Anwar Ibrahim’s Long Road to Power

Malaysia's new prime minister has spent a lifetime as a persecuted political activist. His story offers clues to the type of government he may now lead

Anwar Ibrahim’s Long Road to Power
Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim greets supporters as he arrives to submit his nomination as a candidate on Nov. 5, 2022, in Tambun, Perak, Malaysia. (Sadiq Asyraf/Getty Images)

After a political career spanning over five decades, last week Anwar Ibrahim was chosen to be Malaysia’s 10th prime minister. Even before coming to office, Anwar, who has endured multiple prison stints over the years, had already made his mark as one of the most influential Malaysian politicians of the last half-century. His career has seen him evolve from fiery student activist to establishment insider, before finally emerging as a reformist politician heading what was until now the country’s top opposition party. A Muslim intellectual known for his personal devotion, Ibrahim’s perspective on faith has also helped define the possibilities of political Islam in Malaysia, as well as the broader Muslim world. Over a generation of intellectual evolution, it can be said he is today among the world’s foremost advocates of the compatibility of Islam with democracy. As he takes office, it is worth understanding the events and influences that have shaped Anwar Ibrahim, and how they may now impact his leadership.

Anwar was 10 years old in 1957 when Malaysia gained independence from British colonial rule. His father was a member of Parliament during this time, which gave Anwar the good fortune to attend the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar, a prestigious school established by the British to train young Malays for government service. While Anwar was the beneficiary of a classical Western education, it was on the outskirts of the school grounds that he noticed others were not as fortunate as he and his classmates. Anwar observed the struggle of local Malays, many of them impoverished, who had not benefited from life under English rule. At the time, the Malay people were on the cusp of becoming a minority group in their own country, due to immigration from China and India facilitated by the British to manage their colonial affairs. Witnessing these challenges from a young age gave Anwar a strong urge to get involved in the politics of his homeland and to encourage his peers to join him. These sentiments felt in his youth would be the starting point of a lifetime spent in political struggle.

In 1967, Anwar enrolled in the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, where he continued his advocacy for native Malays, harnessing his growing leadership skills by creating several influential student organizations. It was here that Anwar began to believe Islam could offer solutions for the social and political challenges faced by Malays, who are overwhelmingly Muslim. The hope that Islam could play a positive role in the future was shared at this time by young Muslims throughout the emerging postcolonial world. As Anwar came to be seen as a leader in Malaysia’s Islamic movement, he also built contacts with the leaders of likeminded Muslim activist groups abroad.

As the popularity of the Islamic movement in Malaysia grew throughout the 1970s, government attempts to suppress it escalated as well. In 1974, Anwar was arrested and jailed for 20 months after organizing protests denouncing rural poverty in Malaysia — an experience that further boosted his popularity with supporters. Anwar’s influence continued to grow, both inside and outside the country. Following his release, he spent the remainder of the 1970s as the leader of the largest Malay Muslim youth organization in the country, the Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, or ABIM. His involvement in several pan-Islamic groups across the Muslim world shaped his faith in a way that enabled him to see the practical, holistic principles of Islam as a political solution not only for Malays but other ethnic groups in Malaysia. This emphasis on what he would call “the moral imperatives of Islam,” which included democratic government and human rights, stood apart from other more militant approaches to the faith popular at the time, most famously the radical student activism that gave rise to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Another Malaysian who shared Anwar’s outlook was Mahathir Mohamad, who became prime minister in 1981 and coaxed Anwar to join the very same government of which he had been so critical in the past. After his election to Parliament, Anwar’s leadership skills allowed him to rise quickly through the ranks. In 1993, he was named deputy prime minister. Eventually, however, his vision of politics, nourished by the virtues of his Islamic faith, began to clash with the Mahathir government’s apparent embrace of transactional politics and nepotism. His growing criticism of the establishment culminated in his second arrest and imprisonment — this time for six years on charges of sodomy. The indictment appeared perfectly calculated to impugn his reputation. Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia and anathema to the average Muslim, making it the perfect political weapon. His arrest, widely denounced by his supporters as politically motivated, evoked an outcry from international human rights groups and calls from many Malaysians for political reform. Despite his imprisonment, Anwar’s profile was elevated behind bars and he became the de facto leader of what came to be known as the Reformasi (Reform) movement, an opposition group that came to be embraced by a cross section of Malaysians. Anwar’s international profile also continued to rise. After the 9/11 attacks, he published an article in Time magazine titled “Who Hijacked Islam?” In it, he staked out a position as one of the world’s most prominent Muslim leaders advocating moderation and political freedom in the face of extremism and dictatorship.

