Anwar Seeking `Redemption’ as Champion of Malaysian Equality

On his first night in detention, the father of six was beaten by the country’s head of police, Abdul Rahim Noor. “I thought I would be left to die there, I could see blood all over,” Anwar recalls. Noor was eventually convicted of causing harm to Anwar.

By Angus Whitley, Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) — Confined to a wheelchair by a police beating and facing corruption and sodomy charges, Anwar Ibrahim wasn’t about to let his jailer spoil a good photo opportunity.

“He scolded me for blocking photographers and preventing supporters from shaking his hand,” says Ahmad Romli, recalling the 1999 High Court appearance in Kuala Lumpur. “Anwar said his life was in politics and he would never surrender.”

Now Anwar, unbowed by the six years he spent in prison and calling himself “a wiser man” for the experience, may be on the verge of ending five decades of rule by the ethnic Malay party that once groomed him to become Malaysia’s prime minister.

His multiracial coalition — dedicated to scrapping a system that gives the Malay majority preferential access to jobs, housing and education — scored record gains in March elections; Anwar says he can line up enough government lawmakers to topple Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi within three months.

“He’s not seeking revenge,” says former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, who has known Anwar for years. “He’s seeking redemption.”

It’s a description far removed from the firebrand leader of the 1970s who formed and led an Islamic youth group and later, as deputy president of the ruling United Malays National Organisation, defended Malay supremacy.

Conversion or Ploy?

Now 60, the former finance minister says the country’s pro-Malay rules hamper growth in Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy, which the central bank says is likely to slow this year to between 5 and 6 percent from 2007’s 6.3 percent. That stance, putting him on the same side as the nation’s ethnic Chinese and Indians, is just the latest twist in a political journey that inevitably stirs suspicions that his conversion to championing equality is simply a ploy to win power.

In three interviews in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in the past three months, Anwar rejected opponent’s charges that he is little more than a political chameleon.

“Chameleon means you say different things to different people,” he says. “My message is consistent; the examples must be different to cater to the audience. I go to the urban area, I quote Shakespeare; I go to the village, I quote the Koran; you quote Confucius to the Chinese; to the Hindus, I quote Ramayana.”

Anwar got his start in politics as a student activist at the University of Malaya and helped found the Islamic Youth Movement of Malaysia, many of whose members supported the Pan- Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS. Imprisoned without trial under security laws in 1974 after leading protests against rural poverty, he shocked his allies in 1982 by joining UMNO, the party that has ruled Malaysia since the country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1957.

Mahathir’s Protege

Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister from 1981 to 2003, appointed Anwar minister for youth, agriculture and education. As education minister between 1986 and 1991, he changed the national language in school text books to “Malay” from “Malaysian.” “I had very strong views on the position of the language, of the culture, of the religion,” Anwar says. “But I also realized the hypocrisy of religion, the ultra- conservative views that will stunt intellectual growth.”

In 1991, he was named finance minister; two years later, he defeated the UMNO deputy president and became deputy premier. Then, in 1998, Mahathir fired Anwar amid speculation that the deputy was moving to oust him. Not long after, Anwar was arrested, charged with corruption and sodomizing his wife’s former driver. He denied the allegations; the sodomy conviction was eventually overturned.

Leper Colony

Between 1998 and 2004, Anwar was incarcerated at Sungai Buloh prison, a former leper colony nestled in oil-palm-covered hills 22 miles (35 kilometers) northwest of Kuala Lumpur.

On his first night in detention, the father of six was beaten by the country’s head of police, Abdul Rahim Noor. “I thought I would be left to die there, I could see blood all over,” Anwar recalls. Noor was eventually convicted of causing harm to Anwar.

While on trial in 1999, Anwar scribbled editorials for foreign newspapers in the margins of his court documents, and in jail, the government regarded him as an opponent. For more than six months, he washed his own bed sheets using a tap and toilet in his cell. From morning to midnight most days, he read religious scripts and plays to broaden his understanding of Indian and Chinese faiths.

