The Big Read: Anwar Ibrahim — what now for the perennial groomsman of Malaysia politics?
PERMATANG PAUH — As fresh political turmoil convulsed Malaysia last month, Ms Nurul Nuha Anwar, 36, settled down to dinner with her family in Kuala Lumpur.
Her father, erstwhile prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim, 72, had become a political casualty yet again.
The collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government and the twists and turns that followed — with lawmakers toing and froing between various camps — ended with Mr Muhyiddin Yassin, the dark horse in the race, becoming prime minister and Mr Anwar being left out in the cold, again.
Recounting the family get-together in the thick of the frenzy, Ms Nurul Nuha told TODAY on the phone from Kuala Lumpur this week: “Obviously, we were all very upset. But he (Mr Anwar) and my mum were just so zen. I cannot imagine what they were going through, but they were so serene as well as very calm.”
The political crisis began last month with the collapse of PH, a coalition of four parties led by Mr Anwar and his mentor-turned-nemesis-turned-uneasy ally, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the incumbent prime minister then. This came after Dr Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) pulled out of the coalition, which had defied predictions to win the 2018 general election amid widespread anger at the scandal-ridden government led by former premier Najib Razak.
Amid the turmoil, the 94-year-old Dr Mahathir, who was supposed to hand over the reins to Mr Anwar in the second half of PH’s five-year term, shocked the nation by announcing his resignation on Feb 24.
Meanwhile, Mr Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) — the largest party in PH — lost 11 lawmakers who quit en masse.
The breakaway bloc, led by former economic affairs minister Azmin Ali, who was once seen as Mr Anwar’s protege before their relationship broke down, joined hands with the new governing coalition Perikatan Nasional.
The Perikatan Nasional coalition includes Bersatu, whose president is Mr Muhyiddin, and parties defeated in the 2018 polls. Among them is the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the linchpin party of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition — which Mr Najib formerly led — that had ruled Malaysia for 61 years.
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.”
“I said: ‘Papa, what’s your plan? There is so much collateral damage. What’s going to happen?’”
“He said: ‘Well, we work and follow the rules, we follow the principles, we have ethics.’ He doesn’t want to fall back on and especially garner other means of having a government.”
Mr Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, a PKR Member of Parliament (MP) who represents Setiawangsa in Kuala Lumpur, disclosed this week that Mr Anwar had refused an offer to become prime minister on the condition that he accept Umno leaders facing graft charges.
Mr Anwar, who has been pushing for multiracial politics and anti-corruption reforms, later confirmed that there was such an offer.
The one-time fast-rising star of Malaysian politics is no stranger to adversity, having served almost a decade behind bars after being convicted of corruption and sodomy, charges that he denied.
Mr Anwar’s wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, 67, 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 said in a typewritten response to TODAY.
“I am sure that justice will prevail. This way also, the party is cleansed of unwanted elements.”
The political upheaval, Dr Wan Azizah said, was a “betrayal of epic proportions” for Malaysians.
“After sacrificing greatly in the 2018 elections, the people put their faith in leaders whom they felt would fulfil certain fundamental promises.
“Some of these leaders decided it was politically expedient to break those promises,” she said, without naming them.
Mr Anwar’s family members are not the only ones upset with the turbulence that has shaken Malaysia’s political core.
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 former Anwar supporter who had attended his political rallies.
“We are still being fooled… First, they (the local PKR politicians) said Anwar will become the prime minister. Now, they come back from Putrajaya (Malaysia’s administrative capital) and say Anwar will not be the prime minister.”
Mr Lim Khoon Heng, 67, a resident of the neighbouring Bukit Mertajam town in Penang, where Mr Anwar was born, said: “I am a bit disappointed. Anwar is not fated to be prime minister.”
Still, Mr Anwar has his detractors among working-class Malaysians.