In 2003, Mahathir resigned from government. Under the auspices of a new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, a Malaysian court overturned Anwar’s conviction shortly thereafter. Now a free man, Anwar continued his engagement in international Islamic politics, advocating for democracy, freedom of conscience and expression, and the sanctity of life and property. As his international profile continued to rise, he reportedly received an offer in 2006 to replace Kofi Annan as U.N. secretary-general. Yet Anwar’s passion and vision were dedicated first to Malaysia. Though he remained barred for the time being from holding government office, he participated in politics by chairing a new multiethnic and multireligious political coalition called Pakatan Rakyat, the Peoples’ Alliance, or PR, that stood in opposition to the incumbent government. With a platform that emphasized justice, tolerance and democracy, in the 2008 elections PR handed the government a notable defeat at the polls, a feat which they repeated five years later in 2013. In the wake of the 2008 election, Anwar was cleared to resume formal political activity, but just as quickly was indicted once more on sodomy charges. Yet again, he was forced to wade through a Byzantine legal process, as charges against him were repeatedly dismissed only to be appealed anew. In 2015, with legal efforts to fight the charges finally exhausted, Anwar was incarcerated for a third time.

As Pakatan Rakyat dissolved in 2015, it was replaced by a new party, Pakatan Harapan, the Alliance of Hope, widely known as PH. Though Anwar continued to lead it in absentia, the significant and surprising change was the return of Mahathir Mohamed, who joined the coalition and reunited with Anwar 20 years after having him imprisoned. In the 2018 elections, Mahathir was voted in as prime minister for a second time, as the opposition party supplanted an incumbent that had been in power since the nation’s independence. Though Mahathir governed with the stated plan to eventually resign and make room for Anwar to be prime minister, and honored a pledge to have Anwar pardoned, released and given a chance for reelection, his intention to step aside was delayed to the point that pro-Anwar leaders left PH in early 2020. When Mahathir did eventually resign, a rival coalition used the opportunity to take control of the government and appoint their own prime minister. Though, at the time, PH resumed its role as opposition, elections in late 2022 returned PH to power with Anwar at its helm. This would be the final twist in Anwar’s long, winding road to office. After the peaks and valleys of a political career spanning five decades, today Anwar is the prime minister of Malaysia.

With Anwar now the legitimate leader of the country, what can Malaysians — and the world — expect from his government? Looking back on his life as an activist and politician, two key areas are worth highlighting. First, Anwar’s politics and religion, which are core areas of his life, have undergone profound metamorphoses over the past six decades. Politically, the partisan ethnic nationalism expressed early in his career, both as a student activist in the ’60s and ’70s and, in some cases, as an establishment government official in the ’80s and ’90s, has undergone a transformation.

Anwar is now a passionate champion of the more tolerant, pluralistic society that Malaysia has become in the 21st century. In his youth, he held conventionally conservative views about issues such as Israel and same-sex marriage, but today he is more often attacked from the right for being insufficiently uncompromising on these matters.

Religiously, Anwar’s understanding of Islam has also evolved, from a belief that the religion’s benefits are exclusive to its own adherents to a conviction that Islam can provide universal benefits for all people, Muslim and non-Muslim, by promoting the virtues of human rights and representative government.

Finally, along with the political and religious changes in his own outlook, the biggest factor in discerning how Ibrahim will steward Malaysia may be found in what has remained consistent in his life: His ardent commitment to his nation. This was expressed most fully in 2004, after his release following six years of political imprisonment. At the time, Anwar had been offered several distinguished and lucrative opportunities to start his life over again outside of Malaysia. It is likely that he felt a sense of bitterness at the time over his experience in captivity, as well as an intuition that the same persecution could happen again, as indeed it did. Nevertheless, he remained at home, resuming his role as a participant in politics aimed at improving the lives of Malaysians — even at personal cost to himself. Today, he is in position to achieve what he has long sought. After a lifetime of struggle, Anwar Ibrahim now sits in the highest office in the country, with the power to see his vision for Malaysia’s future come to fruition.

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