Memorizing the Koran

According to head guard Ahmad, 56, who is now retired, Anwar would memorize the Koran, pray five times a day and run around the prison soccer pitch in the evenings for exercise.

Anwar was isolated for most of his sentence in the hospital wing, where guards were ordered by the government to log his movements every 15 minutes.

“Eleven o’clock: Sleeping. 11:15: Still sleeping. One o’clock: Got up to go to the toilet,” Ahmad said in an interview at his home in Taiping, a three-hour drive north of Malaysia’s capital. “We’d write it down.”

Anwar says that his contacts with his guards and fellow inmates, as limited as they were, started him on the path to reconsider his pro-Malay past, embodied by the 1971 New Economic Policy that legalized the system of preferential treatment. Under the program, listed companies must sell 30 percent of their stock to Malays, property developers offer them cheaper homes, and public universities allow them easier entry than Chinese and Indians.

Stolen Jeans

Anwar cites a 19-year-old Malay inmate who was serving a six-month sentence for stealing a pair of jeans. The youth, who he didn’t identify, said pro-Malay policies only encouraged corruption and benefited government officials, rather than ordinary Malays — the case Anwar now makes to argue that the preferences hinder economic growth.

“We are not here representing non-Malay sentiment,” Anwar says. “We are persuading Malays to respect the new economic realities.”

In April 1999, Anwar’s wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail formed a new party that is now the country’s largest opposition group in Parliament. During that year’s election campaign, opposition parties campaigned with pictures of Anwar taken after his police beating.

In 2004, Anwar was finally released, under terms preventing him from immediately re-entering electoral politics. Even so, “he came out more purposeful than when he went in,” James Wolfensohn, who was president of the World Bank in 1998 when Anwar was chairman of the bank’s development committee, said in an interview.

Changed for the Better

“He certainly has determination to lead his country,” says Wolfensohn, who adds that he believes the prison experience changed Anwar for the better.

Not everyone agrees. “He now puts his interest above the nation,” says Ezam Mohamad Nor, 41, a former aide to Anwar who is chairman of Gerak Malaysia, a non-government organization that campaigns against corruption, and who last month joined Abdullah’s party. “After coming out from prison he is so obsessed with becoming the prime minister. This is one of the main reasons I left.”

Even Anwar’s new political allies are still a bit wary of his conversion to their cause, but say it’s a chance worth taking.

“We feel that we should be able to take the risk, despite his past record, that he wants to be an agent for reform and change,” says Lim Guan Eng, the ethnic Chinese chief minister of Penang.

Worst Result

This year, Abdullah, 68, called elections for March 8, before the ban on Anwar’s competing as a candidate was to expire. The gamble didn’t pay off: Anwar’s multi-ethnic People’s Justice Party, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party won control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states, handing the ruling UMNO its worst-ever result and denying the government coalition it leads its usual two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The results prompted calls from within Abdullah’s own party for him to step down; amid the political instability, the Kuala Lumpur Composite Index has fallen 15 percent this year. So far, though, Abdullah has weathered the crisis. Criticized for failing to cut graft, he proposed a new anti-corruption commission and a panel to vet and pick judges. He has also courted corporate Malaysia by removing price restrictions on steel and cement makers, and some now think he will be able to hold on.

“There seems to be a wrong perception that the government has lost control,” says Wai Kee Choong, an analyst at Citigroup Inc. in Kuala Lumpur. “There’ll be no change of government.”

That doesn’t stop Anwar, still waiting for Malaysia’s attorney general to clear him to run for public office, from plotting his comeback from the suburban Kuala Lumpur home that serves as his office.

Alongside his desk, a prayer mat is draped on a stand. Nearby, Islamic art and scriptures hang on the wall beside pictures of him, laughing. “I’ve never had the desire to walk away,” he says.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s