VICTOR MERRICK. Anwar Ibrahim — is he for real?

Malaysia’s prime minister-in-waiting shows signs of irritability as reformist mask starts to slip. 

This article was published by UCA News on the 23rd of October 2018. 

Anwar Ibrahim is back on the path to becoming Malaysia’s prime minister when current leader Mahathir Mohamad steps down in two years’ time.

Three years after he was jailed for sodomy and four months after he was released from prison and granted a full pardon by the king, he won a parliamentary seat to seal his return to frontline Malaysian politics.

According to the country’s election commission, Anwar’s victory in the Oct. 13 Port Dickson by-election was emphatic.

He received 71 percent of the votes in a contest which pitted him against a hodgepodge of independents and a candidate from the Islamist party PAS.

Mahathir, his erstwhile rival, now in a rush to correct the mistakes he made during his first stint in power from 1981 to 2003, has welcomed him back and promised to hand over power to the man he sacked as his deputy in 1998.

It’s an intriguing tale. Both Mahathir and Anwar were then in power as part of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government, as prime minister and deputy, respectively, before their famous falling out over economic policy as the Asian financial crisis started to take a toll on the country.

Anwar up to then had been seen as Mahathir’s heir apparent. Their relationship quickly soured after a leadership dispute and Mahathir sacked him as his deputy.

He was then jailed on corruption and sodomy charges that were widely regarded as politically motivated.

In 2004, his sodomy conviction was overturned and he led the opposition to unprecedented gains in the 2008 and 2013 general elections but remained short of victory.

Just as he began to establish himself, his acquittal was overturned in 2014 and he was sent back to jail to finish his nine-year term.

Anwar insists he holds no malice towards his former mentor and will support the 93 year old who helped Pakatan Harapan, the alliance that ended more than six decades of rule by the BN coalition in May, as a backbencher.

But there are concerns about Anwar and the type of administration he will lead when he takes power in two years’ time.

That neither his wife nor daughter made way for him to contest a seat in parliament adds a whiff of nepotism to the family.

His wife, Wan Azizah, is the deputy prime minister while his daughter, Nurul Izzah, occupies his former Permatang Pauh parliamentary seat.

During his election campaign, Anwar, 71, said that when he takes charge of the country there will be more changes in store. He didn’t spell them out.

There were some early jitters about what could be in store when he attacked as “super liberals” those who have been strident about reform and equal rights, saying they were trying to impose acceptance of LGBTI lifestyles on the majority. He warned Malaysians against the “tyranny of the minority.”

It was a curious attack coming from a man whom many consider to be a champion of Malaysian democracy.

Those he calls “super liberals” were his saviors; they marched against the injustice of his plight, campaigned for democracy, and finally helped topple the government that imprisoned him.

His warning was not lost on the older generation who remember Anwar’s role in Islamising schools, universities and the civil service, and launching the country on a slippery slope to the polarised Malaysia of today.

They also notice an uncanny similarity in style to disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak.

On trips overseas he often talks about democracy in the “new Malaysia,” but at home he focuses on the Malay majority, just as Najib did.

He’s also been called out for endorsing his friend, the despotic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

His recent comments on the campaign trail have confused many.

While calling to repeal a colonial-era penal code outlawing homosexuality — the very law used to imprison him — at the same time he has said that LGBTI people should not be accepted.

The double-talk doesn’t inspire confidence in his leadership. Critics note he is beginning to sound more like an apologist for the Islamic conservatives that were taking the country toward an uncertain future than an advocate for true democracy in Malaysia.

People remember he has a background in racial and religious politics with the Muslim youth movement, and of course his time with the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysia’s main opposition party.

They feel he is playing to the Malay and Muslim majority and their insecurities when he scolds minorities for demanding equality.

Anwar should know that those calling for fairness and equality are not the enemy he makes them out to be.

