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The remarkable political journey of Malaysian PM Anwar Ibrahim

THERE is something archetypal in the eventual rise to power of Malaysian leader, Anwar Ibrahim. The Count of Monte Cristo, the avenging angel, the prodigal son — all these stories could be recalled when the dust settled in Malaysia’s election last week. People woke up to find Anwar — an icon of democracy who was detained twice — as his country’s 10th prime minister. 

Like Nelson Mandela, another icon of freedom, detention seemed to have changed Anwar. After being sworn in on Thursday, he said he does not intend to focus on the divisions of the past. Instead, he will form a cabinet that will include his former political enemies — and swore to foster national unity in a racially divided country.

Malaysia's new Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech at a gathering in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 24, 2022. AFP PHOTO
Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim delivers a speech at a gathering in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 24, 2022. AFP PHOTO 

“This is a national unity government and all are welcome on condition [they] accept the fundamental rules: good governance, no corruption and a Malaysia for all Malaysians,” Anwar said. He pledged to fight corruption and boost an economy trying to recover from the devastation wrought by Covid-19. He also vowed that no one will be marginalized under his administration.

His reformist and multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won 82 seats in last week’s vote. It was the highest number obtained by any one of the different parties, but it failed to reach a simple majority needed to form a government. Anwar applied for the post of prime minister and the Malaysian king, in consultation with the sultans, appointed him.

His appointment comes on the heels of a multibillion-dollar financial scandal at the state investment fund that resulted in the imprisonment of former prime minister Najib Razak. Najib’s first lady and cronies also face a raft of corruption charges. That is why Anwar — who has written books on governance and was tutored on the ways of democracy — chose an anti-corruption plank, to restore the trust of the people.

Political commentators have applauded the appointment of a progressive and reformist candidate as premier, but they know it will not solve all of Malaysia’s problems. “Political wranglings and infighting will still continue and Anwar has the task of having to heal profound wounds and gaps between the progressives and conservatives, including the rising religious groups,” they said.

Right off the bat, Prime Minister Anwar began a series of populist moves. He said he “would not take” a salary in a show of solidarity with Malaysians struggling with the rising cost of living. He also promised to embrace multiculturalism.

Will this mean that institutionalized affirmative-action policies favoring the ethnic Malay majority over its Chinese Malaysian and Indian Malaysian minorities will now end? Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad began this policy more than 40 years ago, so that the rural ethnic Malays could catch up economically with the hardworking urban-based Chinese and Indian minorities.

Internationally, rights groups have welcomed 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 deputy director of Human Rights Watch.

Robertson said the rights group hoped Anwar would “bring reforms to laws and regulations that have been used in the past to criminalize peaceful exercise of civil and political rights.” He cited issues like discrimination against transgender and gay communities, the treatment of migrant workers, and child marriage and refugee laws.

In recent days, the streets of Malaysia were in a celebratory mood after the Malaysian king named Anwar as the country’s prime minister. The Malaysians also know the road to progress will not be easy. But they trust Anwar to move forward with his vision, and recognize that he was elected to act on his programs and policies, and implement his mandate.

Anwar looked up to the Philippine national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, and South African icon of democracy, Nelson Mandela, and referenced them in some of his speeches and in his books. Rizal died early, but Mandela was at the helm of his country’s transition to the ways of unity and democracy. We wish Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim the same success, for the sake of his beautiful country and its hardworking people.

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