It’s a political journey that spanned decades, turning a young student arsonist into an icon of democracy and eventually the leader of his country through two prison terms.
Anwar Ibrahim, now 75 years old, finally achieved his dream by becoming the 10th Prime Minister Malaysia.
And in his first words after being sworn in on Thursday, he made it clear that he intends not to dwell on the divisions of the past, but to focus on the future, with a cabinet that will include his former political enemies.
“This is a government of national unity and everyone is welcome provided that (they) accept the ground rules: good governance, no corruption and Malaysia for all Malaysians,” Anwar said, promising to heal the racially divided nation, fight corruption and revive the economy still trying to recover from the pandemic.
“No one should be marginalized under my administration,” he promised.
His reformist and multi-ethnic coalition, Pakatan Harapan, won the most seats in last week’s vote – 82 – but failed to win the simple majority needed to form a government, meaning Anwar could only be appointed after the intervention of the Malaysian king.
Observers say he will have to give up his job if he is to overcome the divisions that saw him appointed as the fourth prime minister since 2018, when historic elections for the first time since independence toppled the Barisan national coalition amid anger over multi-billion dollar financial scandal in the state investment fund.
“It was by far the most fragmented, unstable and dangerous period in Malaysian politics,” said political commentator Ei Sun Oh. “While many welcome the appointment of a progressive and reformist candidate, this will not end the problems.”
“Political bickering and infighting will still continue, and Anwar is tasked with healing deep wounds and bridging the gap between progressives and conservatives,” he added.
Born on August 10, 1947 in Penang, Anwar began his political career as a student activist leading various Muslim youth groups in Kuala Lumpur. At some point, he was arrested for taking part in demonstrations against rural poverty and hunger.
Years later, he surprised many by foraying into mainstream politics by joining the Malay nationalist UMNO (United Malay National Organization) party, led by then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, the man who became Anwar’s mentor and enemy.
Anwar’s rise in the party was rapid, and he was soon elevated to various high-ranking ministerial positions, becoming Deputy Prime Minister in 1993.
At this point, many expected Anwar to become Mahathir’s successor, but the two men began to clash over issues such as corruption and the economy.
Tensions further escalated when the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit the country, and in 1998 Anwar was fired from Mahathir’s cabinet and expelled from UMNO.
He then began leading public protests against Mahathir, a move that marked the beginning of a new pro-democracy movement.
In the same year, Anwar was arrested and detained without trial on charges of corruption and homosexuality. Even with consensual sodomy, sodomy is an offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison in Malaysia, which has a predominantly Muslim population.
He always vehemently denied the allegations, claiming they were politically motivated, but that hasn’t stopped them from pursuing his political career ever since.
His subsequent imprisonment sparked violent street protests, with supporters comparing his plight to that of Nelson Mandela.
That first sentence was overturned by a court in 2004, a year after the two-time leader Mahathir first left office, but this was not the last time Anwar found himself behind bars.
After his return as an opposition figure, new allegations of homosexuality were brought against him, and after a years-long trial, he returned to prison in 2014.
What happened next is perhaps one of the most remarkable turns in the country’s political history.
In a stunning turn of events – with Anwar still behind bars – he and Mahathir have joined forces to run in the 2018 elections in an attempt to overthrow the government of Najib Razak, whose administration has become embroiled in a corruption scandal over state investment fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). .
As part of his campaign promise, Mahathir vowed that if successful, he would release Anwar and even make way for him after a couple of years in power. Mahathir stuck to the first promise — a royal pardon freed Anwar shortly after the election — but he backtracked on the second, a reversal that split their supporters and exacerbated the stalemate that has plagued all efforts to form a stable government ever since.
Among his first promises as Malaysia’s new prime minister, Anwar said he would “not take” a paycheck in solidarity with Malaysians struggling with the rising cost of living.
He also promised to help the country embrace multiculturalism.
Malaysia has long pursued a policy of institutionalized affirmative action favoring the ethnic Malay majority over its sizable Chinese-Malaysian and Indian-Malaysian minorities.
And overcoming decades of racial, religious, and reform polarization in a Muslim-majority country will not be easy, not least because experts do not rule out attempts by rivals in his new government to overthrow his leadership.
While two-thirds of Anwar’s cabinet will be made up of members of his reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition, as a sign of national unity, he agreed that the remaining posts would go to members of the regional Gabungan Rakyat Sabah party and, perhaps more surprisingly, representatives of the Barisan Nasional coalition. which includes several UMNO politicians whom he did so much to bring down.
“He is entering into a very uneasy political alliance in a fractured landscape,” said Oh, a political commentator.
“The results of the recent elections only showed how divided the country is.
“Now he has the difficult job of navigating and balancing progressive sectors with conservative religious forces.”
Internationally, human rights groups have hailed Anwar’s appointment and his pledge to prioritize human rights and democracy.
“This is a leader who has personally suffered massive politically motivated injustices,” said Phil Robertson, Asia Associate Director at Human Rights Watch.
Robertson said the rights group hoped Anwar would “introduce reforms in the laws and regulations that have been used in the past to criminalize the peaceful exercise of civil and political rights,” pointing to issues such as discrimination against transgender and gay communities, treatment of worker- migrants and child marriage and refugee laws.
“It is to be hoped that lessons have been learned from the previous Pakatan Harapan government, which faltered after two years in office,” Robertson said.
“We hope that Anwar will advance his vision, recognize that he has been chosen to act on his programs and policies and fulfill his mandate.”
And domestically, at least for now, there is a festive mood amid optimism that years of political chaos and uncertainty may finally be in the past.
“Malaysians can hope that divisions that are in danger of spiraling out of control will now lose some oxygen — or at least until they come from radical nationalists within UMNO,” said Malaysian journalist Amirul Ruslan, adding that “ Unlike Mahathir, I see[Anwar]abandoning race-centrism in politics.”
Calling Anwar’s new government, which included former enemies, “unprecedented,” he added, “Anwar is the right man for our divided country.”