Mr Mohd Nazari, 49, a worker in a factory making electronic products, used to like Mr Anwar’s outspoken nature when he was education minister from 1986 to 1991.
“But now, he is not okay. He makes all sorts of promises, but does very little,” he said.
A ROLLER-COASTER POLITICAL JOURNEY
Mr Anwar made his foray into the political arena in 1971, when he founded the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, which he led as president until 1982.
A charismatic Islamic student leader and fiery orator, Mr Anwar was, in his own words, “very Malay and Islam-oriented” in his youth — a position he later recalibrated as he embraced a brand of multiracial politics more attuned to the needs of marginalised Malaysians of all races.
Despite being a critic of the BN government and Umno, Mr Anwar joined the latter in 1982 at the invitation of Dr Mahathir, who was then serving his first stint as prime minister.
Mr Anwar rose quickly through the ranks. When he was education minister, he played a key role in the Islamisation of Malaysia’s education system.
Named deputy prime minister in 1993, he was widely regarded as Dr Mahathir’s successor. But the two men had a bitter falling out over political and policy differences, including how to respond to the Asian financial crisis, and Mr Anwar was fired in 1998.
That year, he started the Reformasi movement, which mobilised protests calling for Dr Mahathir’s resignation and broad-based social reforms, from accountability to the eradication of corruption and cronyism.
But Mr Anwar would soon find himself in and out of prison, where he ended up with a black eye after being beaten by the police chief in his cell shortly after his first arrest.
In 1999, he was jailed for corruption and later sodomy, charges Mr Anwar said were politically motivated.
He was released in 2004 after a court overturned his sodomy conviction.
In 2008, a three-party opposition coalition called Pakatan Rakyat, which he led, deprived BN of its long-held two-thirds majority in parliament. Later that year, Mr Anwar was re-elected in a by-election to his Permatang Pauh seat, which had been held by Dr Wan Azizah since 1999.
Dr Afif Bahardin, 34, a state assemblyman for Seberang Jaya in Permatang Pauh constituency, said Mr Anwar had improved access to education for the youth of Permatang Pauh by bringing in educational institutions Universiti Teknologi Mara and Politeknik Seberang Perai.
He had also made improvements to healthcare and road infrastructure, said Dr Afif.
But not all constituents were impressed.
Mr Mohd Nazari, the factory worker, bemoaned the traffic gridlock that frequently dogged the road facing the university.
“It would have been great if the road had also been upgraded when the university was built,” he said.
In 2015, Mr Anwar was back in jail, convicted of fresh sodomy charges, after an appeals court overturned an earlier acquittal.
He was released in May 2018 after receiving a pardon from Malaysia’s King. Dr Mahathir, who returned to power as prime minister and head of the PH coalition government, had struck a pact with Mr Anwar to hand over power in two years.
Ms Nurul Izzah Anwar, Mr Anwar’s eldest child, is now the MP for Permatang Pauh, while Mr Anwar clinched the Port Dickson seat in Negeri Sembilan state in a by-election in October 2018, setting him on a path to the prime ministership.
But just as it appeared to be finally within his grasp, the PH coalition’s demise has shrouded his political future in uncertainty once more.
Mr Anwar and Ms Nurul Izzah did not respond to TODAY’s requests for comment.
WHAT KEEPS HIM GOING
With his imprisonment hardening his resolve, Mr Anwar’s optimism and fighting spirit have seen him through a myriad of trials and tribulations, based on TODAY’s interviews with four of his family members and half a dozen colleagues.
They said that this commitment to his political vision would see him through the latest setback.
Ms Nurul Nuha cited her father’s resilience, patience and unwavering commitment to his cause in the face of challenges: “You don’t go through prison for a decade of your life on false charges to not see the things that you want to push for bearing fruit… It’s very difficult to beat him down.”
Agreeing, Mr Anwar’s cousin Zulkiefly Saad, 63, described the politician as a fighter. “If you look at his history since he started his involvement in politics… he’s a fighter. He struggled very hard.”
