Admiration and anguish for Anwar
EI SUN OH
AFTER a few twists and turns in the aftermath of the most recent Malaysian general election, Anwar Ibrahim finally became the new prime minister of Malaysia, to worldwide attention.
As a political commentator, I was understandably approached by some of the major international media outlets to share my thoughts on this seemingly momentous political development in Malaysia. It would appear they were also deeply aware that this was not a routine exchange of power from one Malaysian administration or leader to another, but another watershed event in modern Malaysian political history with ramifications for the region and beyond. I was thus asked to make relevant comparisons of Anwar’s path to power with some of the more momentous changes of leadership in other parts of the world, or even to size up Anwar alongside some of the great international personalities.
For me, these were not difficult comparisons with which to come up. Two prominent international icons sprung immediately to my mind. One was the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the late, indomitable South African human rights fighter and later president, Nelson Mandela. For many decades, Mandela fought against the infamous apartheid policy of white
South Africa and sought racial equality for all South African communities. He was imprisoned for nearly three decades and was released after intense international pressure. He went on to pave the way for the liberation of the sociopolitical sufferings of many South African communities.
Ironically, when South Africa was already well on its way to enjoying a truer sense of democracy, Anwar’s persecution commenced, although even in his younger years he had been detained without trial. In late 1990s, Anwar was summarily slapped with charges which most Malaysian domestic and international observers viewed as trumped up, and spent nearly a decade in jail. From then on, while realizing the communal realities of Malaysia, Anwar insisted on fighting for the rights of all Malaysians, regardless of their racial and religious backgrounds. He steadfastly led the opposition in jail and outside, and persevered until recently to realize his dream of reforming the country, which is somewhat commendable.
And similar to the initial years of the Mandela administration in South
Africa, Anwar is now leading a government of national unity in Malaysia. Mandela’s vice president was his predecessor, the co-recipient with him of the Nobel Peace Prize, F. W. de Klerk. But this nuanced power arrangement that was meant to promote communal reconciliation in South Africa lasted for only a short while. While the intense confrontations between the whites and blacks in South Africa appeared to have somewhat ameliorated over time, the distrust between the various segments of the black community there appeared to be at least ongoing if not exacerbated.
In Anwar’s case, he would likely have to appoint as deputy prime minister a leader from the previously long-ruling UMNO party. It is nevertheless anybody’s guess as to how long such a peaceful-looking political arrangement could last. It was but less than five years ago when many reform-minded Malaysians were enthusiastically welcoming the coming to power of Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition (then led by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the nonagenarian former Malaysian prime minister) after more than six decades of UMNO rule. Hopes were high that Malaysia would be brought to a cleaner and brighter path for socioeconomic success. But less than two years later, a sudden shift in political allegiances, known locally as the Sheraton move (as the attendant political machinations and deliberations took place in a famed hotel), brought down the Pakatan government. It was replaced by two successive regimes which openly prided themselves on being exclusive to one community and one religion, thus regressing whatever little progress Pakatan achieved sociopolitically during its brief spell in power.
In the latest round of Malaysian elections, although the wrongs done over the last two years could be said to be somewhat righted by Anwar’s appointment to the premiership, it should be noted that the election results clearly demonstrated that those who prefer a more conservative and supremacist outlook for the country are comparable in size to those who called for reforms and progress. Even with Anwar’s fame and political finesse, it remains to be seen if he can reconcile or at least install a sense of balance between these two competing sociopolitical forces in Malaysia.
Another global icon who could be comparable to Anwar is another Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the former Myanmar leader and freedom fighter, Aung San Suu Kyi. The daughter of Myanmar’s founding father, Aung San, Suu Kyi has long led the democratic struggle against the brutal rule of Myanmar’s military regime. When elections were permitted by the military on rare occasions, Suu Kyi’s democratic movement almost invariably won conclusively, but almost as often the military would launch another coup and annul such results, with Suu Kyi ending up spending many years either under house arrest, or in prison such as now. This was similar to Anwar’s run-ins with imprisonment, and although both of them were offered exile, they both turned down such offers, and chose to remain in their respective countries to carry on with their democratic struggle.
Suu Kyi had to grapple with blatant military intervention during her recent nearly a decade of being somewhat in power. And the military once again took matters into its own hands and launched another coup early last year. Malaysia is extremely lucky that it has not suffered from a recalcitrant and unruly military like Myanmar. Nevertheless, as Anwar and his Pakatan would like to push for much needed reforms in Malaysia, many other parties and personalities, even within his ruling coalition, would understandably do their utmost to preserve and protect their vested interests, and thus will attempt to neutralize and frustrate Anwar’s purported reforms. Many among these personalities also look highly upon themselves as suitable candidates for the premiership, and as such a repeat of the infamous Sheraton move is not totally implausible.
What awaits Anwar is a plethora of severe socioeconomic challenges that have accumulated over the years. How Anwar proceeds to chart a gingerly steady course between the ideals of his supporters and realities on the ground will define his premiership — hopefully a lasting one.
The Manila Times