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Dr Mahathir meets Anwar for first time in over 18 years

KUALA LUMPUR — Once bitter foes, former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad and the one-time protege he jailed, Anwar Ibrahim, exchanged a previously unthinkable handshake on Monday (Sept 5) that illustrated the country’s topsy-turvy politics.

Dr Mahathir meets Anwar for first time in over 18 years

Dr Mahathir Mohamad meets Anwar Ibrahim for the first time after 18 years in Kuala Lumpur Sept 5, 2016. Photo: Lawyers for Liberty via The Malay Mail Online

KUALA LUMPUR — Once bitter foes, former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad and the one-time protege he jailed, Anwar Ibrahim, exchanged a previously unthinkable handshake on Monday (Sept 5) that illustrated the country’s topsy-turvy politics.

Dr Mahathir sparked a social media frenzy with a show of support at a court appearance by Anwar, who was jailed again last year by Malaysia’s current government following a sodomy conviction, the same charge Dr Mahathir used against him in 1998.

“Pertemuan pertama selepas 18 tahun 2 hari..sejak 3 September 1998..,” (The first meeting after 18 years 2 days..since 3 September 1998) opposition leader Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who is also Anwar’s wife, wrote on her Facebook page in Malay as she posted a picture of Anwar and Dr Mahathir shaking hands in a crowded courtroom. 

The brief and smiling encounter — images were shared widely online — underlined the political flux in Malaysia, where opposition to current Prime Minister Najib Razak has upended alliances. Mr Najib is facing calls to quit following irregularities in state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) as well as over US$681 million (S$924 million) deposited into his personal accounts. Mr Najib maintained he had not used the funds for personal gain, and has been cleared of any criminal offence.

Dr Mahathir, who was Malaysia’s prime minister for 22 years before retiring in 2003, has led calls for Mr Najib to be ousted and to face justice.

Monday’s meeting capped months in which Anwar and Dr Mahathir have flirted from a distance, reviving memories of their stormy past.

Anwar was deputy premier and heir apparent to Dr Mahathir until he was sacked in 1998 by his boss over political differences, an episode that continues to reverbrate. Charged with sodomy and corruption, Anwar spent six years in jail. But he emerged to lead the previously ineffectual political opposition to strong electoral showings until he was jailed again in 2015 by Mr Najib’s government.

Dr Mahathir played down Monday’s meeting, saying he was merely showing support for a legal challenge launched by Anwar against a new security law. The law, passed by Mr Najib’s government last year, grants Mr Najib sweeping security powers.

“I don’t know about friends but I know I talked to him,” Dr Mahathir said with a chuckle when reporters asked after the encounter whether the two were friendly again.

“I met him and had a long chat with him about what he was doing.” 

Anwar said Dr Mahathir’s appearance in court showed the latter “presumably” supported the reform agenda. Anwar said he will continue to “engage” with Dr Mahathir.

“He has showed preparedness to come and pledge his support and wish me well and I presume therefore he supports the reform agenda,” Anwar told the Malaysian media when asked if Dr Mahathir had earned his trust.

“My position is this: No 1 the welfare of the people is paramount, the welfare of the country is paramount, which means whoever wants to engage must accept a reform agenda,” he said, without elaborating on what he meant by “reform agenda’’. 

“Now I think I have seen everything,” Mr Eric Paulsen of activist group Lawyers for Liberty said in tweeting an image of the handshake.

It remains to be seen whether any real detente between the political heavyweights can be achieved — or dent Mr Najib. The next general election must be held by mid-2018. 

Leading independent pollster Ibrahim Suffian called the handshake “a big deal” and a sign that “Mahathir has come full circle”. “The fundamental problem for the opposition was that Mahathir and Anwar couldn’t get along,” he said. “Their shaking hands means their interests have converged.” AGENCIES

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