Anwar Ibrahim Maneuvers for Power

Chameleon, Opportunist, Pragmatist, or Realist?

By: Murray Hunter

The 74-year-old opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim could be the closest yet to his decades-long goal to become prime minister as the current premier, Muhyiddin Yassin stumbles. Muhyiddin has held off a confidence vote for most of 2021 as he maneuvers desperately to stay in power but with the United Malays National Organization now abandoning his Perikatan Nasional coalition, most observers believe the coming end of the Covid-19 emergency that Muhyiddin engineered means the end of his reign.

Anwar has been attempting to make common cause with Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the serially indicted head of UMNO, to take power, an indication of his ambition and his willingness to dance with the devil. Zahid faces at least 87 charges of corruption, most of them seeming quite realistic. Accordingly, Anwar has been accused of being a chameleon telling different audiences different things, of being an opportunist seeking the prime ministership, and ‘the boy who cried wolf’ with his inaccurate assertions of a parliamentary majority to takeover government on a number of occasions.

In contrast, many see Anwar as Malaysia’s last hope. He has been a student activist grounded in Islamic theology, a minister, deputy prime minister, leader of the opposition, spent more than 10 years in jail through detention without trial under the Internal Security Act and twice on what has been touted internationally as politically motivated charges.

Called the prime minister in waiting after Pakatan Harapan won the 2018 general election while his old nemesis Mahathir Mohamed was “interim” prime minister, he has been a potential prime minister for more than two decades. His awe-inspiring speeches at political rallies, or ceramahs as they are locally known, and a long string of television interviews over the years, have more than adequately given him the opportunity to present his vision of what Malaysia could be. However, there is a strong feeling among many who feel they don’t really know who he really is.

According to his recent statements in international forums, he is proposing incorporating balanced equity, need rather than race, with strong ideals behind governance – a multicultural Malaysia with, for want of a better description, a secular-Islamic ethical moral platform supporting economic, social, and political governance, with a safety need for those in need.

But would we really witness the dismantling of the institutions that for decades supported the crony capitalism that has played havoc with the Malaysian economy? This is something the establishment fears and resists and wouldn’t be allowed. Anwar would have to go head-to-head with the Malay polity, who see his vision as a grave threat. He is mistrusted in the Malay heartlands, where despite 60 years of the New Economic Policy, an affirmative action program for the majority race, there is fear of marginalization. It is not just a possibility.

The fact is that other than these public statements, Anwar has shown little commitment to reform. During his seven years as Mahathir’s protégé, he showed no zeal for ending crony capitalism. Doing so now would be at the expense of the modern Malaysian state. Like too many Malay leaders, he has used Islam to further his political ambitions.

He must also play to the Malay middle class, who are struggling to support their families and lifestyles, as his coalition has done in the past with popular policies like abolishing the previous government’s goods and service tax and maintaining petrol subsidies, which are ruinous to the economy.

Anwar’s education has given him the ability to explain the concepts he wants to put across in concepts that suit his audiences. In academic circles or speaking to the international news media, he will draw analogies from western philosophers. When he is on the hustings in the kampongs, he will refer to verses of the Quran to put his views across. As he has said, “I will speak to my audiences in a language they will understand.”

He is criticized by many Malays as being too liberal, generating the belief that he is disloyal to the Malay agenda, and might support causes like LGBT. His establishment of the multiracial Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), and his close relationship with the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), are regarded as evidence. He is the only Malay leader who professes multiculturalism and inclusiveness. But at the same time, he is quite prepared to defend Malay dominance.

To understand Anwar, one must look at those he seeks council from and listens to. He is surrounded with long time co-activists such as Tian Chua, a labor activist, one of the Reformasi pioneers, former member of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), and one time MP, and Sivarasa AI Rasiah, an activist, intellectual and deputy minister in the short-lived Pakatan Harapan government. Anwar’s political secretary, Farhash Wafa Salvador, is a controversial activist, said to be totally loyal to Anwar. Anwar is said to also value the advice of his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar.

The establishment and early development of Anwar’s political vehicle Parti Keadilan Rakyat had strong input and financial support from the charismatic multi-millionaire businessman John Soh Chee Wen, who is currently on trial over the penny stock crash of 2013, in Singapore. However, like many close confidants, this relationship deteriorated around 2010.

Anwar’s greatest strength is bringing people together. He put together Pakatan Rakyat, the forerunner to the Pakatan Harapan coalition, from wildly disparate elements including the rural Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia and the Chinese socialist-dominated Democratic Action Party, a shaky coalition held together by nothing more than political ambition but which collapsed eventually from its own internal contradictions.

But too often his promises have ended in failure. After the 2008 general election, Anwar announced that with the support of Sabah MPs, he would have the numbers to take over the government. This fizzled when the Badawi administration sent many of the rebel MPs to Taiwan and Korea on a ‘study tour.’ After the 2013 general election, Anwar claimed widespread election fraud by phantom and foreign voters, although no evidence was presented to prove it. Last year, he again announced he had the numbers but never was able to form a government, leading to the label the “boy who cried wolf.”

In 2014, he attempted to install his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as Selangor chief minister, a dismal failure that was thwarted by his intraparty rival Azmin Ali. He also failed in managing the split in his own party, where not disciplining Azmin and his rebels, had grave political consequences. Anwar’s competency in handling party affairs according to insiders has been questionable, leading to questions about how he would manage the executive government. 

Many of the issues that Anwar has supported, including the abolition of the Goods and Services Tax and maintaining ruinous fuel subsidies appear opportunistic. His silence on the issues of apostasy and child marriage is regarded by critics as avoiding contentious issues. 

The greatest challenge for any reformer in Malaysia is navigating the paradoxes between Islam and secularism, Malay-centralism versus multiculturalism, and appeasing the establishment while bringing equity and reform to the nation. 

Inside his own party and wider coalition, Anwar could have spent the time outside government nurturing a future young ministry, through the formation of a shadow cabinet. Capacity building makes for good governance. 

Presently, there are few choices for a national leader to offer any new ideas. The present contenders are locked into the Ketuanan Melayu template. Anwar, according to his critics, has never tried to break free.

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