Anwar Ibrahim: The Malaysian Prime Minister’s Remarkable Rise to Top Office


It’s a political journey decades in the making – the transformation from a young student firebrand into an icon of democracy and eventually the leader of his country, via two stints in prison.

Now 75 years old, Anwar Ibrahim has finally realized his dream of becoming Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister.

And in his opening words after being sworn in on Thursday, he made it clear that he does not intend 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 (they) accept the fundamental rules: good governance, no corruption and a Malaysia for all Malaysians,” Anwar said as he vowed to heal a racially divided nation, to eradicate corruption. fight and revive. an economy still struggling to recover from the pandemic.

“No one should be marginalized under my rule,” he promised.

Anwar’s appointment comes nearly a week after a tumultuous general election that resulted in the first hung parliament in Malaysia’s history.

His reformist and multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition won the most seats in last week’s vote – 82 – but failed to secure the simple majority needed to form a government, meaning Anwar could only are appointed after the intervention of the Malaysian king.

Observers say he will have a lot of work to do if he is to bridge the divisions that have made him the fourth prime minister since 2018, when a landmark election pushed the Barisan Nasional coalition out of power for the first time since independence amid anger over a billion-dollar scandal to the sovereign wealth fund.

“This has been by far the most fragmented, volatile and dangerous period ever seen in Malaysian politics,” said political commentator Ei Sun Oh. “While many welcome the nomination of a progressive and reformist candidate, this will not mean the end of the problems.”

“Political squabbles and power struggles will continue and Anwar is tasked with healing deep wounds and gaps between the progressives and conservatives,” he added.

Born on August 10, 1947 on Penang Island, Anwar began his political career as a student activist and led several Muslim youth groups in Kuala Lumpur. He was at one point arrested for his role in leading demonstrations against poverty and hunger in rural areas.

Years later, he surprised many by taking a foray into mainstream politics and joining the Malaysian nationalist party UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) led by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – a man who would become both Anwar’s mentor and nemesis .

Anwar’s rise within the party was rapid and he was soon elevated to several senior ministerial positions and became deputy prime minister in 1993.

At the time, Anwar was widely expected to succeed Mahathir, but the two men began to clash over issues of corruption and the economy.

Tensions rose further when the 1997 Asian financial crisis ravaged the country and in 1998 Anwar was dismissed 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.

That same year, Anwar was arrested and held without trial, charged with corruption and sodomy. Even if consensual, sodomy is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

He has always vehemently denied the allegations, claiming they were politically motivated, but that hasn’t stopped them from plaguing his political career ever since.

His subsequent imprisonment sparked violent street protests, with supporters comparing his plight to that of Nelson Mandela.

That first conviction was overturned by a court in 2004, a year after two-time leader Mahathir first left office, but it wasn’t the last time Anwar was behind bars.

After his return as an opposition figure, more charges of sodomy were leveled against him and he returned to prison in 2014 after a lengthy trial that took place over a period of years.

What happened next is perhaps one of the most remarkable upheavals in the country’s political history.

In a stunning twist – with Anwar still behind bars – he and Mahathir joined forces ahead of the 2018 elections in an attempt to overthrow the government of Najib Razak, whose government had become embroiled in a corruption scandal involving the sovereign wealth fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

As part of his campaign promise, Mahathir swore that if they succeeded, he would free Anwar and even step aside for him after a few years in power. Mahathir kept the first promise – a royal pardon freed Anwar shortly after the election – but he reneged on the second, a reversal that divided their supporters and fueled the stalemate that has hampered all efforts to form a stable government ever since .

One of his first pledges as Malaysia’s new prime minister, Anwar said he would “not accept a salary” as a show of solidarity with Malaysians struggling with the rising cost of living.

He also pledged to help the country embrace multiculturalism.

Malaysia has long pursued a policy of institutionalized affirmative action favoring the majority ethnic Malay over the sizeable Chinese Malaysian and Indian Malay minorities.

And overcoming decades of polarization over race, religion and reform in the Muslim-majority nation won’t be easy — not least because experts aren’t ruling 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 Pakistani Harapan coalition, in a gesture of national unity he has agreed that the remaining posts will be given to members of the regional Gabungan Rakyat Sabah party and – perhaps more surprisingly – representatives of the Barisan Nasional coalition, including several UMNO politicians he has done so much to overthrow.

“He is entering into a very uneasy political alliance in a fragmented landscape,” said Oh, the political commentator.

“The recent election results have only shown how divided the country is.

“He now has the difficult task of navigating and balancing the progressive sectors with the conservative religious forces.”

Anwar's swearing-in ceremony will take place at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur on November 24, 2022.

Internationally, human rights groups have welcomed Anwar’s appointment and his pledge to prioritize human rights and democracy.

“This is a leader who has personally suffered mass politically motivated injustice,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.

Robertson said the rights group hoped Anwar would “enact reforms of laws and regulations that have historically been used to criminalize the peaceful exercise of civil and political rights,” pointing to issues such as discrimination against transgender and gay communities, the treatment of migrant workers and child marriage and refugee law.

“You hope lessons have been learned from the previous Pakistani Harapan government, which faltered after two years in power,” Robertson said.

“We hope Anwar will move forward with his vision, recognize that he has been chosen to carry out his programs and policies, and carry out his mandate.”

And domestically, at least for now, the festive mood continues with optimism that years of political chaos and uncertainty are finally a thing of the past.

“Malaysians can be hopeful that the dissension that threatens to spiral out of control is now losing some oxygen – or at least it won’t be coming from hardline nationalists within UMNO for now,” said Malaysian journalist Amirul Ruslan, adding: “In contrast until Mahathir I (Anwar) see a transitional policy that is no longer focused on race.”

He described Anwar’s new government, made up of former enemies, as “unprecedented”, adding: “Anwar is the right man for our divided country.”

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