysia because largely rural, Malay-majority constituencies are disproportionately powerful owing to malapportionment. These seats are geographically large but contain a relatively small number of people. Politicians thus have to appeal to these constituencies to remain electorally viable.
After BN’s defeat in the 2018 election, Umno shifted the public debate away from economic growth to focus exclusively on Malay rights, putting the more multiracial PH on the back foot, said Dr Hutchinson. Thus, the bar for judging PH was about what they were doing for or against Malay voters, rather than the country as a whole. PH will need to deal with this, he added.
Dr Hutchinson said Mr Anwar’s multiracial vision is politically viable and attainable, and he needs therefore to “turn his attention inwards to understand what led such a large faction of people to leave the party, and to increase order within PKR”.
Mr Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, PKR’s MP for Setiawangsa in Kuala Lumpur, said effective communication, especially to the Malay ground, was an area in which the PH government had failed.
Ms Tan said Mr Anwar’s multiracial and reform platform has a following among urban Malays and non-Malays, and the three remaining parties in Mr Anwar’s coalition could develop more support for the platform among existing and new voters, since Malaysia has lowered its voting age to 18 from 21.
On fighting corruption, Mr Nik Nazmi said that while PH has made considerable strides to improve governance processes, these have to be linked to economic reforms, to gain the support of the man in the street.
Dr Afif Bahardin, a state assemblyman in Penang, said Mr Anwar’s time would come, provided PKR is strong and united. “Until we achieve that, I don’t think we can say it’s easy for him to be prime minister.”