Religion has played a part, too. Dr Wan Azizah said Mr Anwar is a man of faith who believes that these tribulations are “part and parcel of the struggle all Malaysians have faced, to a greater or lesser degree, in the pursuit of justice”.
Mr Fahmi Fadzil, PKR’s MP for Lembah Pantai in Kuala Lumpur, said Mr Anwar remained upbeat and confident 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”.
“It was as though he was not affected by this. He reminded us that we have to stand by our principles… and the people will judge us in the (next) general election,” said Mr Fahmi, 39, who is also PKR’s communications director.
Rejecting suggestions that Mr Anwar’s eagerness to assume the top job had contributed to the political upheaval, Mr Fahmi said: “To me, it was not so much about wanting power, or that he was impatient or he was conniving or manoeuvring. I didn’t see any of that.”
Mr Yusmadi Yusoff, 45, a senator in the upper house of parliament who represents Penang, was part of a legal team that advised Mr Anwar in prison.
He described the man as someone who is positive and determined to achieve what he believes in, despite the challenges.
Mr Yusmadi said: “In the words of one officer in prison, they have never seen someone who has such positive thinking even in prison… I saw it again even immediately after the recent political fiasco.”
HIS ACHILLES HEEL
Despite his calmness and resilience which are evident in crises, Mr Anwar needs to learn from the lessons of the latest political crisis, his colleagues and family said.
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 felt that people took advantage of Mr Anwar because he was “such a conciliatory and forgiving leader”.
“His style is such that he is very cautious about being hard on people,” he said. “He tries to make people see the middle ground and focus our efforts on the work at hand, rather than constantly dealing with what many people outside would consider petty party politics.”
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.”
Ms Latipah Md Nor, 62, a distant cousin of Mr Anwar’s, said his weakness was that he trusted people too easily.
“He believes people even when they are lying to him… He thinks people are good like he is,” said the masseuse.
Ms Nurul Nuha said her father had always believed in allowing discourse and respecting those with different views in the party. “That’s very important, but what he will not tolerate are deceit and betrayal.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR ANWAR?
In spite of the latest knock-back, Mr Anwar’s colleagues are sanguine about his prospects of bouncing back and 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.
His immediate family members, though, were more circumspect when asked about his chances of leading Malaysia.
Ms Nurul Nuha said: “Whether he is prime minister or not, he will always stay true to the people. He will always (stick to) his agenda of representing the voices of Malaysia, and bridging racial and religious divides in the hope of a more just, equitable and multicultural Malaysia.”
Dr Wan Azizah echoed her daughter’s view: “We must concentrate on representing the people, and focusing on their dreams and aspirations.”
Mr Zainal Abidin Saad, 63, who was Mr Anwar’s personal assistant when he was Permatang Pauh MP, recalled: “Anwar said himself that it doesn’t matter whether he gets (the prime ministership). The important thing is to help people.”
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, because a new generation of leaders, Ms Nurul Izzah included, would by then be at the fore.
Even so, things are not cast in stone. Prof Chin noted that Dr Mahathir had made a political comeback in 2018 at age 92. “But then, Mahathir is a unique individual,” he said.
Dr Francis Hutchinson of research centre Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute believed that Mr Anwar still has a chance of becoming prime minister, even though the prospect seems increasingly unlikely for now.
“At this point, he is several moves away from becoming PM,” said Dr Hutchinson, a senior fellow and coordinator of the Malaysia studies programme at the institute.
“He is dependent on Mahathir retaining control over the Pakatan Harapan bloc, then PH passing and winning a motion of no confidence, and then being invited to form a parliamentary majority, instead of going to elections.
“Once back in power, Mahathir then has to agree to hand over to him.”
