The (Final) Rise of Anwar Ibrahim

The democratic icon’s path to prime minister has been tortuous and long. But is Malaysia’s pluralism slipping away precisely when Anwar is getting his shot to lead the nation? 

December 2022 

By Sophie Lemière

In 1998, Anwar Ibrahim was the icon of the reformasi movement, the largest democratic movement in Malaysia. This reformist tide had been triggered when Anwar, then deputy prime minister, was sacked by Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s long-serving leader. Malaysia’s election on 19 November 2022 gave Anwar the victory he had sought for 26 years, simultaneously ending the political career of Mahathir, a former mentor turned political enemy. Without a simple majority, and in a tough race to power, Anwar was able to cobble together a government, ironically with the support of the former ruling party, UMNO. With Anwar finally as prime minister, many hope Malaysia is poised to make its long-awaited turn toward liberal democracy.

But Anwar’s success may not usher in the political reform his supporters imagined would follow. Anwar, always a political survivor, had to make many compromises to form his fragile coalition. Worse, the election tally itself suggests that a more Malay ethno-religious conservatism is ascendant at precisely the moment the chief spokesman for Malaysian pluralism has earned his shot at the top job.

Anwar Ibrahim made his debut in the Islamist student movement. In 1983, he was the leader of the country’s largest Islamist organization when he was recruited by Mahathir to join the government. Mahathir sought to curb the Islamist movement by coopting one of its rising stars. For Anwar, the switch from activism to politics allowed the young leader to implement his vision by reforming and creating national Islamic institutions in line with the aspiration of the Muslim-majority country. As Anwar climbed the ladder of power from one ministerial position to the next, he traded his Islamist agenda for a more moderate version that would form the basis of the reformasi movement. Charisma, eloquence, and a softer political tone, propelled Anwar to the front ranks of young leaders from the Global South.

In 1998, Anwar was deputy prime minister and minister of finance when he publicly criticized Mahathir’s response to the Asian Financial Crisis. Anwar’s liberal, pro-Western leanings, including deep affinities with the United States, violently clashed with Mahathir’s nationalistic and anti-Western positions. Mahathir, or Dr. M as he is often called, had crafted an image for himself as an independent and iconoclastic leader, with a taste for controversy and a contrarian’s appreciation for the politically incorrect. In contrast, Anwar has always been a political chameleon, who would change his colors to match any audience. The relationship between the two men would become one of the chief drivers of Malaysian politics for the next thirty years.

Between a Farce and a Tragedy

Malaysia’s political history is a highly intricate one, and the drama between Anwar and Mahathir has possessed twists and turns worthy of Shakespeare. In 1998, Anwar was arrested at the peak of the reformasi movement, a massive mobilization against Mahathir’s government demanding reform. Several of Anwar’s political allies were detained—sometimes for years—under the Internal Security Act, which allowed detention without trial. Anwar was soon charged with corruption and “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” He was sentenced to jail on the corruption count and released in 2004. Anwar regained his political eligibility in 2008, only to be jailed again seven years later on the same charges of “carnal intercourse” that had been dismissed the first time. His Justice Party (Keadilan) is a direct outgrowth of the reformasi movement.

Mahathir first resigned from political life in 2003, and his successors—Abdullah Badawi (2003–2009) and Najib Razak (2009–2018)—had, at various points, to contend with Anwar as the face of the Malaysian opposition. Anwar’s popularity never died, and his status as a “prisoner of conscience”—a label strategically coined by his lawyer—gave Anwar a unique aura and the empathy of a global audience. And in truth, even if Mahathir had stepped away from political life, a figure as large as Mahathir never exits the scene. From his so-called retirement, Mahathir was openly critical of his successors, and never lost his hold over UMNO. As important, even in his advanced age, his popularity among Malays never dimmed.

Mahathir mounted a return to active political life by resigning from UMNO in 2015—mainly in a show of distrust for Najib’s scandal-plagued administration—and created Bersatu, a new Malay nationalist party that was intended to mirror UMNO (minus the corruption). However, ever the canny politician, Mahathir knew he could not break UMNO’s six-decade political monopoly without a strong wave to ride on. Mahathir offered Anwar what the democratic icon had long needed—the support of the Malays—in exchange for Anwar’s blessing of a political alliance with the opposition. The two made a pact and Mahathir, the former autocrat, became the leader of the opposition alliance working to oust the ruling party he once led. His allies were now the very leaders he had once repressed. And, in exchange, shortly after Mahathir was victorious in the 2018 election, Anwar was granted a pardon by Malaysia’s king and designated the “Prime Minister in waiting.”