Malaysians can be forgiven for asking if the reform drive will fade when he takes power. It’s a big question because for much of their lives, politicians have made pledges only to either reverse them or ignore them altogether. What price is paid when a promise is broken? After 61 years of BN rule, the evidence is right in front of them.

While Anwar may have finally got his foot in the door in his quest to be Malaysia’s eighth prime minister in a couple of years’ time, he should remember that the final say will be made by Malaysians.

It would be a folly to ignore the mood for change in Malaysia.

This article was written by Victor Merrick. 


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2 Responses to VICTOR MERRICK. Anwar Ibrahim — is he for real?

  1. Anthony Pun says:

    In reading Victor Merrick’s article on Anwar Ibrahim, one draws a cautious acceptance of him as the next PM designate of Malaysia. The equivocal statements of Anwar mentioned in the article do create doubts about whether he could carry on the reform agenda of Party Harapan.
    Two years is a long time in politics, and the wise PM Mahathir will indeed continually assess his Deputy and unless Dr Mahathir gives the final nod, Anwar is not going to get the job.
    The power base that put UMNO into power for the last 60 years is still there and it is quite a temptation for any leader to have them in the pocket as to ensure future power retention.
    Merrick’s article is only part of the story and to understand Malaysian politics one got to read about the history of the “Malaysia Chinese Association –MCA) and the “Malaysian Indian Association – MIA” and the role they play in seeking independence from the British and their role in the “Alliance” with UMNO.
    Professor James Chin is director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania and senior fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia and his recent article provided a good glimpse of the MCA.
    Prof Chin’s article is succinct but is too short to really give a comprehensive rationale and circumstances how MCA has lost support in a short span of 60 years. Prof Wang Gangwu would also provide more insight on the history of Malaysian politics.
    In short, the MCA had failed to ensure future Malaysian Chinese generations will have equal access to political rights, education and employment opportunities in Malaysia. One common reason seems to be the pre-occupation of making money and not paying enough attention to political rights.
    Affirmative action for Malays were essential to improve the living standards and lifting them out of poverty and provide opportunity for them to excel. However, the affirmative action program had gone too long (60 years) and it had created imbalance in opportunities for non-Malays and MCA has failed to convince the government of the consequence, one of which, saw tremendous brain drain of educated Malaysians Chinese migrating to Western countries for better opportunities.
    MCA use by date has come and rejuvenation of the party to a strong Chinese base political party may not be relevant or feasible. Malaysian politics has been multi-racial and a merger of MCA to form a new multi-racial political party would have a better solution because it will serve all Malaysians.
    Racial politics or politics on racial lines in Malaysia, has not delivered the goods for Malaysia and for the last 60 years, it has lost its position in Asia as the most advanced and educated country; and foreign investment has fallen.
    If Malaysia is to be great again, it must have political parties which are multi-racial that represents all Malaysians.

  2. Victor Merrick. I am Malaysian. If ethnic diverse Malaysians can be born absolutely equanimous to our racial, religious, lingual and ability differences it would be heaven on Earth. But we are stuck with a Constitution that provides for the protection of and preference and privilege for the Malays. The British did not think of making these ‘privilege’ provisions a ‘sunset’ clause!
    All past PMs including the incumbent and the designated PM to be were and are all real and as real as the complicated political setting we are quagmired in. It is a very dynamic kaleidoscopic situation that cannot be analysed and debated upon within a single static time frame.
    In the land of the political intrigue and chicanery and crooks we can only choose the least crooked and not necessarily the most meritorious or capable. We have to prioritise our problem solving agenda. Not that all Malays are crooks!
    If a Mahathir and Anwar can restore the public faith and integrity of our ‘buggered up’ public institutions and administration and the Rule of Law that the British bequeathed us we are already blessed.
    Leave the ideal mission of all Malaysians being just ethnic Malaysians, rather than segregated in our birth certificates, identity cards and official documents in applying for jobs etc, as Malays, Chinese, Indians etc and respective religions, in the ‘too hard’ basket.

    Vincent Cheok @

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