Malaysia: Who Is Anwar Ibrahim? Does He Have What It Takes To Be A Reform Prime Minister? – Analysis


There has been no other politician in Malaysia who is as polarizing as Anwar Ibrahim. People will usually strongly support him, or strongly dislike him. He has been accused of being a chameleon, telling different audiences, different things, an opportunist, seeking the prime ministerial position, and ‘the boy who cried wolf’, with his aspersions about having a parliamentary majority to takeover government, on a number of occasions. 

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

Anwar, once called ‘the prime minister in waiting’, after Pakatan Harapan won the 2018 general election, while his old nemesis Mahathir Mohamed was ‘interim’ prime minister, has long been discussed as about as a potential prime minister for more than two decades. 

His awe-inspiring speeches at political rallies, or ceramahs, as they are locally known, and long string of television interviews over the years, has more than adequately given him the opportunity to present his vison of what Malaysia could be. However, there is a strong feeling among many who feel they don’t really know who Anwar Ibrahim really is. 

Anwar studied Malay Studies at the University of Malaya, and later undertook a master degree in literature from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, while he was interned under the ISA in 1974 and 75. 

During his early years, Anwar became involved in student activism, and was heavily influenced by some of the left-leaning NGOs at the time. Anwar became close to, and was influenced by Mohamad Idris,  President of  the Consumer Association of Penang, which had an underlying suspicion of rapid industrialization and Western economic development paradigms. Anwar at this time developed an inclination for the need of a free economy, based on equity, good governance, social justice, compassion for those in need, and a tolerance towards diversity. 

Anwar applied the above principles to his vision of Islamic interpretation, focusing on the social justice, rather than theological aspects. Consequently, Anwar sees compatibility between the principles of Islam and a democratic society. In Anwar’s frame, there is no paradox between the two, as he saw democracy encompassing an ethos of human dignity, anchored to the doctrine of universal values, that all humans are endowed by their creator, which all religions, including Islam share.  

These universal principles reflected in Islam are strongly opposed to religious nationalism, manifested in Malaysia as Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy. In addition, Anwar professes an approach which Islam evolves in relation to the immediate existential conditions of Muslims, similar to Tunku Abdul Rahman’s, and later Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s approach under the label Islam Hadhari.

Through the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), Anwar moved to dakwah, or the spreading of the word of Islam through charity and education, targeted at the poor. Originally inspired and influenced by the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood, ABIM moved into partnership with the government on nation building, promoting the concepts of developing an Islamic university and Islamic banking within Malaysia, leading to the establishment of the International Islamic University of Malaysia, and Bank Islam Malaysia. These, however became just like the other Malay-centric institutions created to support the ethno-political status-quo.  

Anwar was recruited into government by Mahathir Mohamed and under his patronage became the minister for culture, youth and sport in 1983, agriculture in 1984, education in 1986, and finance in 1991. Anwar became deputy prime minister in 1993.

Anwar’s stint as education minister could have led to important policy breakthroughs. Instead, Anwar changed the name of the national language from Bahasa Malaysia to Bahasa Melayu, further bringing the country’s education system backwards. Anwar was criticized as undermining national unity, through further Islamization of education. Anwar, together with Mahathir Islamized the civil service, leading to many believing that Anwar was an Islamist. According to former Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim, Anwar is an Islamist who “helped Islamicise the whole government system” and played a major role in the Islamization of the education system when he was Education Minister in the 1980s. 

As finance minister and deputy prime minister, Anwar was seen as a liberal. Anwar opposed the protectionist framework Mahathir had set up, which he saw as promoting cronyism and creating an environment for corruption to thrive. During the Asian financial crisis Anwar pursued free market principles, and criticized the business-political connect. This made many within the UMNO establishment very nervous, when Anwar opposed bailouts for ailing firms. Anwar crossed Mahathir by supporting IMF austerity measures which proposed cutting government expenditure twenty percent, cancelling mega projects, and cutting ministerial salaries.

Anwar was part of the business-political construct which developed during Mahathir’s time. He may have spoken like a liberal but the fact that he remained finance minister and deputy minister for 7 years shows that he more than supported the status quo. He was also at the buffet table!

Although Anwar was named Euromoney finance minister of the year and appointed as chair of the World Bank and IMF development committee, he fell abruptly from power when Mahathir sacked Anwar from all government and party positions in September 1998.  