The pact was short-lived. In 2020, 22 months into this marriage of convenience, Mahathir resigned and UMNO’s Muyhiddin Yassin replaced him with the Malaysian king’s blessing. This shocking turn, known as the “Sheraton move” because it was hatched in Kuala Lumpur’s Sheraton Hotel, left Anwar in political limbo. Once again, Anwar had been bested by his former mentor.

Anwar’s Final Act

Malaysia political landscape has been extremely fluid since 2018. In the last three years, the country has had three prime ministers, two lockdowns, an emergency declaration and a six-month suspension of parliament during the pandemic, and an economic recession post-pandemic. When Malaysians went to the polls in November, they were burned out and looking for a fresh start. The political landscape had seemingly been remade again with several new alliances, including Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH), Muyhiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN), the UMNO-led and scandal-tainted Barisan Nasional (BN), and Mahathir’s new coalition, Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA).

Turnout was exceptional, with more than 73 percent of voters casting ballots. And the results were stark and unexpected. Mahathir’s coalition was entirely wiped out, with every candidate, including the senior statesman, coming up short. BN and UMNO were the second biggest losers, with UMNO winning only 26 seats, its worst defeat since its founding in 1946. Meanwhile, PN won 73 seats, including a record 49 seats by its ally the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and 24 seats to Muyhiddin Yassin’s Bersatu. Anwar’s PH coalition was victorious with 82 seats.

But Anwar cannot be wholly at peace with these results. His coalition failed to draw a substantial percentage of Malay voters, especially young Malays who gave their support to PAS candidates. This election saw an influx of 6.9 million new voters, 16 percent of whom were young, mostly Malay men between the ages of 18 to 20. Many candidates updated their look, donning trendy white sneakers and fitted shirts, in the hope of appealing to this new generation. But young Malays chose the classic clerical look of PAS leader Hadi Awang over Anwar and his rockabilly black jacket.

Since no coalition obtained a simple majority, Anwar and Muhyiddin raced to form a government. Despite his assurance that he was commanding a majority of voters, Muyhiddin was sidelined by Malaysia’s king, who offered Anwar the first crack at forming a government. And to reach his majority, Anwar picked his oldest adversary: UMNO.

Some may claim that Anwar, beyond being the reformasi icon, is a hero for preventing an Islamist victory. While his supporters—at home and abroad—would have preferred for him to get there under his own steam, an alliance with the corrupt and sclerotic UMNO is a lesser evil. Others will claim that the Islamists’ strong showing is a dangerous harbinger—however, this is also an expression of a functioning democracy.

In his first moments in the Prime Minister’s Office, Anwar set the tone for his new administration with a string of tweets: He would refuse having his office refurbished; he would not be using a luxury car; and he decided against taking a salary in solidarity with the many Malaysians hurting economically. However, a few days later, Anwar appointed UMNO leader Zahid Hamidi, who is still in facing several charges of corruption, as deputy prime minister. UMNO leaders received five other plum ministerial posts, including defense, foreign affairs, law, and international trade. Like Mahathir and Najib before him, Anwar took the finance portfolio for himself. But his compromises with UMNO (especially given their poor showing in the election) could be costly, and critics of his cabinet and alliance have already surfaced.

Islamist leader Hadi Awang has renamed the PN coalition—which gained one more seat in a December by-election—“the government in waiting.” With 75 seats, including 49 for the conservative Islamist PAS, the opposition will be shaping Anwar’s years in power as much as his own government. The PN vote is a vote for economic security for the Malays who fear they are on the cusp of losing their economic privileges amid inflation and a post-covid economic crisis. Beyond mere bigotry, the PN-Islamist vote is also a rejection of their traditional defender, UMNO, to the benefit of the second oldest Malay political formation PAS and its new ally Bersatu.

The hard task for UMNO in the next few months will be to gain back the trust of Malay voters. Six states’ elections are on the horizon, and they will offer the first concrete sign of what voters make of Anwar’s alliance with the old ruling party. If the Islamists or their coalition win at the polls again, they may feel emboldened to try to take over the government.

Anwar has made the seemingly impossible come true: an incredible political ascension, a tragic fall, an intellectual renaissance, and a string of alliances that led him to victory. But the very dealmaking that finally catapulted him into the prime minister’s seat may now circumscribe his agenda and limit the reforms he has long promised to pursue. His alliance with UMNO is a dangerous calculation, especially if the party is unable to counter the conservative youth wave.

Anwar has spent more than two decades in pitched battle against UMNO. It will be a bitter pill if his alliance with the former ruling party is what kills the reformasi dreams that first set him on his path.

Sophie Lemière is the founder and chief executive of World Wonderers, adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.


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