Reformist Dreams Fade for Anwar Ibrahim … and Southeast Asia
A failed “father-son” relationship sours hopes for democracy in both Malaysia and the region.
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The feud between Anwar Ibrahim and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has defined Malaysian politics for most of the last two decades.
The former is the self-dubbed “reformasi” leader; the latter so resisted reform that he jailed Anwar on trumped-up sex and corruption charges for more than a decade. Even sharing the same stage and platform together, in October 2018, the pair were contrasts: Anwar, 72, in light blue and white; Mahathir, 94, in cherry red. Yet the unlikely alliance of former enemies, which together overthrew a corrupt majority party that had ruled since independence for more than a half-century, was seen as a bright light for all of Southeast Asia. After all, if even these two could make amends in the name of democracy and more transparent government, couldn’t anyone?
But barely two years later, that optimism has soured. Rumors had been swirling that Mahathir was plotting a plan to maintain power — despite having promised to hand the reins to Anwar in exchange for his help in 2018 to overthrow his old ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). Mahathir resigned his prime minister post on Monday and key allies ditched the Hope for Change ruling coalition with him. Mahathir was then named interim prime minister by the country’s king … a move suggesting Mahathir may be trying to form a new coalition government without Anwar. Adding even more confusion, Anwar told the press that he believes Mahathir is not launching a coup; rather, the prime minister’s supporters were acting against his will.
[Anwar] was never the great saint, the wise leader or political savior that many people hoped from him.
Clive Kessler, Malaysia politics expert
If that seems like a wild sequence of events, well, welcome to Southeast Asia, where authoritarian rulers (the Philippines), military juntas (Thailand) and unstoppable one-party governments (Laos, Vietnam) reign supreme. Even stronger democracies, like Indonesia, have faced nationalistic pressure in recent years. And the story of two very different men struggling for power in Malaysia may as well be the story of a Southeast Asia navigating authoritarianism and revolution, controls and freedoms.
“The last two years have been a breath of fresh air,” says Brian Harding, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Malaysia has slowly worked toward a more open, democratic, pluralistic society. “My concern right now is that the personal and political intrigue stalls some of the useful things that were happening in Malaysian politics.”
The path toward this moment for Anwar has swung between extremes. As a student protesting rural poverty and hunger, he was imprisoned without trial for 20 months. Later, he served as a representative for the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. In 1982, he shocked his fellow activists by joining the UMNO government, led by the more conservative, and nativist, Mahathir. He quickly moved up from Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports to heading the Agriculture and Education ministries.
Despite his early liberalism, Anwar changed the national language to a dialect that favored the native Malay population at the expense of the nation’s minority Chinese and Indian populations. By 1991, he was minister of finance, and embraced globalism — Malaysia flourished as he encouraged free-market principles, earning him accolades such as Finance Minister of the Year by the outlet Asiamoney in 1996 and Asian of the Year by Newsweek in 1998.
Up until this point, Anwar had enjoyed a “son-father” relationship with Mahathir and appeared to be the hand-picked successor. In fact, Mahathir appointed Anwar to be acting prime minister while he took a holiday in 1997. But that was the beginning of the schism: In just two months of Mahathir being away, Anwar weakened his mentor’s protectionist financial and government programs. And it didn’t help that Anwar was deeply critical of the UMNO — often attacking “cronyism” and “nepotism” in their shared party.
“He was about the best Malaysia could produce,” although “he was never the great saint, the wise leader or political savior that many people hoped from him,” writes Clive Kessler, a Malaysia politics expert based in Australia, by email.
Upon Mahathir’s return, Anwar’s enemies aired graphic charges of homosexuality, which remains illegal in the conservative country. Anwar, who has a wife and five children, denied the claims but was banished from UNMO and sentenced to 17 years in prison for corruption and sodomy. At one point, a mattress supposedly stained with his semen was used as evidence (the DNA matched, although his defense suggested it was forcibly taken from him). International news outlets and human-rights organizations saw the charges as politically motivated: Anwar showed up to one of his trial hearings with a black eye, the result of a beating from the head of police.
His public trial and imprisonment led his supporters to start the multiracial reformasi movement, which crescendoed with mass protests against a system rigged for majority control. He was freed in 2004 after the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, only to be put behind bars again for sodomy in 2015 when he was once more a threat to the UMNO’s single-party rule. From a prison cell, he formed the Hope for Change coalition and watched it surprisingly win in 2018 — with the help of the now-nonagenarian Mahathir, who promised to get a royal pardon for Anwar and hand him the prime minister post. “I love him as a father and as a leader,” Anwar said at the October 2018 event, reiterating old affections when the two shared the stage for the first time in two decades.
And it seemed that, with Anwar in line, true reform could finally come to Malaysia … until Mahathir’s surprise maneuver this week: “The old fox is making one last attempt to set Malaysia on the foundations and in the direction he prefers,” Kessler writes. “Anwar will never become PM.” It may well be back to old ways indeed: for Southeast Asia, for Malaysia and for the brutal political saga these two men have waged for so long.