If we believe what Anwar has been saying in international forums of late, Anwar is proposing a new paradigm, incorporating balanced equity, need rather than race, with strong ideals behind governance.  Anwar, has been espousing a multicultural Malaysia, with for want of a better description a secular-Islamic ethical moral platform, supporting economic, social and political governance. Anwar often talks about an inclusive, rules-based competition centred economy, where there is a safety net for those in need.     

Under Anwar, would we really witness the dismantling of the institutions that support crony-capitalism we see today? This is something the establishment resists and fears, and would not be allowed to happen. It’s hard to see Anwar moving seriously in this direction. Anwar wouldn’t go head-on with the Malay-polity, who sees his vision as a grave threat, and is mistrusted within the Malay-heartlands, where there is fear of being left behind and marginalized. It’s just not a possibility in the nature of the establishment of Malaysia today.  Other than talk Anwar has not shown any commitment to dismantling anything in the way of reform. 

The reality of this espousal of Islam will be at the expense of a modern Malaysian state and the rights and freedoms that come with a progressive society. Too much in the past, Anwar has erred on keeping the status-quo. All Malaysian leaders have used Islam to further their political ambitions. 

Anwar must also play to the urban middle-class, who are struggling to support their families and middle-class lifestyles, with popular policies like abolishing the GST and maintaining petrol subsidies. 

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

Anwar is criticized by many Malays as being too liberal, conjuring up the persona that Anwar is disloyal to the Malay agenda, and may in the future support causes like LGBT. Setting up Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), and Anwar’s close relationship with the primarily Chinese based Democratic Action Party (DAP), is seen as support of that. Anwar is the only Malay leader who professes multiculturalism and inclusiveness. But at the same time, he is quite prepared to defend Malay dominance. Anwar had the opportunity in East Malaysia for a game changing scenario on Malaysia politics and socio-economy, which did not materialize. 

To understand Anwar, one must look at those he seeks council from and listens to. Anwar is surrounded with long time co-activists, such as Tian Chua, a labour activist, one of the Reformasi pioneers, former member of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), and one time MP, and Sivarasa A/I 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 setting up and early development of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) had strong input and financial support from the charismatic multi-millionaire businessman John Soh Chee Wen, who is currently undergoing trial over the penny stock crash of 2013, in Singapore. However, like many close confidents, this relationship deteriorated around 2010.

Anwar’s latest alliance with long-time colleague Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and the UMNO “court cluster” to oust Muhyiddin from the prime ministership, must come at a high price. 

Anwar’s greatest strength is bringing people together. Anwar put together the Pakatan Rakyat, the forerunner to the Pakatan Harapan coalition, where PAS and the DAP for a short while worked together. 

Anwar’s weakness is political strategy and its execution. After the 2008 general election, Anwar announced that with the support of Sabah MPs, he would have the numbers to takeover government. This fizzled out, when the Badawi administration sent many of these MPs to Taiwan and Korea on a ‘study tour.’ After the 2013 general election, Anwar claimed wide election fraud by phantom and foreign voters, although evidence was not presented to prove the large scale he was talking about. Last year, Anwar called a press conference to announce he had the numbers to form a government, where once again nothing happened. This is where Anwar has been labelled the “boy who cried wolf.”

Anwar managed the Kajang move in 2014 to install Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah as chief minister, was a dismal failure. Anwar also failed in managing the split within his own party, where not disciplining Azmin Ali and his group, had grave political consequences. Anwar’s competent handling of party affairs according to insiders has been questionable, leading to the question of how he would manage executive government. 

Many of the issues that Anwar has supported, including the abolition of the GST and keeping fuel subsidies appear opportunistic, rather than good policy making. Anwar’s silence on the issues of apostasy and child marriage, has been seen by some as avoiding contentious issues. 

The greatest challenge for any reformer in Malaysia is navigating the paradoxes between Islam and secularism, Malay-centralism verses 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 around who offer any new ideas. The present contenders are locked into the Ketuanan Melayu paradigm.       

Anwar according to his critics has never tried to break free from it.

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here 

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

One thought on “Malaysia: Who Is Anwar Ibrahim? Does He Have What It Takes To Be A Reform Prime Minister? – Analysis

  • August 11, 2021 at 6:00 pm

    Anwar could end up as the Mandela of Malaysia


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