Dr Cassey Lee, a colleague of Dr Hutchinson’s, said that if the Perikatan Nasional coalition led by Mr Muhyiddin retains control until the next election, Mr Anwar would come to power only if PH wins. “This will be difficult if Perikatan Nasional remains intact in (the next) general election,” he said.
Ms Ariel Tan, from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said Mr Anwar would appear to have a harder time forming a majority government in the next few months than Mr Muhyiddin.
Ms Tan, the school’s deputy head of policy studies and the coordinator of its Malaysia programme, 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.
“But, of course, Malaysian politics is very uncertain and replete with shifting alliances, so no one can say for sure.”
CAN HE SUCCEED?
While the multiracial and anti-corruption positions are central to PH and Mr Anwar’s agendas, his colleagues and observers acknowledged that they could be both a strength and weakness, as many voters — particularly in the Malay heartlands — do not subscribe to the vision of a multicultural Malaysia.
Dr Hutchinson said racial politics is so pronounced at present for two reasons.
First, largely rural, Malay-majority constituencies are made really powerful because of malapportionment. These seats are geographically large but contain a relatively small number of people, he said.
They are thus disproportionately powerful and politicians need to appeal to these constituencies to remain electorally viable.
Second, 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 Pakatan Harapan became about what they were doing for or against Malay voters, rather than the country as a whole. The leaders of Pakatan Harapan will need to deal with this,” he said.
Mr Nik Nazmi, the Setiawangsa MP, said effective communication, especially to the Malay ground, was an area in which the PH government had failed.
“Umno and PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) were very successful (on this front)… That’s where we need to learn our lesson… Malays are still (in the) majority, and the majority of Malaysians, including most of the Christians in the country, who are in Sabah and Sarawak, communicate in Malay,” he said.
“Sometimes, people in Kuala Lumpur live in a bubble and they assume that those things will get out, but if the story is not told, the narrative is not set out, then there’s a vacuum, which leaves room for the opposition to set the narrative.”
Mr Wong Chen, the MP for Subang, said the multiracial vision underpinning PKR makes it harder for the party to convince the Malay electorate, but at the same time, the party had had 50 MPs until recently, making it the largest party in parliament after the 2018 election.
“So this multiracial vision is our strength, but we have to work harder to win the hearts of rural Malays,” he said.
Ms Tan of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies said the multiracial and reform platform has a following among urban Malays and non-Malays.
She said the three remaining parties in Mr Anwar’s coalition — PKR, the Democratic Action Party and Parti Amanah Negara — could develop more support for the platform among present and new voters, since Malaysia has lowered its voting age to 18 from 21.
“But this will take time and resources to engage voters,” she said.
Prof Chin agreed that younger people in urban areas generally buy into PKR’s argument of moving away from racial politics. The rural and older folk, however, are much more conservative, he said.
Mr Anwar is thus in a “very difficult position” because if he tilts his position towards the Malays, he will lose support among the non-Malays, said Prof Chin. “It is a zero-sum game… Based on world experience, (the Malays) must realise that if you want to build up your country and want your country to be successful, this has to be the most logical way to move forward.”
Dr Hutchinson said Mr Anwar’s multiracial vision is politically viable and attainable, and he needs to therefore “turn his attention inwards to understand what led such a large faction of people to leave the party, and to increase order within PKR”.
As for tackling 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.
For example, for economic reforms to work, corruption has to be stamped out. “You need to make that link because if you put it purely on governance alone, it might not be that attractive for the public.”
Mr Adib Zalkapli, a Malaysia-based director of political risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia, said Mr Anwar must unite his party and rebuild the coalition to face a rejuvenated Umno machinery in government.
Dr Afif, the state assemblyman, 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.”
To the ordinary Malaysian, there is a growing sense of weariness about politics as governments can rise and fall in a flash, as the recent political tumult has shown.
Mr Mohd Nazari, the constituent in Permatang Pauh, said: “I think people don’t care much about the PM, but whatever (politicians) do must be in the interests of the rakyat (people).”